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Buena Vista Home Video presents
Pom Poko (Heisei tanuki gassen pompoko) (1994)

"Clearly, we raccoons underestimated these humans. In the past, we had always thought that humans were animals just like us. But now we realized that these guys were powerful. Maybe as powerful as the gods."
- Narrator

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: August 16, 2005

Stars: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, J.K. Simmons
Other Stars: Tress MacNeille, Kevin Michael Richardson, John DiMaggio, Olivia D'Abo, Maurice LaMarche
Director: Isao Takahata

MPAA Rating: PG for violence, scary images, and thematic elements
Run Time: 01h:59m:20s
Release Date: August 16, 2005
UPC: 786936175257
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+A-B C-

DVD Review

Despite the fact that it was the top draw at the Japanese box office on 1994 and the product of revered animation director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas), Pom Poko has largely gone unseen in America, even among fans of Takahata and his partner, Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). I wish I could say it's because the story, about a group of raccoons fighting to protect their woodland home from encroaching real estate developers in 1960s Tokyo, is steeped in Japanese myths and fables that wouldn't necessarily translate to the Western market. But I'd guess it has more to do with simple anatomy.

You see, Pom Poko isn't really about raccoons at all. Though the animals are labeled as such in the subtitles and English dub, the stars are really tanuki, a raccoon-like animal that, according to Japanese folklore, has been gifted with magical powers. Tanuki are said to be able to shape shift, transforming themselves to look like humans, other animals, or even inanimate objects. According to the Ghibli resource site nausicaa.net, the creatures are also believed to have large testicles, said to bring good fortune (they're known as "golden balls"). Ceramic tanuki statues are sold in shops in Japan, and they always feature the oversized testicles.

The legendary tanuki equipment plays a rather large part in Pom Poko. The males of the species are readily identifiable at all times, and I must say, an animated animal scrotum takes some getting used to. There's no sexual content, but removed from the Japanese legends, they seem a rather odd inclusion, particularly later on, when they are revealed to be magic, er, scrota, that can grow quite large and take on different forms. You see, the raccoons (as I'll call them from now on) decide to use their powers of transformation to try to scare away, and even physically attack, the humans tearing down the trees. This involves using their "raccoon pouches" as ersatz disguises, parachutes, and even weapons (I never thought I'd see an animated raccoon swinging his family jewels around like a mace).

I discuss this element of the film up front because, most certainly, it is an obstacle for American audiences. Even though I'd consider myself an anime fan and anything but a prude, it took some time to adjust to what I was seeing. And that's doing the film a disservice, because Pom Poko, like many Ghibli films, is ultimately a surprisingly moving story about the delicate balance between man and nature.

The story is told by a narrator, who introduces us to the world of the raccoons, fun-loving, rather lazy creatures that love to eat and celebrate and have trouble taking anything seriously. They are forced to do so, however, when the humans begin construction of a massive housing development smack in the middle of their Tama forest (the apartments are actually based on a real Japanese location). Some of the raccoons want to use violence to drive men away, others promote the use of their powers of transformation as scare tactics. In the end, it's a moot point—even magical creatures can't stand up to the iron will of a man in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Despite the rather downbeat premise, this is a fun film. The raccoons are primarily presented in two forms. Around humans, they look like realistic animals. Alone, they walk on two legs and have more personality. In this form, we get to know them as individuals, and understand their community, what they stand to lose if they are not successful. We're also treated to a number of delightful sequences as young cubs learn to master the art of transformation, some more successfully than others, and the more skilled of the group use their abilities to play pranks on the humans and create mischief.

As it's such a foreign story, I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, but I will say it kept me interested throughout, despite the rather slow pace (never mind the questionable content, young children might be bored by this story). In tone, its fairly similar to Kiki's Delivery Service, save for a few darker sequences and the serious theme. In truth, it feels a little disjointed toward the end and becomes quite melancholy, but I think my perceptions would change with a second, more informed viewing.

On a technical level, this is another magical Ghibli production, with moments that offer a glimpse into the world Miyazaki would later explore in Spirited Away. That said, Takahata doesn't have Miyazaki's affection for ambiguity, and the film's environmental message is delivered rather bluntly (and, at one point, directly to the camera). The newly produced English dub is decent, and features recognizable actors like Tress MacNeille, Olivia D'Abo, and Maurice LaMarche, though I could have done without Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Home Improvement) as the "hero" raccoon.

Many anime fans assumed Disney would never release Pom Poko. I commend them for the rather... ballsy decision to do so without changing a frame. It will be interesting to see what people make of it.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Though over ten years old and produced at a fraction of the budget of a Disney film, Pom Poko looks great on DVD. The image features strong, stable colors and good detail, without obvious ringing or edge enhancement. The print looks very clean, with no visible dust or marks.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Japaneseyes

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in either the original Japanese or an English 2.0 DD dub. Both sound fairly good, though audio is limited to the front channels for the most part. Dialogue in the English mix definitely has a fuller, richer sound—switching between the Japanese and English tracks reveals a slight airiness in the former. This likely has to do with the more advanced technology available when the English track was produced (likely in 2004).

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English subtitles, English dubtitles with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Naussicaš of the Valley of the Wind/Porco Rosso/The Cat Returns, Cinderella: SE, Valiant, Tarzan: SE, Toy Story: 10 Anniversary Edition
3 TV Spots/Teasers
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Unlike other films in the Studio Ghibli collection, Pom Poko doesn't include a voice acting featurette, likely because it would be hard to produce one without directly calling attention to the anatomical issues with the animation (think about it—it's already odd enough for American audiences; we don't need to directly associate Jonathan Taylor Thomas' face with giant, magical raccoon testicles). (More so than we do already, anyway.)

The only extras on Disc 1 are a handful of Japanese promo spots and a trailer gallery for other Disney and Ghibli releases.

Disc 2 includes the feature-length film in storyboard form. As usual, this is a bonus for hard-core animation fans and artists more than the layperson, but it's still nice to have.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Pom Poko seems a rather hard sell for American audiences, given it's a story steeped in Japanese folklore with a few elements that will certainly seem a bit, er, nutty to Western viewers. But if you can get past all that, it actually tells a very moving story about the hubris of man and the fragility of nature. A bit slow moving and downbeat, it's probably more appropriate for older children and adults, despite the cutesy animation.


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