|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 16 August 2005|
Okay, let's get this out of the way first.
This 1994 Studio Ghibli "Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pom Poko" (roughly translated as "Heisei-Era Tanuki War Pom Poko" and shortened in the United States to simply "Pom Poko") release features anthropomorphized woodland creatures crushing Japanese riot police with their giant furry testicles.
Thanks to critic Roger Ebert, that was perhaps the only thing mainstream audiences may have ever heard about this film from noted writer/director Takahata Isao, recently released by Disney as part of the Disney-Tokuma distribution deal. However, if you can get past the whole testicles thing, you're in for a treat.
In the late 1960s, Tama Hills is being clear-cut and bulldozed in order to build a suburb of Tokyo to alleviate a housing shortage. Subtitled "A Tale of Survival," "Pom Poko" chronicles the epic battle between bands of shape-shifting tanuki (members of the canine family similar to a badger or raccoon found only in Japan) from all over the area who band together to try and save their forests and way of life. The tanuki send out envoys to travel to faraway forests and bring back masters of shape-shifting to help them hold the developers at bay, while those who remain at home conduct a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the constant construction crews eating away at their land.
The film focuses on Shoukichi, a young tanuki who had been obsessively curious about humans and their ways since he was a child, aggressive Gonta who thinks killing the humans to be their only hope, Oroku (also called "Oba-chan or "Granny") who trains the young in the ancient art of shape-shifting, and Tsurugame, the tanuki elder who leads the band from an abandoned shrine where the tanuki have installed a stolen television set in order to learn more about humans while simultaneously monitoring their opponents. There is a definite struggle between militant Gonta, who shows little or no remorse about killing several construction workers, and Shoukichi, who always tries to find a non-violent solution. However, the message of the film is less about which tactics are more effective (in the end, neither Gonta's violent methods nor Shoukichi's peaceful ones get the job done), as much as it is about the importance of preserving the environment and a profound sadness at the ultimate price of progress. Ultimately, the only way the shape-shifting tricksters can survive change is by giving up their homes, culture and even their identities by taking human form permanently and assimilating into human culture.
"Pom Poko" renders the characters in three different visual styles. The tanuki are drawn in realistic style for a portion of the film, morphing according to the scene into either a stylised anthropomorphic depiction involving tanuki wearing bits of human-style clothing and, to make differentiating the characters easier, and in moments of joy, silliness or embarrassment, a cartoon style based on a popular Japanese manga. While jarring at first, once the viewer is used to it, it becomes a very effective visual storytelling device.
The high point of "Pom Poko" is a massive carnival where the tanuki infiltrate the suburb disguised as monsters and gremlins from Japanese folklore and myth in a massive campaign to scare the humans off once and for all. This is a beautiful set piece, which unfortunately goes on just a bit too long, particularly in an extended sequence where two slightly tipsy older businessmen discuss over drinks how all of the spectacle must be illusion and a trick of the eye. The introduction of a shape-shifting fox and a theme park owner in the final third of the film seems only to muddy the waters, rather than provide a satisfying climax. However, despite the underdog not winning out in the end, the film is a joy, though the second half does drag a bit and, at two hours, overstays its welcome.
The English language voice track includes performances by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, J.K. Simmons and veteran voice actors Tress MacNeille providing the voice of Granny Oroku and Maurice LaMarche providing the voiceover narration throughout. However, as excellent as the English language dub can be in spots, it pales in comparison with the original Japanese cast. Purists may wish to stick to the English subtitles, which do not take nearly as many liberties with translation as the dubbing script. However, "raccoon" is substituted for "tanuki" throughout, as tanuki are native to Japan.
Visually, Disney has done its usual excellent job in the transfer. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and despite being made over a decade ago, "Pom Poko" looks and feels lavish, which isn't a huge surprise, considering almost all animated features these days are painted digitally rather than by hand. However, there is no artifacting or defects of any kind, and the color palette comes through beautifully, particularly during the parade sequence in the later half of the film. The stunning painted backgrounds in particular seem to leap off the screen.
In terms of sound, the disc offers Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround for both the Japanese and English language tracks, which may disappoint anyone who had hoped for a 5.1 mix. However, for those of you who might live without a subwoofer, the 2.0 mix is more than adequate with the dialogue clear and discernable. The score and sound effects come through clearly throughout, with some nice effects (particularly the numerous folk songs scattered throughout the movie). In terms of vocal performances, the Japanese tracks are more understated and lack the Disneyfied "kiddie" elements which some of the English language voice actors (most notably Thomas) bring to the dubbed tracks.
Unfortunately, the two-disc set is light on extras. Unlike previous Studio Ghibli releases by Disney, which features interviews with the English voice cast, "Pom Poko" has little in the way of extras other than eight minutes of trailers and TV spots. While the second disc of the two-disc set contains with the storyboards of the entire film (including your choice of the English or Japanese voice tracks, and English language subtitles), this feature is for Studio Ghibli and animation enthusiasts more than the average viewer. While it can be interesting for devotees of the genre and fans of the artwork, it's still disappointing. A featurette on the challenges of adapting the film for American audiences – especially considering folklore about tanuki, challenges overcome by the English script writers, and interviews with the voice cast regarding their characters – would have been welcome. Unfortunately, that kind of care and attention seems to only be expended on more recent Hayao Miyazaki releases.
Hopefully, in the future, Takahata's work will be afforded the same lavish treatment. Takahata is not as well known in America as his partner Miyazaki, most likely due to his films (most notably 1988's "Grave of the Fireflies") containing mature themes and relying heavily on knowledge of Japanese culture and history. Younger viewers may enjoy the antics of the tanuki in "Pom Poko" as they wreak havoc on the humans, but the film is definitely pitched at slightly older viewers, and unflinchingly depicts death (both human and tanuki), which may be unsettling and disturbing for very young children.