Isao Takahata’s 1994 film Pom Poko has always been unfairly maligned. According to Western media, the movie sits at the bottom of rather arbitrary lists such as “Ghibli Movies Ranked from Best to Worst” and is subject to pat reviews that claim that while the movie is good, it’s “not among [Studio Ghibli’s] masterpieces.”
Yet I’d argue that these days, amid insane weather conditions brought on by climate change, massive wealth inequality and batshit schemes in response to these crises, an underdog tale about plucky, fun-loving raccoon dogs with massive balls perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of our modern catastrophe. In short, today, more than ever, we need Pom Poko.
Like many Studio Ghibli films, environmentalism takes center stage. The crux of the raccoon dogs’ struggle is encroaching human developments that threaten their natural habitat. I guess I should clarify here that while English versions of Pom Poko refer to these creatures as raccoons or badgers, raccoon dogs are an entirely different species and are known as tanuki in Japan. In Japanese legend, just as in Pom Poko, tanuki are known for their shape-shifting and enormous, stretchable ballsacks.
At the urging of matriarch Tanuki Oroku, the clan begin to wage a multi-year war, using their wits and powers to push back on the humans’ construction. Battle after battle is staged and fought, through fat and lean years and the natural life cycles of the tanuki. Pom Poko evokes an older, dynastic style of storytelling, akin to One Hundred Years of Solitude in that it chronicles many generations of protagonists and encompasses several “eras” of warfare. The tanuki also frequently refer to a bygone, pre-industrial way of life in which humans and animals coexisted peacefully.
In terms of human time, however, the battles of Pom Poko take place in the 1990s and probably occur over the course of only a few years. By juxtaposing these two timelines, the movie makes clear just how quickly human development can destroy an entire, age-old ecosystem. Yet the tanuki don’t go down without a fight; they employ their assets to great effect in their war against the humans, stretching their scrota into enormous parachutes, hot air balloons and drums. In fact, the movie’s name is a reference to the latter transformation — pom poko being the sound of a drumbeat (or when one pats a full belly).
In addition to their balls, the shape-shifting tanuki transform into all manner of spirits — giant floating skeletons, dragons, goblins and ghouls — as well as humans. One particularly spooky scene depicts the tanukis’ effort to terrify a guileless police officer by turning into humans with blank, featureless faces. Needless to say, Pom Poko is a trippy visual spectacle.
All that terror goes hand-in-hand with humor and joy, though. After each battle, the tanuki throw enormous parties filled with dancing, food and booze. The tanuki are, as a species, sweet, sloppy, lazy and altogether avuncular — something the tanuki elders admit is to their detriment. “We are good-natured. We get excited easily. We’re too generous. That’s the source of our failures,” says the wizened Yashimano Hage.
Yashimano’s premonition is proven correct. When temperamental chief Gonta launches an attack that results in the accidental deaths of three construction workers, the tanuki regroup and strategize. “Let’s kill all the humans!” cries Gonta, world-weary and severely injured from the failed attack. “But there’s one thing I’m worried about,” responds Ponkichi, a tubby, scarf-wearing tanuki. “Do we really want to get rid of all the humans? Can’t we just let a few of them live around here, like the old days? If we get rid of all the humans, then that means we’ll never eat tempura again!”
The statement gives the group pause, and ultimately, the potential loss of tempura proves too much for the tanuki to bear. Instead of eradicating the humans — which is well within their power — they decide to stage a “ghost parade” in the hopes that they can scare away the humans and prevent any further development. Meanwhile, the construction company, undeterred by the accident, replaces the dead construction workers with new recruits the very next day. In this way, Pom Poko reveals a rather unnerving pattern — the sinister and uniquely human ability to override horror and rationalize the supernatural in the name of “progress.”
Overall, Pom Poko is unafraid to make clear-eyed statements about modern civilization. In a society that validates one’s right to life and property by their ability to prove their worth (often equated with productivity), it’s refreshing to witness a portrait of environmentalism that argues that big-balled raccoon dogs deserve dignity too. The tanuki aren’t majestic nor symbolic in the way that white tigers, polar bears and great blue whales are. They’re soft. They’re horny. They love to drink. They have a soft spot for fried foods. And yet — and yet! Their mighty struggles are worth our time and attention. We root for them because the tanuki are fun, they know how to live life and all they want is to exist in harmony with humans.
Sadly, though, by the second half of the movie, the problem of human development clearly becomes one of life and death. As their habitat shrinks, the tanukis’ numbers wane, and they ultimately face a somber decision: Either carry out the rest of their lives transformed as humans, or lead a perilous struggle for survival in their natural state. As the audience then, we’re put in the rather uncomfortable position of rooting for our own demise. Of course, Takahata denies us an ending that conforms with typical Hollywood schtick. Not that it matters — we’re living this story, so we already know how it goes.
Besides, the inevitability of the tanukis’ fate isn’t the point of Pom Poko. As we witness the last of the tanuki disappear, we’re also confronted with a choice. We don’t have to treat the tanukis’ fate as a foregone conclusion; it’s within our power to change the path of this story.
As a final show of force, the last of the tanuki, via their shape-shifting powers, flip the new landscape of ugly high rises back into a verdant, rolling countryside dotted with small farmhouses and glorious trees. In this world, animals live alongside humans and there are enough resources for everyone. We witness glimmers of a beautiful past — or perhaps an imagined future. It’s up to us to decide what’s real and what’s fantasy.