Pom Poko and the Fight for Life

Pom Poko title card
Pom Poko title card | GKIDS

Director — Isao Takahata

Year of Release — 1994

Language — English

How Many Times Watched? — 1 time

Rating — ★★★★

This is a Definite Watch. This movie is wack, but it totally rocks. Though 26 years old, it is very timely today. Do yourself a favor and watch this wild film.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Isao Takahata is the unsung hero of Studio Ghibli. He is a creative genius and his work speaks volumes. In fact, three of his films currently hold the top three Rotten Tomatoes scores for the entire Studio Ghibli filmography (Only Yesterday — 100%, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 100%, and Grave of the Fireflies 98%). Having seen pretty much only Miyazaki films before Ghibli month, Takahata’s films are a wonderful surprise. Don’t get me wrong, Hayao Miyazaki is still the uncontested GOAT, but Isao Takahata deserves to be standing right up there with him.

Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, and Pom Poko are all from the same director, but you never would have guessed. While it is easy to tell you’re watching a Miyazaki movie, all of Takahata’s films feel substantially different to the point they don’t even feel related. All of his films thus far feel like the work of one singular mind, an auteur, and are connected by a unique sense of storytelling. It is because of this that Takahata’s films still feel like his without being remotely similar.

Let me get this out the way at the beginning: Pom Poko is a very weird film and possibly the weirdest Studio Ghibli film ever. It follows a group of tanuki who live in the forest outside of Tokyo. They soon find their home being torn down to build more human homes because of a housing shortage. The tanuki make it their mission to stop the destruction of their home by any means necessary.

A tanuki is basically a raccoon dog native to Japan. In the English version of the film, they are referred to as raccoons, an inaccurate translation but one that makes more sense to a western audience. They are similar to raccoons but not quite the same. Here are some examples of tanuki.

three tanuki just chillin’ | ©feathercollector/123RF.COM
Tom Nook and Tanooki Mario, two notable tanuki | Nintendo

In Japanese folklore, tanuki have the unique ability, shared only by foxes and some cats, to transform their bodies and shapeshift into whatever they want. One of the tools that make this possible is their testicles. Yes, you read that right. Their testicles. Takahata remains true to legend in his depiction of the tanuki in Pomo Poko, and it is equal parts hilarious, terrifying, and uncomfortable. (Note: the English version devastatingly calls them ‘raccoon pouches’ even though it is painfully clear what we’re watching.) There is even a scene where a group of tanuki use their testicles as gliders to dive-bomb onto police then transform them into punching bags to fight with. It’s something that needs to be seen to be believed.

a group of tanuki fall through the sky with very enlarged scrotums between their legs
uhh, yeah, this is the movie… | GKIDS

I told you it got weird.

To a western audience, this is very strange and might be difficult to get past, but it is important to see the history the film is entrenched in. In Japanese folklore, the tanuki is a mythical creature. They are known to be a monster of the comical type. They have big bellies to drum on and make sounds such as “pom poko” (the actual sound of banging on the drum).

There are eight special traits of the tanuki:

  1. a hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather;
  2. big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions;
  3. a sake bottle that represents virtue;
  4. a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved;
  5. an oversized scrotum that symbolizes financial luck;
  6. a promissory note that represents trust or confidence;
  7. a big belly that symbolizes bold and calm decisiveness; and
  8. a friendly smile.
Three tanuki as shrine statues with another trying to blend in
tanuki shape-shifting into tanuki shrine statues | GKIDS

There is even a common schoolyard song in Japan that talks about tanuki’s testicles. This is the English translation.

Tan-tan-tanuki’s bollocks,
Even without wind,
They swiiing-swing!

The tales of the tanuki are well known throughout Japan. Takahata’s depiction of the tanuki in Pom Poko is true to tradition and is understood by a Japanese audience. It is fine for a western audience to laugh because the tanuki are a traditionally comical creature. The large testicles are meant to be funny. However, it is important to know the history of the tanuki for Pom Poko to make much sense.

Pom Poko is a film with a lot to say. It is about deforestation and environmentalism. It is about community collaboration. It is about the economy and greed. And, arguably most importantly, it is about living with those that are different than you.

