Pom Poko is an anomaly of sorts in the world of Ghibli animation. Most of their popular movies feature human protagonists, often young girls or women, in a coming-of-age story set in the world of fantasy.
Pom Poko, on the other hand, features tanukis, or magical Japanese raccoon dogs, in a battle against developers intent on destroying their home for profit.
On the surface, this may seem like a drastic departure from a typical Studio Ghibli film. However, many of the common themes found in Ghibli movies such as environmentalism, corruption, friendship, family, and love are present.
This, coupled with their quality production value, is why Pom Poko retains the signature Ghibli aesthetic of artistry and storytelling that helped make the studio what it is today.
Warning, spoilers ahead!
Directed by Isao Takahata
Pom Poko was directed by Isao Takahata, who was a co-founder of Studio Ghibli along with Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma.
Isao’s brilliance is often overshadowed by Hayao Miyazaki’s work at the studio. But Isao Takahata has a very respectable body of work that includes notable movies such as Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, and Princess Kaguya.
In addition to his directorial efforts on the aforementioned shows, Isao had his fingers in many other Studio Ghibli movies as a producer and a musical director. So it’s safe to say that Isao certainly left his mark on the studio and the anime industry at large.
Pom Poko Brief Overview
Pom Poko revolves around a group of shape-shifting tanukis who experience the gradual destruction of their home forests as people begin to expand the Tokyo prefecture from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
A reduction in resources leads to infighting amongst the tanukis until they ultimately band together to fight back against the invasion of urban sprawl.
BTW, the title of the movie, Pom Poko, is a reference to the sound a tanuki’s belly makes when beaten like a drum!
When seen by humans, the tanukis appear as any other wild animal of the forest. However, when alone, they stand upright and become human-like in their behavior.
The tanukis are lazy, mischievous, cheerful, and gullible in their nature. Historically, the tanukis are also shape-shifters, however, in Pom Poko, many of the tanukis have not practiced this ability due to the abundance of food on the rural farmlands. Hence allowing their laziness to take over.
These qualities end up working against the tanuki later on when they attempt to ward off the humans.
The Plot in Depth
Skip this section if you don’t want to read any spoilers
Introduction to the World of Pom Poko
The story starts in the late 1960s and is set against the real-life backdrop of a large-scale suburban development project called New Tama within the Tokyo prefecture.
The project plans to subdivide and clear native forest land for the purpose of creating a large city. After this plan is revealed, the movie jumps ahead to the 90s, where the tanukis contend with the looming threat of diminished territory and reduced resources.
Initially, the tanukis resort to infighting over food and resources, until an older and wiser tanuki rolls in on one of the battles and points out the follies of their ways and how fighting will lead to the demise of the tanuki.
The Rise of the Tanuki
The tanukis decide it is best to unify under the common goal of rescuing their territory from the human invaders. This does not go smoothly, however.
Initially, the tanukis are split between two approaches; either they fight the humans off or they learn to adapt to the changing times and prioritize survival.
This leads to a compromise of sorts. The tanukis decide that it is best to stop having cubs and initiate a campaign of sabotage and deception to scare the humans off.
This also causes the tanukis to explore their older ways of life and endeavor to once again master the art of shapeshifting. To this effect, two of the tanukis set off to recruit the aid of master shapeshifters from other islands.
Those who are left behind begin preparations to take on the humans.
The Human and Tanuki Conflict
The tanuki approach is initially one of sabotage. This eventually causes the deaths of three workers, for which the tanukis exhibit a token level of remorse.
When the humans continue their relentless destruction of the forest, the tanukis attempt to appeal to their spiritual sensibilities. This is where their transformation practice comes into play.
The tanukis transform into supernatural creatures to frighten the humans, and this approach seems to only have temporary effectiveness. Because as soon as one construction crew abandons a site, another one shows up the next day ready to work.
Eventually, three transformation masters show up to help the tanukis step up their game. This culminates in Operation Specter, a grand parade of spirits in the middle of town. This has the effect of both mesmerizing and frightening the townspeople. But ultimately it adds up to nothing when a local theme park master claims credit for the spectacle.
As a last-ditch effort, the tanukis use their magic to stage a grand illusion. This illusion shows the humans how the land looked before development and urban sprawl took over.
The Aftermath of the Grand Illusion
Ultimately the grand illusion was fruitless, and the tanukis admit they are no match for humans.
Some of the tanukis take up the advice of a fox and change into humans and integrate into society. While some of those who were unable to transform board a party ship and sail off into the unknown. The remaining tanukis attempt to forage in the city and take each day at a time.
The efforts of the tanukis weren’t a complete loss though. As the humans save portions of the forest as parks and nature preserves. Though this may seem a small consolation in light of the massive scale of deforestation that took place.
The Narrative of Pom Poko
Pom Poko is presented in a format that is reminiscent of a historical documentary. The narrator fills in the blanks on much of the plot development. This helps the movie cover a lot of events without a lot of build-up and backstory.
Character development is shallow and the movie mostly relies on familiar character archetypes to push the narrative forward. However, this should not be viewed as a negative, as it helps keep the story focused on the tanukis’ struggle to preserve their home. And you don’t come to appreciate the characters or their fight any less.
The movie touches on a number of themes in true Studio Ghibli fashion. The humans vs nature struggle that is depicted in movies such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa is also at the core of Pom Poko. And nature again proves to be no match for humans.
Another core theme is that of change. The tanukis struggle with adapting to the changing landscape and internally they clash over whether to act out of self-preservation or fight and potentially lose everything. There is also the dilemma of trying to maintain old world values in a new world society.
Ultimately, the story of Pom Poko is a dark tragedy masked as a light-hearted fantasy adventure.
Pom Poko is not as renowned or popular as movies such as Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, however, the movie is still another Studio Ghibli masterpiece.
The blending of fantasy with a real-world historical event gives cause to consider the role of humans on this planet. The tanukis pull out the stops to save their homeland, but ultimately their best efforts only delay the inevitable.
So the message is clear; nature lacks the propensity and ability to fight back, so only humans can preserve the environment.
Bonus Question: What’s with the Tanuki Balls?
It’s time to address the elephant in the room.
Something that stands out very early in the movie is that the tanukis are depicted with rather large scrotal sacks. And they even do battle with them!
This can be a bit shocking if you’re not familiar with the historical depiction of tanukis in Japanese society. And perhaps your first experience with tanukis may have been the tanuki suit in Super Mario Bros 3, which bore no scrotal sack. So what gives?
The short story is that in Japanese society, the tanukis have been depicted as magical creatures with comically large testicles for centuries. People can only speculate on how this started, but this has been a mainstay in Japanese folklore for a long time.
This may have you wondering whether the movie is appropriate to watch with your children. Kids aren’t stupid and will likely recognize what they’re seeing, however in the English dub, they at least refer to them as their “pouches” if that’s a concern.