When one thinks of Studio Ghibli, Pom Poko doesn’t exactly come to mind. One of the studios earlier works, it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of the studio’s grandest work, but this tale of shape shifting raccoons is no dud and earns its spot inside of Ghibli’s canon of films.
To understand Pom Poko, one needs a brief history lesson on the tanuki. Tanuki are Japanese raccoon dogs which are heavily steeped in the folklore of the nation. In the tales, the tanuki (or bake-danuki, the supernatural state of the tanuki, as not all of them possess special powers) are depicted as shape shifters, originally of a divine nature. But they were eventually pushed out of favor after the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, as tanuki were not seen as envoys of the gods. Since they still retained their magical powers, there were henceforth referred to as Yokai (strange apparition or ghost). Besides shape shfting, the other defining characteristic of the tanuki is, oddly enough, their testicles, as the real life tanuki possess rather large ones. This trait has shown up in Japanese folklore with the tanuki using their testicles as drums or having them flung over their back like a knapsack. So if you were wondering why they gave all the male raccoons prominent testicles in Pom Poko (and put them to good use!), there’s your answer.
With raccoons so steeped in Japanese culture, it was no wonder that Studio Ghibli took to them so early on. Pom Poko tells the tale of a group of tanuki whose forest home is being destroyed in order to make room for housing developments. At its base, it’s a fairly typical man versus nature story, but with some very mature tones. The tanuki of the Tama Hills find themselves in two camps once they realize their home is in danger: those that want to use their powers to kill the invading humans, and those who simply want to scare them off. Think Beetlejuice but as a metaphor for the human effect on our ecosystem. The tanuki are originally depicted as living in harmony with their surroundings but as the humans start to destroy their habitat, they become, out of necessity, the scavengers and invaders that we know today.
Pom Poko is a surprisingly real film, despite it being in a world full of shape shifting animals. Many scenes are devoted to our protagonists debating the best course of strategy, we witness their struggle to find food, and we are privy to their mating rituals, along with all the consequences that come with it. Pom Poko deals with real life issues wrapped up in the whimsy that Studio Ghibli is known for. It does not shy away from the dangers that face these animals and handles them in a way that you truly feel for their plight. There are imagery and themes here that one doesn’t find in most family films, especially when dealing with the “Project Mayhem” group of raccoons.
As interesting as it is, there are reasons why Pom Poko is not held up alongside the likes of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. In the liberal use of narration, the film can feel very heavy handed and explanatory at times, telling the viewers the inner workings of the world instead of just showing it or having the viewers figure it out themselves. There are also no real standout characters. They all serve their purpose, but there is not a character that one becomes overly invested in. That is due to the story rightfully putting the plight of the species over that of any singular character, but it would have been nice if there was some stronger characterization present. Still, the world, despite being one of the more realistic setting in the Ghibli canon, is full of magic and it is a joy to see the worlds of the tanuki and humans collide. Standing tall above the rest is a scene involving a wonderous parade of yokai.
Pom Poko doesn’t tell a particularly new tale, but the lens through which it is told is very unique. The world is lush and all the hallmarks that Ghibli films are known for are present, though just not on the level we see them in other efforts. A decent film dripping with Japanese culture with an important theme is more than enough justification to call Pom Poko a worthy addition to the Studio Ghibli family.