Japanese Title: Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko
Directed By: Isao Takahata
Produced By: Toshio Suzuki
Originally Released: July 16, 1994
Hello and welcome back to Vault Ghibli! I won’t to start by apologizing for being away from this series for two weeks. Due to the Comic Con and the overwhelming amount of newness coming out of some of the other things I cover on this blog, it just wasn’t feasible to be watching movies on top of all of it. BUT, we’re back, and with a very odd film indeed. Once in a while, despite being in the age of spoilers, trailers, and general internet nonsense, we get the rare chance to watch a film which we know absolutely nothing about. Such was the case for me with Pom Poko. I didn’t even know it was about raccoons until the opening scene. What followed from that revelation was two hours of mayhem that even the Wachowski’s couldn’t dream up. Pom Poko easily falls onto the “Most Bizarre Films” you’ve ever seen list. So come along and let us talk of a tale of raccoons, their struggles and yes, their balls.
What we need to understand first about Pom Poko is that it is very deeply rooted in Japanese lore. Specifically raccoon lore. That will help get us through to a point. At its heart, Pom Poko is an environmentalist film. Much like other Studio Ghibli films, it speaks heavily to the what happens when we change nature and how, while progress is often good, it is also bitter sweet as we lose out on a beautiful past as well. In Pom Poko, we see the raccoons stop fighting with each other over their differences in order to face a greater foe together: humans. Their land is being destroyed to make way for new developments and homes and they must stop it if they hope to survive. Luckily, raccoons are skilled in the ancient art of transformation and simply need a refresher course. So starts a struggle over many years to try and transform into all manner of things in order to scare off the human menace.
If you haven’t seen Pom Poko, this is sort of a hard concept to explain. Essentially, Raccoons and foxes have this innate power to transform into all manner of things. Everything from humans to ghosts to samurais. Raccoons live up to their tricky nature as they transform for the sake of confusing or confounding. In the film, we learn that raccoons only take on their natural form when around humans or when they are scared or tired. In fact, many raccoons can’t transform at all, but those that can wield a great power. Because of this, the animation in this film often feels crazy and over the top. The raccoons will go from being normal to being very animated wearing clothes, to being humans to being larger than life skeletons. It’s a lot to take in and feels very Japanese. When I think of anime, the imagery I conjure up in my mind resembles much of what is seen in Pom Poko.
As the film progresses we get a lot of different viewpoints from the raccoons. Shoukichi wants a more peaceful resolution. The way he sees it, humans make cheeseburgers so they can’t be all bad, right? But Gonta wants all out war on human kind. The two find themselves at a head by the end when Gonta leads a war party to fight the humans. In a way, this almost feels like Animal Farm. Competing political states and animals acting on instinct lead to a very harsh reality by the end of the film. Many of the raccoons perish before the end and take a boat to the afterlife, partying all the way. Others decide to become human and stay in the human world, only ever visiting their brethren in the last green spaces of the city once in a blue moon.
But if all the zany raccoon transforming and the over the top animation weren’t enough to throw American audiences, then the Raccoon balls certainly will be. In Japanese lore, Raccoon balls are associated with gold or prosperity and are even part of a many a nursery rhyme. Here, we see the raccoons use their testicles as a means of transformation, making everything from mats to sit on, to large spheres of death for a ball bombing attack at the end. It’s jarring, to say the least, but also hilarious. Sure to put off many conservative parents with its ball warping form, I found myself unable to take my eyes off this zany, over the top tale.
Yet, for all its craziness, Pom Poko is actually quite moving. In the end, the raccoons admit defeat but transform the land one last time so that they and the humans can see the past that can never be again. It’s a heartfelt moment and I love seeing both human and raccoon alike tear up over seeing family members who are no longer with them. Once again Ghibli shows us that while progress is necessary and part of life, it’s also a bit sad to know what we’ve lost, and only be respecting that past can we truly save what is left of it. So the new town still gets built, but humanity gains more of a respect for nature and makes sure to keep some spaces as nature preserves. It’s not enough to save all of the raccoons, but at least it’s something. At least their fight wasn’t all for nought.
Pom Poko is quite literally balls to the walls crazy in its story telling, animation and imagery. Yet beneath its brash, comical exterior, it years to make the point that destroying nature hurts not just the creatures in it, but also endangers our humanity and what made us who we are today. It’s a film that can feel heavy handed at times and of all the Ghibli films we’ve seen so far, it stands as one of the most truly ‘Japanese’ features yet. To some, it might feel off-putting, but I found it to be incredibly original, zany and different. Every scene presented some new moment of raccoons becoming ghosts, old men or monsters and I always wanted to see what came next. It’s a film filled with some of the most amazing animation out there and one that somehow proves that 2D animation can be just as captivating and Digital animation. If you haven’t seen Pom Poko, and you’re not totally adverse to raccoon balls, I suggest you give this one a shot. I think it might surprise you, if not once, than perhaps a few dozen times.
NEXT UP: Whisper of the Heart