Sunday, June 24, 2018

REVIEW: Pom Poko (anime movie)

Pom Poko is a fantasy and environmental movie. Once again, I've waited longer to review this than I probably should have. I watched it as part of the 2018 Studio Ghibli Fest.

The movie is set at the site of a suburban development project in Japan (New Tama, which Wikipedia tells me is a real place). Although the project will help with the local housing crisis, it will also destroy the natural habitat of the area's wildlife, which includes a large number of tanuki (referred to as raccoons in the film, even though the two animals are not the same thing). The local tanuki band together to try to stop the construction project. There's some disagreement as to how far they should go, and one group in particular doesn't care if humans die as long as the project is halted.

Warning: This review includes spoilers.

The premise of this movie made me think of American movies like FernGully and Avatar. I had seen Pom Poko before, but I barely recalled anything about it, so its superficial similarity to those other films set up certain expectations in me. Things did not go the way I thought they would.

In any other movie like this that I could think of, the tanuki would have banded together, tried hard, and eventually saved their habitat. In this movie, they banded together, tried hard (when they weren't prematurely celebrating), accomplished some spectacular things...and ultimately failed. The message seemed to be "Sometimes you do all you can and it isn't enough. Even so, you have to figure out how to keep moving forward." Which, honestly, is maybe a message that more children's movies should have, because sometimes things don't go your way and you have to make the best of a bad situation.

Even so, I still found it to be a bit depressing, no matter how well the tanuki seemed to take it overall. Although it dealt with a heavy subject and, indeed, included a few instances of tanuki being killed on-screen (most often from being hit by vehicles), this came across as a fairly light-hearted movie. There was some funny mockumentary-style narration, and the tanuki took every chance they got to party.

The two things that I imagine would most give parents pause are the on-screen tanuki deaths and a particular kind of thing the male tanuki could do. As far as the tanuki deaths went, I don't recall there being any blood and the depictions weren't gruesome, but they could still be upsetting for children. As far as the other stuff went, male tanuki have the ability to stretch and inflate their testicles to a fantastical degree. One tanuki created a ship's sails out of his magical testicles, and even when they weren't using them as part of their magic, tanuki testicles were clearly visible in many scenes in the movie. While this might make parents uncomfortable, I doubt most children would notice. When the magical aspects were initially explained, tanuki testicles were referred to in the English dub as a tanuki's "raccoon pouch."

The environmental aspects were good, if heavy-handed. I'm sure they'd have resonated even more with children in Japan, who could potentially visit this movie's real-life setting. I enjoyed the fantasy aspects as well. The huge display of shapeshifting near the end was wonderful and reminded me of a particular scene in a more recent movie, Paprika. I also enjoyed the shorter but still fantastic scene involving the reporter.

I wasn't always a fan of Pom Poko's art style, although I appreciated the way different styles were used for certain tanuki forms. For example, they had a very simplistic form they used when they were feeling weak or frightened, a cartoony style that seemed to be their default, and a more realistic style for when they were around humans.

It seems like Studio Ghibli Fest started with some of the worst Studio Ghibli films and is now finally getting into the better ones. I wasn't expecting Pom Poko to affect me as strongly as it did.


I can't for the life of me remember the title of the short film that was shown prior to Pom Poko, but, after the awfulness of last month's short film, this one was a breath of fresh air. It was a wordless story set in a shopping mall. It starred an old woman and her granddaughter (or daughter?) who owned a restaurant in the mall. While preparing for the day ahead, the old woman threw out her back, so the daughter tried to take her to a chiropractor elsewhere in the mall. I loved the way the guy in the mascot suit got involved, and I thought the little Roomba thing was great. Overall this was a cute and gentle little film.

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