Out of probably any other movie in all of Studio Ghibli’s canon, Pom Poko is probably the one most likely to be lost in translation between its Japanese audience and its international audiences. It all starts from the very U.S. title, which one would assume is supposed to the translation to something but is quite frankly just an onomatopoeia representing the sound a tanuki’s belly makes when it is beat. And when we reel back to the superior Japanese title 平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ and give it a literal translation, it goes Heisei-Era Tanuki War Ponpoko, a great epic mouthful helps settle the concept of this decade-spanning story being an ancient historical record for an intense period of time, treated the same manner as those feudal eras in Japanese history and narrated with period-based verve by Shinchou Kokontei.
Which is a charming joke because Heisei-Era is what Takahata Isao was living in when he was writing and directing Pom Poko and it’s an era we’re still living in today based on which Emperor is currently in the Chrysanthemum Throne, currently Akihito*. And it would be easy to tell even without that title, from all the modernized elements of Pom Poko‘s cities that make for one side of its conflict, that it’s taking place in a time of aggressive industrial growth… one that intrudes and interrupts on the lives of our tanuki protagonists.
And in the tanuki is another thing that’s been lost in translation regarding Pom Poko‘s release on the other side of the Pacific, as they are a species indigenous specifically to East Asia and most especially prevalent in Japanese folklore. And because of their lack of presence in the west, Disney saw fit to decide to simply identify them as “raccoons” for the U.S. release, either because “raccoon dogs” (a closer approximation) is too much or they don’t realize that some kids will easily call those creatures tanuki without skipping a beat**. That Japanese folklore is the basis of their characterization in Takahata’s script where they are magical and agreeably mischievous, capable of shape-shifting and utilizing their expandable testicles as tools. I’m not sure if their tribalism early in the film or their traditionalist practices throughout are also rooted in folklore, but it nevertheless ends up becoming the very crux of the tanuki’s struggles from the moment where stern matriarchal Oroku (Kiyokawa Nijiko) interrupts the opening battle between two tribes over an already shrinking piece of land within the Tama Hills of Tokyo and insists that the tanuki unite and battle the humans.
In a world that is progressing beyond old means and attempting to optimize every square inch of itself, reverence towards culture is being muted. At least, that’s in the abstract sense. In a literal sense, the forests and nature in which the tanuki have thrived and made their home is being imposed upon by construction expanding the nearby cities. And so the tanuki spend the entirety of the film utilizing every possible trick in their arsenal to try to save their livelihood and resources. It’s pretty easy to assume that the ideal viewer will take this conflict seriously, but Pom Poko especially wants it to be understood how epic and desperate the stakes are for the tanuki so as to recognize the gravity of moments such as when tanuki use their testicles to cause apparently fatal car crashes or the wise elders of the resistance end up putting their future generations through grueling practices to continue the year-spanning fight.
And Takahata certainly does well enough to establish that the Hills are worth the battle, how sacred they are to the tanuki, the casual flippancy with which the humans are attempting to occupy it in a dismissively utilitarian way. The Hills, when portrayed in robust abundant greens, are serene and tranquil before the imminent intrusion of noisy construction vehicles smashing through. The scale of certain scenes marry themselves to the tanuki’s perspective but the narrative is fluid enough for us to join the humans’ wonder at moments where the tanukis go all in on their powers of illusion. Like a parade of ghosts, demons, and spooks that’s the most eye-catching part of the entire movie. Or the grand finale of the film, responding to the melancholic and inevitable result of this fight with a warm look at the land the tanuki fight to preserve, which have now slowly muted into rustic but unlively browns as the movie has progressed, with enough persuasive power behind rich arbor to shift the ending note to an unexpected bittersweet place.
Anyway, this is not by any means a joyless film despite that intensity and lack of subtlety in its environmentalism. The music by Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon is a bouncy flutey source of fun, giving the conflict a wild lack of edge without deflating the seriousness and updating on traditional-sounding motifs. And, like Takahata would as an animation director, he’s playing with a function of the medium and this time around focusing particularly on shifting the designs of the tanuki themselves (being creatures that lend themselves such a dynamic through their shape-shifting ability even when they don’t disguise themselves as humans) in three separate styles, depending on the tone or point of view of a moment.
The most amicable of these designs is a round cartoonish bipedal look of them when happiest or laziest or just plain knocked out, used for comedic punctuation and inspired by the work of Sugiura Shigeru.
The most common-form was more detailed anthropomorphic forms with tufts of fur resembling hair and a more grizzled rough and patchy edge to imply wear to their bodily coats. Just enough information to feel complete and whole, but also broad enough to not lose a sense of humor.
And then, there’s the most aggressive and realistic manner – usually used in direct contact with the humans – where they are reverted to much more detailed quadruped animals, inarticulately growling or standing in headlights.
Takahata’s deft control between the demands of each scene are probably what sells the nuance behind this bleeding-hearted appeal for humanity to preserve the generosity of nature while recognizing the inevitability of change and the necessity for mankind to grow. It’s essentially a lot better at selling the complexity of the situation than Miyazaki Hayao’s much admired conservationist more straightlaced jidaigeki Princess Mononoke, which leads to an enlightened desire to sell progress and reverence in the same breath. And in that approach towards Pom Poko, it’s clear that Takahata was easy to admire alongside his long-time friend not only on account of his fluid aesthetic decisions but also on account of honest humanity towards all areas of life.
*Akihito has expressed an interest in abdicating next year thus ending Heisei jidai.
**I am certainly not helping with that review title but you have no idea how long I tried to figure out a pun to “tanuki” before giving up.
And because I am me, I could hardly live with myself if I didn’t drop a DEEZ NUTZ!