The film raised eyebrows in the US, both for its often outrageous
imagery and for Japan’s decision to submit the movie as its entry for the Oscar
for foreign language film. (More than one Academy member sniffed at the idea of
a “cartoon” being considered for such a prestigious award back then.)
Pom Poko—the sound
a well-filled belly makes when it’s patted—reportedly was inspired by a remark
Hayao Miyazaki made to Takahata about what became of the animals who had lived
on the site of a new development.
In 1967, the Tama Hills, a rural area west of Tokyo, was
developed into the bedroom community of “New Tama” to provide housing for more
than 300,000 people. This enormous project played havoc with the tanuki (technically Japanese raccoon dogs,
although the dub calls them raccoons) who had lived in the area for centuries.
Small farms supplied them with places to live and an abundance of rodents,
frogs, windfall fruit and, occasionally, stolen human meals. These vital resources
disappear as bulldozers level hills, fill streams and fell trees. The ravaged
land can no longer support the animal population. When the tanuki meet,
they decide to resist the human encroachments, but their leadership is divided:
hot-headed Gonta (Clancy Brown), older Seizaemon (J.K. Simmons), outspoken
wise-woman Oroku (Tress MacNeille), and young, clever Shoukichi (Jonathan
Taylor Thomas) offer different approaches to the problem.
In Japanese folk tales, tanuki are shape-shifters,
capable of transforming themselves into almost anything. But they’re folkloric
equivalent of party dudes, too interesting in eating, drinking and dancing to
be as dangerous or threatening as foxes (kitsune),
the other great shape-shifters, often are.
Impatient and angry, Gonta initiates a campaign of sabotage
that wrecks equipment and kills three workers. Shoukichi devises a more subtle
strategy, creating ghost-illusions that draw on old folk stories to scare off
more superstitious workers. But as Oroku ruefully notes, there seems to be unlimited
supply of humans willing to wreck the Tama Hills.
With the help of transformation masters from other islands, the
tanuki decide to focus all their efforts into scaring the inhabitants of New
Tama away with “Operation Specter,” a giant pageant of yokai (creatures that haunt Japanese folklore; the word has been
translated as “ghosts,” “spirits” and “monsters”). This glorious fantasy
sequence is simultaneously scary and funny, drawing on the great woodblock
prints of the 18th and 19th century, including a
gargantuan skeleton lifted from a celebrated Kuniyoshi. (Western viewers saw
some of the same monsters in Shuhei Morita’s Oscar-nominated short Possessions.)
But the parade entertains the residents more than it frightens
them. To make matters worse, the owner of a nearby amusement park claims he
staged the pageant as a publicity stunt. After the pageant fails, Gonta launches
an all-out attack and is killed in the defeat. The remaining tanuki could move,
but any good territory already has a resident tribe of tanuki. They could live
at the fringes of human society and forage garbage. Or they could transform
themselves permanently and live as humans (maintaining a human form requires a
lot of energy: it may be the reason for the spike in sales of sports drinks). But
the neurotic, driven lives of urban Japanese don’t appeal to the laid-back,
Pom Poko was the
#1 film at the Japanese box office in 1994. Its broad, slapstick send-up of human
foibles prefigures Takahata’s more pointed My
Neighbors, the Yamadas (1999). At 119 minutes, the film feels a bit long
and the story rambles, albeit genially.
The new Blu-ray/DVD edition offers a very handsome transfer,
but the Blu-ray has an annoying pop-up that appears whenever the viewer uses
the remote during the film. The DVD lacks the pop-up, but the viewer has to
wade through a thicket of Disney trailers and promotions to get to the main
A Note of Warning: The male tanuki has a very prominent scrotum. It’s a
characteristic of the animals that Japanese artists have reproduced in prints,
ceramic figures, etc. American audiences don’t expect to see animated
characters with, well, balls. At one point, an elder shows the young males how
their “raccoon pouch” can be expanded to enormous size. Many of them use their
extended pouches as weapons in the last-ditch attack Gonta leads on the humans.
Kids, don’t try this at home .