Old Reviews: Pom Poko

Pom PokoIn the year of 1965, Tokyo’s rapid increase in population led to the beginning of a town located on Tama Hills. The Tanuki’s of Tama Hills don’t pay attention to this, and less than 30 years pass. Suddenly, the Tanuki’s of Tama Hills find out the extent of the development, as the expanding civilisation will end up taking the creatures’ territories. It was at this point that the eldest Tanuki’s agreed to a plan to bring back the ancient arts of shape-shifting, and use it against the humans to scare them away to keep their homes. However, the Tanukis are not the strongest army as the economy and demand for housing in Tokyo doesn’t make the development stop so easily, so they all need to do work and think hard if they want to keep their homes, lose them, or something else.

For those who don’t know what a Tanuki is by now, it is an Asian Canine animal that resembles a Racoon, and hence is referred to in the English language as a “Racoon Dog”.

The origin of this film was after the release of Porco Rosso, Hayao Miyazaki was thinking to himself about what the next Studio Ghibli film would be, and what came to his mind was “Tanuki”. Isao Takahata was given Miyazaki’s concept, and accepted the offer to write and direct the film. At the time of its release on the 16th July 1994, it was one of the largest anime films produced with 82,000 cels being drawn. It was very well received, even becoming the first Japanese animated feature to be submitted for the Best Foreign Film Award of 1994.

The animation is really amazing, and it definitely stands well against more recent traditionally animated films. Each transformation scene is unique and well detailed, and even the most minor details of them are impressive. All the designs are really creative and realistic, and really flesh out the personalities of all the characters. The real life animals are realistic to the actual creatures and anthropomorphic animations act mostly like humans, giving to the effect of part human part animal characteristics. There are some scenes that really took the animation to the next level and are really memorable for how much effort was put in, the best example is the Goblin Parade, which has several different scenes which are varied, impressive and inspired to give credit. Sadly there isn’t much detail on hair, or fur movement, but after you watch all the astonishing scenes in this film; you wouldn’t have missed such detail like that. The film also has elements based on Japanese Folklore and Legends, as well as influences from famous artists and story tellers like Kenji Miyazawa and Akira Kurosawa, which are very well portrayed and have a lot of life given to them.

What matches the animation well is the art style, the film focuses on the naturist environments, and a lot of greens, wood-browns and light blues are used and blend quite well to the character animations. City and village settings also have the same quality to them, especially at night where the lights set the mood for some of the scenes.

Instead of having one composer for the music, Isao Takahata gave the responsibility of the music to a band called “Shang Shang Typhoon”, which are commonly known for their modern take on Japanese style country and traditional music, and with a film that uses designs and scenes based from folklore, it was a really good choice. I really love the classic Japanese style music that the band produced for this film, as it sounds fun to listen to and it really fits the overall setting of the film with Tanukis using ancient arts. Every now and then there are some really beautiful piano tracks that can be really moving and emotional, especially in the film’s finale which is one of the best scenes in the film, but it would mean spoiling the plot if I explain it.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Pom Poko has one of the best Japanese voice casts in anime history. Every single actor shows care and faithfulness to their character, pull out a really great performances or are really fun to listen too, which is a shame because most of them are unknown outside Japan, with the exceptions of Takehiro Murata (Godzilla) as Bunta and Akira Kamiya (Detective Conan and Fist of the North Star) as Tamasaburo.

However, there is the English dub, and it has problems. While it does have good voice actors, they didn’t have the best direction so most of the voices actors perform well, most sound so bad it’s awkward, and to quote JesuOtaku from her Digimon Adventures review, “…if that director sucks, your actors suck”. Some of the worse cases I find are the ones with good acting but the character and personalities are wrong, two examples that come to mind are Fireball Oraku, who is voiced by Tress McNielle, who is good at her performance and execution but she sounds too much like one of her characters from Futurama instead of the sharp and serious teacher attitude done by Nijiko Kiyokawa. The absolute worse one is Ryutaro, voiced by John DiMaggio, who for some reason uses a low and dark voice for a fox character which Akira Fukuzawa perfected, sly and energetic. But the English cast has some good efforts even if they aren’t as brilliant as the Japanese cast. Jonathan Taylor Thomas was able to get Shoukichi’s character right, even though his voice is awkwardly bad. Okiyo sounds almost exactly alike in both versions and Wally Kurth does an equally accurate performance as Tamasaburo, although he doesn’t change his emotion as much.

One thing people criticise about the dub is the censorship, because the film has dialogue and scenes involving Tanukis’ testicles (even in a playground song during one scene) and they were called “Pouches” in the English version. While that is understandable in the case if it were to be shown on TV, but really isn’t a big problem as some people make it out to be, since people criticised the Japanese version because of this and argued it shouldn’t be in a kids film, despite it being normal in Japanese folklore. What annoys me is the change from calling the main characters Racoons, and not Tanuki’s or the correct English name Raccoon Dog, because there is a difference, they are from different families, but that is a minor nitpick and I still recommend the Japanese version anyway.

If I was to give a key word to the story in Pom Poko, it would be variety. The story has light-hearted comedy, slapstick comedy, light-hearted romance, environmental issues, social commentary and drama, among others, and they all work well and fit together nicely, and anyone can follow it. While the film focuses on the Tanuki’s trying to scare away the humans from building on their land, it shows both arguments equally, a unique idea for a film involving the environment. This is something I really like seeing, since films I’ve known involving the environment in some way (Avatar and Ferngully being two examples) are always siding with the people that care about the nature, this is nothing like that, these are Tanukis that want to keep their homes, but they know it’s not easy because the humans want homes in a time of growth in population and a weak economy, neither side is evil.

Pom Poko is one of my favourite films of all time, it’s funny, it’s charming, it’s sad and it’s really a great film to watch. Saying the film has a lot of heart put into it is a huge understatement, and it’s a film for all ages worth seeing.

Pom Poko is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. This is the only original story by Isao Takahata so there are no mangas or short stories that were based on or adapted from this film.

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