Pom Poko Review
Pom Poko is one of the few Studio Ghibli films I had not seen prior to its release on DVD, and as with those other previous titles I opted to purchase Pom Poko with little detailed knowledge of the film. What I did know about Pom Poko was that it is the story of Raccoons who are fighting against deforestation in Tokyo. I had read various comments on the film and had even seen it dismissed because it looked ‘childish’, the mention of 'Care Bears' springs to mind. Having received a Japanese flyer prior to the DVD release of Pom Poko any such claims of a childish film were swiftly laid to rest as the raccoon pictured on said flyer had one feature that was unusually prominent - this Raccoon clearly had a set of balls on him! More on that later though...
I should clear up a few details before I get started. First and foremost, the creatures predominantly featured within Pom Poko are actually Tanuki, an Asian native animal that is part of the Canine family and bears a strong resemblance to the Raccoon we are more familiar with here in the west. The other question I am sure many of you have will be, why Pom Poko? Well, Pom Poko is the sound Tanuki make when they beat their stomachs and is one of the many Tanuki legends featured within the film. The full Japanese title is actually Heisei Tanuki Gassen PomPoko which literally translates as Heisei-era Tanuki War Pom Poko. For a better breakdown I shall refer you to this excellent FAQ found on the equally excellent Nausicaa.net.
The film opens with narration by one of the Tanuki who tells us the story of their fight for survival. This narration continues throughout the film and divulges what information is required to fill in the gaps between the various time jumps as the film encompasses several years of action. The scene is set as we see two Tanuki groups going to war, the reason behind this is that deforestation is claiming their land and there is not enough room for both groups who have gradually been forced closer together. Two important points are soon raised, the first is that through the narration we learn that in fact the Tanuki, out of the sight of others, often walk on two feet. The second key point comes when an elder points out to both groups that the real enemy is the humans who are destroying their land. Upon realising this for themselves the groups decide to unite and form a plan to win back their land against the humans.
We are soon informed of the nature of these plans, which is to use their ancient art of metamorphosis (this ability is actually based on Japanese folklore) and drive the humans away. A boot camp of sorts is set-up where the experienced morphists will train the young in these ancient methods, as it is the young who can learn faster and create an army to take action throughout the proposed five-year plan. What follows is a montage showing the new recruits in training, as they transform first into pots, and then progress into humans, and not before long they are out test driving their new found skills in the streets of Tokyo. They have various limitations; the skill takes extreme concentration and cannot last for great lengths of time, and even the slightest falter in composure can result in returning to their true selves. While all this is happening we also see that they must act chaste and not mate when the spring arrives, which makes for some great comedic moments as we see the woman fending off the men, and the more controlled males taking cold showers. This is hardly surprising as we see the male elder gives the boys one final lesson, where he reveals that their unique testicles are a powerful tool that can be grown to a huge size and used for a variety of means, and as the film progresses we will see such uses as roads, parachutes, carpets and even bombs! Despite the obvious British interpretation of said ability the Japanese actually understand this to be based on their own Tanuki myths, so while the humour garnered from this ability may not be the same in various parts of the world, it works equally well no matter where you might be.
For these opening twenty minutes or so we are introduced to the Tanuki’s world in a playful manner while the characterisation is typically wonderful and despite the various characters having a very strict general design, you soon begin to recognise the various main individuals because of minor distinctive visual details and more importantly, the individual personalities bestowed upon the characters. Comedy is finely woven into the proceedings with some great visual gags and is in keeping with the positive and somewhat light hearted start the film takes on, all of which is designed to showcase how the Tanuki are when left undisturbed - loveable, carefree creatures who simply want to enjoy life and keep out of the way of humans. Once the training is completed though we soon realise that this is a very real story that takes its subject matter seriously, and so do the Tanuki who treat this fight as a war, and when they use their skills against the humans for the very first time there are victims. This does not mean that Pom Poko is full of battles with Tanuki and humans dieing, far from it as the Tanuki prefer to use scare tactics via illusions over the more direct line of killing. However, on their very first strike I was struck with an uneasy feeling over what occurs as a result of their tactics, and I am sure many of you will have a similar reaction.
