As urban Japan encroaches on the native lands of the mystical raccoon-creatures known as the tanuki, they decide to do something about it. They can either adapt or fight back. This is the story of a race dealing with a changing world, and at the same time a fable about the real cost of the environment's destruction.
Raph, we're so sorry.
Generally, we here at THEM love the work of Studio Ghibli unconditionally, but Pom Poko was the first Ghibli film I ever wanted to walk out of. Somehow, I didn't, not even the second time, many years later, when it managed to travel across the Pacific for release in North America.
For those of you thoroughly unaware of the premise, Pom Poko is based on the folklore of the Raccoon Dog, or Tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides), an elusive woodland member of the dog family to which the Japanese ascribe shapeshifting powers, widely regarded to be related to the animal's reproductive organs. To some Westerners, the idea of tanuki shapeshifting their testicles into tatami mats and parachutes is a bit offputting, and the movie rapidly devolves into "What can I turn my nads into today?" Not to mention the final desperate "Battle Testicle", which throws this whole production well into the realm of the absurd.
That isn't the real problem with this film, though. On a thorough rewatching, Pom Poko just doesn't have a tenth of the warmth or heart of any of the other Ghibli films. The tanuki's motivations of defending their forest are torn between outright ecoterrorism on the part of Gonta and his faction, appeasement and/or exploitation ("We can't kill them all, or we'll never eat tempura again"), or even an utterly daft attempt to scare off the humans involving a parade of tanuki-created "ghosts and goblins" through Tama New Town.
Never did I truly sympathize with the tanuki, partially because they are primarily characterized as selfish and careless, and yet this film is incredibly heavy-handed and preachy. I may be a conservationist at heart, but even I find the numerous attempts to break the fourth wall and apply this to the real world to be simply frustrating. Takahata knows better than to preach, and when comparing this film to other Ghibli films such as Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday, it simply falls apart as a decidedly inferior story.
While there are glimmers of the Ghibli charm (embodied primarily the characters of Shonkichi and Kiyo), other than a handful of scenes (the tanuki training to fit in with human society and the interaction with foxes who have succeeded in doing so), this movie is far more of a chore than any other film from this studio, before or since.
A large part of this is the pseudo-documentary tone this film presents. I understand the message behind this film, but I can't help but feel that, like Legend of the Forest before it, Pom Poko fails because it simply hammers the message in too hard, telling us we should care about the plight of the tanuki and the environment but never really selling the cause as nothing more than a pedantic lecture, or even giving adequate solutions to the problems of human development other than "Kill all the humans, kill 'em tonight!" If anything, the protagonists in this film become increasingly delusional and even hubristic, something properly ascribed to humans rather than animals. The effect is just bizarre.
Of course, being a Ghibli film, the acting, art, animation, and music are all top-notch. This is to be expected of anything from this studio, as they are all perfectionists, but the occasionally disjointed storyline is perhaps the least well-crafted of any Ghibli film, especially near the end, where tanuki fight human riot police who obviously see them shapechange but don't even bat an eye.
I imagine some academic maverick may indeed use this movie as an effective allegory for Japan's relationship with Western civilization, or the Japanese left reconciling with political reality, and there is enough interesting material here to analyze on a more scholarly level, but Pom Poko doesn't quite succeed as an entertaining family film, despite its lofty goals, its excellent technical execution, and yes, the testicles.
Never mind jewel shock - this flawed movie is too heavy-handed to truly stand up to scrutiny. Still, a Ghibli misstep is still better than many other films out there. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: Many Westerners will be offput by the prominent reproductive organs. There is some violence, mostly cartoony but occasionally rather nasty. Tanuki are also killed by vehicles onscreen on several occasions. Viewer discretion advised.
Version(s) Viewed: raw Japanese; R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Pom Poko © 1994 Studio Ghibli
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