On this edition of Creations of Chaos, it’s Studio Ghibli’s lesser known nature vs. humans film, where parades and testicles are dangerous weapons… it’s Pom Poko.
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Date Released: 1994
Version Watched: English Dubbed
A Talk About Tanuki
In the English dubbed version of Pom Poko, the animals in the film are called raccoons, but that is technically incorrect. They are actually a species of animal indigenous to East Asia called raccoon dogs or, tanuki. In addition to being an actual animal, tanuki are part of Japanese folklore. In their folklore version, they are portrayed as having prominent, over-sized, testicles. Statues of tanuki can be found in front of Japanese temples and businesses. Their presence is thought to bring success. The testicles in particular, are supposed to bring about financial success. Tanuki also use their testicles as weapons. In the English dubbed version of Pom Poko, they sanitize things, making reference only to the tankui’s “pouches,” but there are scenes where the tanuki are pretty much crushing humans with their scrotal sacks.
In addition to their unusual, bodily weaponry, tanuki have the ability to shape-shift. They can even disguise themselves as humans. They are known to be mischievous tricksters, who are easily distracted, and have a zest for partying.
Knowing the folklore background before watching Pom Poko, makes the film make a lot more sense.
Fun fact, in the Super Mario games, when Mario dons a raccoon suit, it is actually a tanuki suit, and in the video game Animal Crossing, the character Tom Nook is a tanuki.
Pom Poko is a nature vs. humans war film. The tanuki’s forest is being destroyed due to suburban sprawl. Resources for the forest animals, including the tanuki, begin to dwindle, threatening their survival. Stopping the construction appears the only way for the tanuki to survive.
Battle 1: The tanuki cause a series of construction vehicle accidents in the span of one evening. The accidents result in the deaths of three humans, but has no effect on the construction. Though one of the group’s leaders, Gonta, feels that the annihilation of all humans is the only answer, he is in the minority.
Battle 2: After battle one, some humans believe the accidents were not a coincidence, but the acts of vengeful spirits. Taking advantage of the vengeful spirit angle, and utilizing their shape-shifting abilities, the tanuki begin a full-on haunting. There are some great, creative scenes during this part of the film.
Also during this wave, two tanuki are sent out on journeys to find the tanuki known as the Masters of Transformation.
The hauntings do succeed in driving construction workers away, but as soon as one crew leaves, a new crew shows up. The tanuki note that there seems to be an “endless supply” of humans.
Battle 3: Just as things are looking hopelessly bleak, three Masters of Transformation appear.
They help the tanuki launch a massive, all-out, spiritual assault they dub Operation Specter.
I don’t think Pom Poko will be one of the Studio Ghibli films I watch over and over again, but I could watch the Operation Specter scene multiple times.
If you thought that the cat parade in The Cat Returns was strange, the Operation Specter parade is absolutely bonkers. It’s almost impossible to describe. It’s comical, it’s bizarre, and some of it is downright creepy.
It is definitely one of my favorite scenes out of all of the Studio Ghibli films. It’s really an achievement in creativity.I love it.
As brilliant as Operation Specter is, it completely backfires when a local theme park takes credit for the parade.
The Last Battle: Now completely despairing, the tanuki split off into separate factions.
One Master starts a dancing cult made up of the tanuki with the inability to transform. They board a boat, a la Frodo in Lord of the Rings, and sail into the afterlife.
The vengefully angry, bent on violence Gonta leads a vicious battle against the police that results in the deaths of all tanuki involved.
Those who remain try to plead with the media, but even that is unsuccessful.
Using their combined transformation powers one last time, they turn some of the suburban development back to the picturesque, rural, countryside it once was. This makes a minimal impact, as the humans do decide to add more parks and green spaces into their suburban development designs.
In the end some tanuki decide to make do with their limited resources, while others feel like the only option is to transform and live life as a human.
Pom Poko is categorized as a comedy-drama. I laughed quite a bit, and especially enjoyed the Neil Gaiman/Douglas Adams-esque narration throughout the film.
Ultimately, the film is kind of depressing. I kept waiting for the good guys, the tanuki, to win, but in the end they don’t.
They lose, to the humans, which made me angry, yet confused, being a human and all. It caused me to have the same meltdown I had with Princess Mononoke. I love animals, I live in a townhouse complex, did I displace some poor wildlife family that eventually died out because of me? I kind of like my suburban life, I don’t fancy living in the woods in a tent, does that make me a bad person?
Also as an animal lover, there were quite a few scenes where tanuki, in their less anthropomorphic, rawer animal form, get run over by cars. I found this pretty traumatizing, and is one of the main reasons this won’t be on my I-could-watch-this-a-hundred-times list.
With the testicle violence, occasional flashes of tanuki breasts, and road kill moments, Pom Poko might not be one to show the kids just yet, but overall, it is an imaginative, solid, Studio Ghibli film, that is definitely worth watching.