Using their recently acquired television set the Tanuki soon discover that the humans are not easily distracted, and not knowing that a war has been waged upon them mankind continue with their business unabated. Realising that they alone are not enough the Tanuki choose their two strongest young men to set out on separate journeys to locate the masters of their race and bring them to the communities’ aid. From this point on we see how the Tanuki continue using scare tactics in the lead-up to their masters arrival, and is a job that soon becomes the Tanuki's number one sport as they enjoy it so much (as do the audience). Time passes by though and their land is infringed upon further, but finally the great masters of metamorphosis arrive and what is unleashed upon the humans is a sight to behold and rivals the recent Spirited Away for pure animated fantasy as they put on a show the humans will never forget. As for the effect this show has and what happens next, well that would just spoil the film for you, so I will cease my incessant ramblings on the plot for Pom Poko and move on to what makes it work.
Characterisation is the key and this is something writer and director Isao Takahata realises on an equal level to his better-known partner, Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata tackles the serious issues in question throughout Pom Poko and creates memorable and in some cases loveable characters without playing down the key themes. To do this he successfully integrates the Japanese folklore regarding the Tanuki's ability to transform by creating three distinctive looks for the characters. The first of these is the realistic appearnce, which is how the humans see them and is where the Tanuki can appear quite ferocious and are completely devoid of individual detail. The second appearance is the one taken on when they are within their own community and sees them walk on two feet, wear clothes and generally behave much like we do, while again the design is generally very similar but there are enough subtle differences to make each major character an individual you soon identify with. The third look for the Tanuki is a very simple, almost Manga like approach, and is used sparingly, mostly for those very simple comedic moments where it adds to this interesting idea of transformation and the Tanuki's carefree nature. Whether or not these various appearances are true transformations the Tanuki utilise or are artistic license is open to discussion, but either way the methods employed by Takahata to tell a very real story about deforestation and the effect it had upon the Tanuki is successful in both its portrayal of the issues at hand and in entertaining the viewer.
Of course the true characterisation of the individual characters and their various persona's is handled with equal aplomb, from the eccentricity of the revered elders, the glory hunting nature of the respected generals, and the many other integral characters such as Shoichi who is more interested in learning the ways of humans to trick them rather than take the direct route of killing. Everyone is given an identity right down to the wives, girlfriends and children. This is a community and it really feels like one, and as a result much of the films charm comes from this fact. The true success though lies with the films combination of important issues, strong characters and probably most important of all, the various entertainments offered via the Tanuki's attempts to drive off the humans by taking on the guise of several legendary Japanese ghosts, demons and gods.
Indeed, the full potential of their ability to transform is taken to all new heights though when the Tanuki masters arrive and they put on a show that stretches the animators to their limit, but they pull it off with a touch of class as every frame in this particular sequence is a marvel to behold and is backed up by an equally solid performance throughout as we are treated to beautiful countryside vistas and in their own way, equally spectacular cityscapes. The music too is worthy of a mention as it heightens the already significant experience yet comes from the most unlikely of sources, a Japanese rock group by the name of Shang Shang Typoon. Despite the bands origins the music found here is a compilation of traditional Japanese style pieces much like those found in the classic Kurosawa samurai movies. You will also be treated to several traditional Japanese children’s songs (about the Tanuki) that are featured throughout the movie, but unlike many western animated productions they are integrated flawlessly into the Tanuki's celebrations and add to the story rather than break it apart.
Released on December 18th 2002 in Japan this Region 2 encoded set carries a retail price of 4700yen (standard now for the Studio Ghibli collection of titles). Recommended retailers for purchasing this release include Amotokyo, CDJapan and Amazon.co.jp where it ranges from £25 to £35 (approx) delivered.
This 2-disc set is packaged in a single depth white double armaray case and continues the current trend in Studio Ghibli DVD releases in terms of high quality front cover artwork that is letterboxed, with the Japanese title above and official logos below. All other text on the case is in Japanese, while the various inserts explaining the use of this DVD, and advertising forthcoming releases are also in Japanese. Again the choice of artwork for the disc labels is a fine choice and unlikely to disappoint anyone.
Presented in the original 1.85:1 Widescreen Aspect Ratio and featuring anamorphic enhancement this is up there with the best Studio Ghibli presentations to date. The print sourced is in near perfect condition with only a few signs of dust noticeable which along with the anamorphic enhancement and solid encoding throughout allows for the wonderful detail and use of colour in the film to leap off the screen with clarity. The only minor flaw is that of some exceptionally minor edge enhancement that is only noticeable if you stop and look for it.
