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Nature weeps “Farewell”
As mankind bids it “Hello.”
Neither understands.

Some may look at the fact that I’m only reviewing #4 of my list of 12 Blindspots for the year in October as a sign of being way behind and perhaps despair because of it. I prefer to think, “Wow, I’ll have such a great sprint of good movies around the holidays!” Either way, I’m finally returning to my Blindspot series with Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko.

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I’m very fond of the majority of the studio’s work, including the heartrending Grave of the Fireflies from the same director, but Pom Poko has never gotten much of a spotlight. Even in montages of various Ghibli movies, Pom Poko is pretty much relegated to one notable scene: a comical battle between two warring tribes of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), which happens to be one of the very first scenes in the film. The rest of the movie was a mystery to me, so I was quite curious to see the rest of the story. Now that I have, I can see why it’s counted among the B-list of Ghibli classics, with the studio’s trademark charm and weirdness being overextended by length and repetition.

From the humorous battle scene on, the film often plays like a mythological nature documentary, explaining the many eccentricities of tanuki pulled straight from Japanese legend: their mischievous antics, shapeshifting abilities, penchant for parties, belly drumming, and…um, their prominent testicles. Yeah, more than anything else, that last point is probably why Pom Poko never hit it off in America. Folk tales tell of the many uses tanuki have for their shapeshifting male parts, and the movie runs with that (the English dub using the euphemistic “raccoon pouch”) as they’re shown expanding their “pouches” into parachutes and weapons. Just writing this feels bizarre, but hey, myths can be weird, especially considering raccoon dogs are a real species.

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As with many other Ghibli films, the story is an environmentalist fable, detailing the loss of the tanuki’s forest habitat as man and technology encroach further and further. (I find it interesting that the comic strip Over the Hedge debuted just a year after this film with a similar basic premise.) Much of the movie is spent with the creatures attempting to fight back, leading to some highly entertaining sections where they use their supernatural abilities to scare the unsuspecting humans away. However, from the moment they realize mankind’s threat to the point of no return, there are far too many scenes of the leaders debating their strategy, weighing their options, and trying the same things repeatedly. At nearly two hours, I felt like the film could have easily shed a half hour with little loss.

Director Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s compatriot in heading the studio’s early releases, won my heart with Grave of the Fireflies, but nothing quite compares with that tragic masterpiece. Pom Poko is at least a visual treat, and the character animation swings wildly in depicting the tanuki as realistic animals, anthropomorphic bipeds, or cartoony caricatures, depending on the mood of the scene. The English dub (which Americanizes the tanuki as just “raccoons”) also boasts a talented voice cast, including Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, and J.K. Simmons.

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Aside from Spirited Away, Pom Poko might be the Ghibli film most wedded to Japanese culture; one extended scene has a master tanuki conjuring a horde of illusory yokai (Japanese spirits) to scare the humans, referencing stories that are no doubt far more familiar to Japanese audiences than Western ones. Plus, despite its cartoonish aspects, its themes and a few story elements are geared for somewhat older audiences compared to the more kid-friendly Ghibli options. Pom Poko is weird, overlong, creative, frequently delightful, wacky, and even bittersweet by the ending. It’s not likely to become a favorite, but I’m glad to have seen another entry from a legendary studio.

Best line: (Narrator, with a line you’ll never find in any other film) “They used their balls as weapons in a brave kamikaze attack.”

Rank:  Honorable Mention

© 2020 S.G. Liput
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