This column covers another Isao Takahata film directed for Studio Ghibli, but this is of a much jollier tone than Grave of the Fireflies. I have to confess that of all the Ghibli films that this is something of a guilty pleasure of mine.
Pom Poko was released in 1994 and like many Ghibli films deals with the subject of environmentalism, primarily with land development through the eyes of some of the wildlife that live there. However, like many Ghibli movies it is also surprisingly adult considering that it is a children’s film when you consider it has a PG rating.
The film begins in the 1960s when a new development project is beginning on the outskirts of Tokyo, leading to the redevelopment of land for human habitation and thus destroying the habitat of the animals residing there. Amongst the animals are the raccoon dogs, also known in Japanese as “tanuki”. However, the English release refers to them (wrongly) as raccoons.
In Japanese folklore raccoon dogs are considered shape-shifters, along with some types of cat and foxes (more strictly speaking “kitsune”, a mythical nine-tailed fox), and can take on the shape of different animals, objects, and even people. In the film the raccoon dogs take on various guises, from their normal realistic appearance to a two-legged anthropomorphic look, and later expand their shape-shifting abilities into human guises.
By the early 1990s, after fighting each other for resources the raccoon dogs decide to unite and take on their common foe – the humans. Several key figures appear: the 105-year-old guru Seizaemon, wise woman Oroku, young and level-headed Shoukichi, and aggressive and violent Gonta. Together they train their fellow raccoon dogs, harnessing their forgotten shape-shifting skills and use it to try and scare the humans away. However, more humans seem to replace the ones they frighten off. As the story goes on we see that Shoukichi becomes cleverer and wiser, while Gonta campaigns for all-out fighting and killing of the humans, and we witness how the raccoon dogs can, if at all, try to stop the humans destroy all of their land.
The clear theme throughout the film is the environmental message about humans taking over land and harming the environment. However, one of the other aspects of Pom Poko that you see clearly is how adult some of the aspects of the film are, and how English releases deal with it in order to make the film more family friendly to Western ears.
The clearest demonstration of this is that as part of their shaft-shifting abilities the male raccoon dogs can not only transform all of their bodies, but also certain parts of their body too. In the English dub the part there are able to transform is their “pouches”, but if you what the film in subtitles, you will release that what they really transform is their testicles.
Not only are their able to transform their balls into various shapes and objects, they can also expand them into a huge size and use them as weapons. This makes Pom Poko possibly the only film, and almost certainly the only children’s film, in which you see people being crushed to death by a massive pair of animal bollocks.
In Japan, the idea of raccoon dogs being able to shaft-shift their gonads and for that matter the rest of their bodies is commonplace, so the idea of this occurring in a children’s film does not really offend the Japanese. However, you can sort of understand why it was changed in translation – even if it is hard to disguise that many of these raccoon dogs have their “pouches” proudly on display.
Understandably, this film many be considered by many not suitable for children, and if it is watched by kids parents should watch it with them, but Pom Poko is a fun film for many reasons. Whether you watch it for the environmental theme, or you just want to make you own jokes about shape-shifting testes, it makes for entertaining viewing.
Pom Poko is available on DVD from Studio Canal.