The Japanese animation empire Studio Ghibli (most closely associated with the brilliant work of Hayao Miyazaki) is an intimidating force from the outside looking in. I’m familiar with the bigger works like Spirited Away & My Neighbor Totoro that dominate the studio’s branding, but there’s dozens of Ghibli titles I’ve never taken the time to approach partly due to the intimidation factor of the studio’s staggering output, despite the fact that most of their work seems to be of impossibly high quality in the medium of hand-drawn animation. If there’s just one Studio Ghibli film I wish I had seen years & years sooner it’d be the raccoon eco-warrior mockumentary Pom Poko. The small-community-vs-the-empowered-hegemony political tone, harsh mix of tragedy & black comedy, and ungodly amount of raccoon testicles that shape the story of Pom Poko would’ve made it a perfect fit for a movie night favorite in my younger, punker years. It’s all too easy to see how young anarcho-punks could empathize with the raccoons fighting the impossible-to-topple enemy of an encroaching housing development & even if they couldn’t align with the creatures politically, they’d still be able to draw a great deal of humor from the creatures’ ever-present, comically oversized testicles. Because it was a film we all grew up with, the movie that filled this niche when I was actually young & angsty was Ferngully. Pom Poko offers a much more beautiful, well-crafted, crass, and ultimately pessimistic version of the Ferngully sentimentality, though, and would’ve made a much more appropriate choice for repeated drunken viewings in my salad days.
The plot of Pom Poko is a fairly straightforward one, though its kookier details gradually escalate to heightened degrees of insanity over the course of its runtime. As a massive housing project threatens to level the forested area where a large tribe of magical raccoons reside, the woodland creatures decide to fight back through their limited means. Think of the guerrilla Ewok resistance on Endor in Return of the Jedi & you pretty much get the picture. The major difference, of course, is that these woodland creatures are not only cute, they’re also magically transformative. They can shapeshift from their natural raccoon shapes to look like supercute cartoon raccoons or an average human being or everyday inanimate objects or anything, really. Some use this skill to scare humans from encroaching on their territory. Some use to live among the humans to escape persecution. Some use it to transform their testicles into gigantic weapons to punish/kill human intruders, a move that positions Pom Poko as the premiere children’s film that deals in testicular homicide. As a small crew of wisened elders join the raccoons’ ranks, the transformations get more complicated & mythical from there, leading to stunning recreations from Japanese folklore (the exact kind you’d find in Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare). The ethereal display is supposed to intimidate the humans from encroaching any further, but any & all actions taken to protest the impending housing development seems doomed to fail. Business as Usual sees no threat big enough to discourage a potential profit & stopping the housing development proves to be a Sisyphean task.
Much of Pom Poko feels as is it may have been lost in translation from Japanese culture & language to its Western, English-speaking version. Firstly, despite what the English dub labels them, the tanuki portrayed here aren’t truly raccoons at all, although the two species do look remarkably similar. Tanuki also have a long history in folklore that justifies the excessive presence of their magical testicles in a children’s movie. The English translation (which features voice work from J.K. Simmons, Brian Posehn, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and at least three Futurama vets) does its damnedest to soften the oddity of its testicular content by translating “testicles” to “pouches” as if kids would mistake the creatures for being marsupials, having never seen themselves or anyone else naked. The yokai folklore on display in the film’s visually stunning third act might also fail to fully translate for Western audiences as well, even though it’s easy to tell from the outside looking in that there’s a rich history backing up its exquisite artistic craftsmanship. The film obviously didn’t have too hard of a time traveling to Western markets, though, since it was submitted for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994 (not that it won any accolades or even an official nomination). That kind of pedigree is not too shabby for a children’s cartoon drowning in a sea of furry testicles.
What easily breaks through the language & cultural barriers in Pom Poko is the flm’s anarco-punk spirit. As a radical community uniting against a much larger, better-equipped enemy, the racoons of Pom Poko have many philosophical discussions about the acceptable levels of violence & the effectiveness of non-violent protest in their tactics to combat the housing development, which is a never-ending debate among young progressives, I assure you. Their youthful spirit is also a detriment to their cause, as they’re prone to celebrate small victories long before achieving any longterm goals. The little creatures just love to party. They’re all too easily distracted by beer, pizza, pro wrestling, sex, cheeseburgers, and all sorts of hedonistic temptations that also often distract human punks from organizing & enacting a significant socio-economic change. If you’re looking for proof that this metaphor holds any water, just look to the political chants the raccoons use to rouse their ranks in times of depression or distracted partying. With the right guitar & percussive backing track any one of their chants could easily pass as a song from the seminal anarcho-punk band Crass. The film even addresses the concerns of what happens when these kinds of communities grow up, give in, die off, or decide to join the enemy, which is pretty much the plot of every 00s mall punk’s cinematic handbook, SLC Punk.
Besides the incredible level of skill in the film’s hand-drawn craft, the aspect that makes all of this work in Pom Poko is in its matter-of-fact storytelling style. The film is presented as a documentary & a collection of oral histories, which saves it from delving into the broad, slapstick frivolity of its spiritual cousin, Ferngully. The film can be cartoonishly humorous, sure, but it also aims to break your heart with depictions of death & defeat that a lot of modern children’s films (unfortunately) avoid at all cost. It’s an all-the-more rewarding film because of this detached tone, too, since you not only accept that racoons for who they are & cheer for their victory, but you also fear the idea that it’s a fight they can never possibly win.