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Movie Review: Pom Poko

Pom Poko is a 1994 feature length Japanese cartoon about a colony of tanookis living in the woods near Tokyo. Some developers are building human houses in their habitat, which is something of a crisis for them. So, at first blush, almost FernGully kid’s fare; there’s a sort of kid-wavelength ecology message, and the style is very cartoony.

But (and you knew this was coming)…

This isn’t a cartoon for children.  Ah, Japan. Two things, in particular, preclude this from being appropriate to the young audience it seems otherwise targeted towards:

The tanookis can’t coalesce around a strategy for dealing with the humans. Some favor using their shapeshifting powers to scare them. Others want to appeal to some old and wise tanookis who live far away for help. A fox shows up and proffers the unsolicited advice that the tanookis should just shapeshift into people and live in the city. And then there’re some tanookis whose solution is to go out and murder construction workers.

OK, granted: The death scenes aren’t too graphic; all the people killed are in vehicles and either lured into traps or just run off steep roads. But lest you suspect that they survived, we see a news report about how they’re DEAD DEAD DEAD. Of course, if the whole film had a dark tone, ala Wizards, that wouldn’t be especially jarring, but most of the movie is bubblegum-pastel colored anthropomorphic raccoons doing childish slapstick. And then suddenly they’re killing people.

By far the odder thing, though, is this movie’s fascination with the male tanookis’ scrotums. The tanookis are animated with their ball sacks hanging out like unneutered dogs, and it’s really no exaggeration to say that these ball sacks are a central focus in this film.

At one point a band of tanookis are trooping through the woods, just singing a song, 7 dwarves style. Quite stylistically unlike the 7 dwarves, the song these tanookis are singing is about their testicles. The lyrics describe how baby tanookis will see our singers’ scrotums waving in the sunlight, and, becoming inspired, look to their own tiny little ball sacks, which they too shall wave, in imitation of their fathers.

At another point in the film some riot police show up to the forest responding to the tanooki attacks on humans. Quite naturally, the tanookis fly high into the air and then inflate their testes to enormous size, like many times bigger than the rest of their bodies, and dive bomb the riot police, crushing them under their humongous gonads.

But the best illustration I can give you of this movie’s testicle motif is this direct quote from the film:

“Master Tazaburo Hage, last surviving witness of the battle of Yashima, was 999 years old. But now he had seen enough, and he decided to bid the world farewell. With a song of triumph, the raccoons stretched his vast testicles into a fabulous treasure ship, with fittings of lacquer and gold. Singing and dancing, they boarded the ship, in anticipation of leaving the world of suffering for the shores of bliss. The ordinary raccoons imagined paradise and boarded as if they were going on an outing. The treasure ship set off down the Tama River, swaying in the moonlight. The current bore the ship downstream, the sail stood proudly in the breeze. The boat was full, the sail was flying high. Now the tide helped them forward as the moon glinted off the water. The raccoons drummed their bellies as the ship sailed away, drumming and drumming on this night of dreams.”

As the movie’s narrator is relating all of this, the film presents the dumbstruck viewer with a scene of anthropomorphic raccoons laughing and cheering as they grab this old tanooki’s ball sack and just stretch it and shape it into a big ship. Then they all sail down the river, with Tazaburo at the prow, stoically manning the helm of the scrotum ship connected to his taint by an umbilical of skin.

It takes some balls to embark on a journey like that.

 

This is a Studio Ghibli cartoon.  It isn’t Miyazaki-directed, but the animation style is identical to Castle In The Sky, Ponyo, etc, which just heightens the bizarreness factor; if this were just some crude little cartoon out of some obscure niche it’d be far less impactful to me as a viewer when the tanookis join their testicles together to form a giant trampoline out of them. And it isn’t that I haven’t seen weirder stuff. I have, and enjoyed it. It’s just how jarring these scenes are by contrast against the rest of this film. It’d be like if in the middle of Mary Poppins Dick Van Dyke starts singing about his testicles and Jane and Michael murder their new baby sitter. And then no one blinks as they transition back to the sing-song world of cartoon birds and lessons about cleaning up after yourself.

When you get beyond the shock value of Pom Poko there are other things, less interesting things, that just made this a flat-out bad movie. The pacing is a mess. There’s an overabundance of characters who look nearly identical to one another and all have very similar names. And I understand that throwing in formerly unintroduced elements and making them key plot points is just the Japanese way, but in Pom Poko the random elements that they throw in don’t become “key plot points” so much as “barely relevant doings we have to watch long after they’ve lost our interest.”

The last of Pom Poko‘s really notable features is that it has like five or six of those psych-out endings that make you think the credits are about to roll. By the end you’re just hoping it’s finally over. (Directors, take note: Not a stellar way to cap off a film.)

Let me set the picture for you: Slow pan across a wide shot of a countryside. Fade into a fixed landscape with maybe some animated falling leaves and a voice-over explaining what lessons can be taken from the story. Fade to black.

Then quickly fade back in, to some other random thing going on, with characters you forgot existed. And OK, OK: Five or six endings was an exaggeration. This process happens like probably 4 times, tops. But it just feels interminable.

“We couldn’t beat the humans after all… sometimes you just have to learn to adapt… some of us moved to different woods, further away from the city… some stayed and scavenged off of what the humans threw in the garbage… but we all learned that some battles just can’t be won…

“….

“… and some of us followed the advice of the fox, and blended in with the humans. Here’s 13 more minutes of film on how that worked out.” And then, no joke, you get another voice-over close-out about how the tanookis who blended into human society longed to return to the forest, and a long closing scene of a tanooki in human skin riding on a train and staring wistfully out the window at the trees. Roll credits.

Or not. Because this isn’t the closing scene after all. Now there are another 8 minutes or so about how this one tanooki in particular sees a tanooki in tanooki skin scampering through a broken fence, and he follows, and finds a magic glade where the tanookis still hold court. He strips off his corporate formal attire, morphs back into his old self, and runs off towards the tanooki revelers and their merry-making.

THE END

…nope. You just thought it was. Because it turns out that this tanooki is actually Shitbitchiro, who’s name we’ve heard before but whose relevance to the story we’ve completely forgotten. So now we see him reunited with his old pals, and some epilogue about the things they do over the proceeding months. I’m not making any of this up, this is actually how many endings the movie indulges in. So that’s 3 fake endings right there, and the ball sack boat to paradise is another, which means this movie tries to come to an ending 4 times in total before making its fifth and ultimate attempt, just COMPLETELY burning out any lingering interest you might’ve had.

My rating: 2 out of 5 raccoon scrotums.

just balls