The original Japanese audio is the only soundtrack available (there are no English or French dubs available) and is presented here in its original Dolby Pro Logic format. The track is in superb condition with no signs of dropouts or hiss, which allows for the wonderful music and dialogue to be reproduced with crystal clear clarity. Considering this is a Dolby Pro Logic track the use of your sound set-up is actually very good with the surrounds being utilised mostly to project the score, though on occasion (the ghost parade is a fine example) sound effects are routed through them to great effect.
The presence of English subtitles on this disc was something of a mystery up until just one day prior to its official release. Fortunately for the entire English reading population and myself they are here along with optional Japanese and French tracks. The English subtitles are presented in an easy to read white font that uses a thin black outline to allow them to stand out. There is no dub track available so you can be safe in the knowledge that these are a literal translation, with one obvious change. The decision has been made to refer to the Tanuki as Raccoons and while I do not have a problem with this (as it seems like a fair decision), some might. The only other slight oversights that stood out are that of the Japanese writing that appears on buildings during the Ghost Carnival sequence and are not translated (yet strangely other sequences with Japanese writing are subtitled), and the most disappointing oversight which is how the subtitles on the final song are cut short for the credits. In this area I would have liked for them to have continued with subtitles of the song on the top of the screen, and had subtitles for the credits list on the bottom of the screen (or vice-versa) - sadly they chose to cut off the songs subtitles in favour of the credits. Despite these minor imperfections (if you can even call them that) I am extremely pleased with how the subtitles on this disc have turned out given the dialogue heavy nature of the film.
All of the extra features on this release can be found on the second disc and are presented in Japanese audio with no subtitles of any language.
The primary extra feature is the same as that found on all previous Studio Ghibli DVD releases with the single exception of My Neighbours the Yamadas. I am of course referring to the multi-angle presentation of the movie (Anamorphic Widescreen, Japanese Pro-Logic sound) where you can switch between the original storyboards and the final animated film (as found on Disc one with a higher bitrate). As I have said with all my previous Ghibli DVD reviews I welcome this extra feature and enjoy dipping in and out of various sections as it proves to be an interesting insight to the nature of animation, and in particular the creation of these often breathtaking films. This feature does of course have its limitations as I doubt many would sit through the entire film in storyboard mode in a single sitting, especially with the lack of English subtitles, but it is here and proves to be of varying interest depending on your mood and inclination towards the medium.
A 15-minute featurette is also present (in 4:3 with Japanese Stereo audio) and sees a gentlemen dressed in traditional Japanese robes discussing the Tanuki. I can only hazard a guess and say that he is telling stories of the Tanuki from Japanese folklore, and only suggest this based on his manner of speaking for without English subtitles there is very little in this featurette I can understand.
The last extra features you will find are a variety of Trailers presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen with Japanese DD2.0 Stereo sound. First up is an 8-minute trailer reel (with easy access chapter stops) comprising of two teasers and two full trailers for Pom Poko, while you will also find the now standard Studio Ghibli Collection Trailer, and a Studio Ghibli DVD Trailer Reel (again with easy access chapter stops) previewing the first of their planned 2003 releases - Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves. Following these beautiful looking films are trailers for the equally stunning Laputa and a documentary project of Studio Ghibli's.
Tackling similar issues (mans ability to live side by side with nature) as Miyazaki did with Nausicaa, and later with Princess Mononoke, Takahata gives us Pom Poko, a movie that takes a more realistic approach to these issues yet is equally successful in both its delivery of its message and in presenting a visually alluring, and thoroughly captivating piece of entertainment that comes doused in Takahata’s attention to detail in regard to Japanese myths, folklore and actual historical events (the deforestation project the Tanuki in Pom Poko are fighting against actually took place in the Tama Hills location in which the film is set).
This Japanese R2 DVD is an excellent release and comes highly recommended. With 2003 almost upon us I am sure that many of you Studio Ghibli fans are well aware that Disney are planning to kick the Region 1 Ghibli DVD releases into motion, I should however warn anyone thinking of waiting for Pom Poko on R1 DVD that I personally feel its release is highly unlikely at all, and if it ever does happen you will be in for a very long wait. In which case, if you are waiting for a cheaper release I advise you to look towards the Region 3 Hong Kong release due from IVL sometime in early 2003 (rumoured to be as early as January).