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POM POKO

Review by Ed Nguyen

English Voices: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, J.K. Simmons, Tress MacNeille, Olivia D'Abo, Maurice LaMarche
Director: Isao Takahata
Audio: English or Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Disney
Features: Original storyboards, trailers
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: August 16, 2005

"We will not stop attacking until we have battered, pulverized, and squeezed to death every last human in Tama Hills!"

Film *** Ĺ

Studio Ghibli is Japan's best animation company.  Its most renowned animator over the years has been Hayao Miyazaki, the creative force behind such films as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.  However, there are other fine talents at Studio Ghibli, too, including Isao Takahata.  Like Hayao Miyazaki, he has specialized in thoughtful children's fantasies, including Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Pom Poko (1994).

Pom Poko follows the trend of Studio Ghibli's other environmentally-conscious films (Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind and the later Princess Mononoke).  The main characters in Pom Poko are the raccoons of Tama Hills, or more accurately, tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, or "raccoon dogs").  As humans encroach upon the forest lands of Japan, erecting ever more apartments and shopping malls, native animals like the tanuki are increasingly being displaced.  Eventually, the remaining tanuki decide the time has arrived to band together in an effort to save their forests and homes.

Presented in a quasi-documentary style, Pom Poko traces the steps taken by the tanuki to re-master their ancient art of transforming and to infiltrate into human society.  At this point, most western audiences will probably be trying to figure out just how these "raccoons" acquired such magical doppelganger abilities.  In fact, in Japanese mythology, the tanuki is considered a mischievous (if occasionally lazy) prankster capable of masterful mimicry.  The tanuki might as easily assume the guise of a human as of a tea kettle or other inanimate object.

One particularly key physical attribute of the wild tanuki is that they have unusually large scrotums.  This feature is usually exaggerated in Japanese artistic depictions of tanuki, such as with this film.  While this conceptual representation of the tanuki is readily acceptable in Japanese culture, it does present an area of sensitivity for Disney in trying to make the film suitable for children in this country (or more realistically, palatable for their jittery parents).  The solution was to simply refer to the tanuki as raccoons with large abdomens or "raccoon pouches."

So, we'll just ignore the fact that raccoons have no pouches and are not marsupials.  However, as Japanese artwork also tends to depict tanuki drumming upon large bellies, Disney's solution is acceptable if imperfect and transparent.  Nevertheless, if the thought of watching an animated cartoon featuring creatures with large, transformable scrotums offends some people, perhaps Pom Poko is not the film for them.

Pom Poko has other unique cultural idiosyncrasies which may also defeat earnest efforts to make the film comprehensible to western audiences.  The film draws significantly upon Japanese folklore and Buddhist or Shinto symbolism for its decidedly colloquial ambiance.  Spirits, icons, and religious services abound in this film.  For the western viewer, perhaps the best way to approach Pom Poko is simply to view it as an ecological fantasy and leave it at that.

Pom Poko documents a five-year campaign by the tanuki of Tama Hills against humanity.  Among the measures taken are research into human nature (television watching being a particularly favorite for the lazy tanuki), regular transformation classes, multiple deceptions and hauntings, encounters with those ultimate shapeshifting tricksters - the kitsune (foxes), and assimilation into human society as pseudo-humans.  The tanuki are led by a counsel of elders (and later, a trio of shapeshifting masters) who generally emphasize a less-antagonistic strategy of protest and deceptive demonstration.  Many of the younger tanuki also favor such trickery to scare the humans away, but a separate faction, led by the more aggressive Gonta, would like nothing better than to wage an all-out guerilla warfare in an effort to kill every single human in the Tama Hills region.

Many of these reconnaissance missions, surprise attacks, and forages into human territory are recounted through a mixture of animť-style humor within a Nature or National Geographic-style presentation.  The result is an often amusing and quaint film about what might be described in more paranoid circles as essentially a documentary about an alien invasion.

Ok, Invasion of the Body Snatchers or War of the Worlds, Pom Poko is not.  Nor is it quite as subversive as Animal Farm.  But, the film still offers a valid social commentary on the need to preserve our forest lands and wildlife, particular by the time of the film's somewhat poignant and inevitable conclusion.  The fact that the messengers are merely cartoon "raccoon dogs" does not change the essence of the message - human beings must find a way to peacefully co-exist with the natural world without irreparably destroying it.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Waving a leaf helps a tanuki during transformation.  Children familiar with the "tanooki" suit in the popular video game Super Mario Brothers 3 are no doubt already accustomed to transforming Mario with a magic leaf into his famous raccoon persona!

Video *** Ĺ

Pom Poko is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format.  The images are crisp and detailed, and colors are bright and solid without bleed.  The animation style alternates between realistic renderings of the tanuki to more manga-style caricatures and comic depictions of these creatures.  Overall, this is a fine transfer by Disney.

Audio ***

Audio for Pom Poko is presented in either English or Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround.  Both are equally good, although the English dub will probably make more sense to western audiences in terms of story-telling.  English subtitles are also available as either very loose and liberal translations or literal and accurate translations of the Japanese dialogue.

Features **

Pom Poko is presented as a two-disc set.  The first disc holds the movie as well as five minutes of trailers for Pom Poko.  Sneak peeks are also available for Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Porco Rosso, The Cat Returns, and Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind.  Among the Disney sneak peeks are promo ads for Cinderella, Toy Story, Tarzan, and Valiant.

Disc Two contains a feature-length storyboard sequence.  Similar storyboard sequences can be found with other Studio Ghibli films released on DVD by Disney, too.  The Pom Poko storyboards will interest those viewers who wish to see how preliminary sketches and compositional artwork translate to the final product of Pom Poko.

Summary:

Pom Poko may appeal mostly to viewers with an appreciation for Japanese culture and folklore, but this remarkably witty and satirical film can be enjoyed by everyone, its cultural idiosyncrasies notwithstanding.  Adults will probably appreciate the sophisticated aspects of the story more than children, but children will more readily accept the film's more fantastical elements.

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