Takahata aims to make the viewer think more deeply about themselves and their own personal convictions. Grave of the Fireflies is about the need to live collaboratively to thrive, using a very depressing portrayal of children trying to make it on their own in World War II. Only Yesterday is about reflecting on how our past informs our future. Pom Poko is no different. It is about learning how to live with the “other” in our lives no matter how uncomfortable and difficult it may be.

Tanuki lining up ready to fight
the tanuki ready to fight | GKIDS

This is a film about the clash of two cultures. The tanuki have always lived in the Tama Hills, an area outside of Tokyo that has yet to be developed until the beginning of the economic boom in the 1960s. It is then when they must figure out how to deal with the humans encroaching on their territory. Some tanuki want to opt for a violent method, fighting off the humans from the area. Others want to use their transforming abilities to scare them away peacefully.

The tanuki are stuck in a difficult position. If they give up, their land will be taken over and their way of life will be ruined forever. They will be displaced and many will die. However, no matter what method they use and how many people die, humans only continue to expand.

One day, a fox, another shape-shifting animal, comes to the tanuki with another solution: transform and live among the humans, working and everything. However, many tanuki cannot transform. The fox claims their deaths were unavoidable if the species wanted to survive. The majority of the group are initially against the assimilation plan, wanting to live in the hills forever.

Shoukichi, the protagonist | GKIDS

Their extermination feels inevitable, and it is clearly taking a toll on them, leading them to existential thinking about life. Shoukichi, the main character, really struggles with this and the deaths of his friends. He knows something needs to be done, but he doesn’t know what.

“I’m starting to get nervous. What if our little pranks aren’t doing any good at all? What if the humans level the entire forest? Then where are we gonna go? Maybe Gonta’s right. The only way to stop them is to get violent. I don’t want to have to hurt any more humans. That just doesn’t seem right to me. But what if they won’t stop? Then what? To be or not to be?” — Shoukichi

These are the thoughts of someone that has nothing left, no other options. This is a problem no one asked for and has no solution. They just want everything to go back to normal, and no matter how hard they work at it, it doesn’t seem possible. What are they willing to do to keep some semblance of a normal life?

I can’t help but see the parallels between the tanuki’s situation and the current protests surrounding George Flloyd’s death. A group of people, black people, are being forced to fight for their right to life. They are actively working against the killing and for the longevity of their own. All they want is a normal life that is free of the horrors of not knowing when your last day will be.

No one should have to live in fear of their livelihood. No one.

No one should have to fight for their right to life. No one

No one deserves to live like this. No one.

When pushed into a corner, survival instincts kick in and peace becomes an afterthought. When you’ve lived a life without peace, you are more willing to do anything it takes.

Violence shouldn’t have to be the answer. Frankly, speaking as a white man, it is sad that we have let it come to this. Black people shouldn't have to protest to end police brutality. Black people shouldn’t have to protest to end widespread racism. Black people shouldn’t have to protest to have the right to life.

But it’s where we are. It’s unfortunate, but hopefully, this is the last time. I’m optimistic but hesitant. White people need to get over their entitlement to life. There is no need to encroach on the lives of others. Comfort leads to stagnation. Nothing can change when we’re comfortable. This is a time to be uncomfortable, a time for real change to happen. Through our little bit of discomfort, maybe, just maybe, we can end the hundreds of years of discomfort inflicted on our black neighbors.

I don’t mean to say Pom Poko is an exact and perfect representation of the American black plight. But the parallels are uncanny. Movies are meant to be a reflection of society. They ask questions that the viewer has to contemplate. With Pom Poko, Takahata asks tough questions and doesn’t give easy answers.

The movie ends with most of the tanuki assimilating into the human culture, giving up their way of life just to survive. The ones who were unable to transform were left to die by the destruction of their habitat. The tanuki did not get an easy way out. They didn’t get to choose what their life looked like. It was either blend in with the humans or die.

That’s a choice that should not have to be made today. Something needs to be done. It is refreshing and encouraging to see real change happening as a direct result of the protests happening all over the country. I am excited to see the future where what’s happening today is only a chapter in a history book.

But it won’t be easy. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and collaboration. Black lives are sacred. Black lives are dignified. Black lives matter.

Keep listening and keep striving for a better today.

Many tanuki sitting around and singing witha guitar
finding joy in their desperate situation | GKIDS

Up next: Whisper of the Heart (1995)

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