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Pom Poko Blu-ray/DVD Anime Review

14 min read
Pom Poko creates a wondrous display of heartwarming entertainment for the audience while educating younger viewers to the horrors of ecological devastation

Nothing is impossible … if your dreams are big enough.

What They Say:
From the legendary Studio Ghibli, creators of Spirted Away and Ponyo, and Academy Award-nominated director Isao Takahata, comes an adventure-filled ecological fable about the clash between nature and human civilization.

The tanuki (raccoon dogs) of Tama Hills find their fun-loving community under attack when their quiet woodlands are threatened by encroaching developers looking to create still more houses and shopping malls. Desperate to survive, the tanuki band together and learn the ancient art of transformation, shape-shifting into a comical variety of humans and spirits as they undertake a last-ditch plan to scare away the humans and save their home, in this deeply affecting, funny and heartfelt look at what it means to live in the modern world.

The Review:
The audio display for this amusing if somewhat somber release is available in English or Japanese subtitled DTS-HD 2.0 lossless codec or French subtitled Dolby Digital 2.0, and the wonderful fullness of this sound presentation helps to flesh out the film acoustically. We are enveloped through this embracing ambiance to propel the audience within a portrayal which is wholly dependent upon each voice actors’ performance to carry their weight and allow the aural surroundings to reflect a sense of how the world of nature is losing when competing against the greed of man. It is a marvelous aural display as the subtly of natural sounds and traditional Japanese instruments allow us to submerge ourselves within a humorous society, almost forgetting a serious threat quickly encroaching. There are times when the wondrous orchestral ambiance becomes a player unto itself, the fullness of music all encompassing and the surprising sophistication of nuanced sounds enveloping the viewer and thus submerging us within this strange world. As such, the acoustics are essential to this film, sharing an equal amount of weight as with the visuals to carry the ideals of this unusual story into reflecting contrasting natures. The richness of this musical bounty and natural ambiance makes the audience more aware of the underlying sense of the known versus unknown, how people try to continue their daily lives all without knowing there is another layer of complexity laying beyond their front door.

Normally I try to review a series or film by viewing in its original format, however this is one of the few exceptions in which I opted to watch it again in a secondary language track, namely English. The adaptation of this film is truly enticing with the use of familiar Hollywood voices, allowing each actor’s own personality to shine through the roles. However while prior Studio Ghibli films have utilized a wide array of talent to fulfill these daunting roles, this movie seems to have been an exception by casting relatively unknown names for parts which seem to merge together due to the similarities of appearances of named tanuki, with the only differentiation being noticeable due to an addition of unique clothing. As such, when one glances over the cast listing, not many names will be familiar, with the only exceptions perhaps being Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Shokichi from his tenure on Home Improvement or Young Simba in Lion King, Clancy Brown as Gonta who was the memorable Kurgan in Highlander or Grune the Destroyer in Thundercats and J.K. Simmons as Seizaemon and J. Jonah Jameson within various Spider-Man franchises or Tenzin in The Legend of Korra. While there are several other voice actors who would be recognizable due to their work in Western animation, sadly if one saw them personally, they probably might not be identifiable without hearing one of their signature performances.

However what may displease most anime fans who watch will be the localization of a singular term within the movie, specifically translation of the main characters’ race of tanuki, or as they are primarily called within the English version – raccoon. While their outward appearance may be similar via facial markings but without a ringed tail, the latter is a species native to North America and the former being called the Japanese raccoon dog, with the mistakenly accepted general consensus to name them according to a resemblance known to Western audiences, thus the misnomer. Although it may be acceptable to use this logic within the opening nursery rhyme, every other time I heard this mistake within the film it made me cringe, particularly if you know the importance tanuki play within Japanese folklore as tricksters; this would be the insulting equivalent to hearing someone calling Coyote or Raven from Native American folklore a mongrel or a soot covered hummingbird, unthinkable and utterly impossible due to unmistakable distinctions. And yet even the translators seemed unsure of what term they should use, frequently switching between the two names and causing different actors not to know which one was correct. As such, why go through all the trouble of preserving the original movie, only to alter selective parts to make it more suitable for Western audiences, when this ultimately disrespects the true purpose of the art form?

Viewers can watch this outstanding film via either Blu-ray edition in 1080p resolution using AVC codec or the standard DVD encoded MPEG-1/2 DVD media format with 720×480 anamorphic resolution for playback, with both formats in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. While the opening and closing credits are reworked for English audiences, one has to remember this movie is composed of mostly hand drawn animation within an age of computer generated imagery, which is what makes the presentation all more mesmerizing. And yet even with the splendor which is Studio Ghibli, visually this film is an exception due to its organic atmosphere with verdant exteriors of quickly vanishing hills and forests which are the home of tanuki. To witness this greedy expansion by humans all to satisfy their own need to live outside the city is the ultimate melancholia, watching the splendor of nature slowly disappear while they clear-cut and bulldoze once prosperous farmland is maddening, all while knowing viewers themselves are also a source of this insanity. And yet as we witness this devastation, once cannot but admire the raccoon dogs’ tenacity to get revenge and preserve their way of life, all while they continually state they must find a way to keep humans from expanding their destruction, but in order to do so they must adapt to their same enemies’ lifestyle in order to blend in during trips of sabotage.

It is humorous to watch this hypocrisy, from the opening battle of tanuki clans we watching them appearing in their normal form as ordinary animals, but thanks to their transformation abilities, each participant gradually dons armor or clothing reminiscent to the Edo Period and fight as their hated foes. You amusingly begin to wonder if this is done in admiration or if this manner has been so ingrained into their culture that they do not know any better, and yet it is these mannerisms which allow the audience to relate to these non-human characters. However as they finally put aside their differences to unite against a common foe, they begin to adopt human idiosyncrasies: elders wearing casual kimonos and Buddhist monk robes, watching a salvaged television to learn their ways, eating hamburgers and drinking sake during celebrations, singing nursery rhymes changed to suit their culture. All of these changes may be necessitated to learn how humans live, but is contradictory to the main goal of these creatures – to stop the destruction of their land and preserve their way of life. And yet as we witness the months pass within their encampment centered around a discarded shrine, you cannot but sympathize to their loss of the old ways and wanting to see a return to living in harmony with nature.

However as all of this joy merges with the chaos of change, one cannot but ignore what may seem to be inappropriate images to Western eyes, and yet if you understand the folklore of tanuki and how they weave magic, the anatomically correct elements seen quite frequently on screen are unavoidable in presentation and wording within the script: testicles or raccoon bags in the English translation. Raccoon dogs use these features as added components to their transformations, and thus for Western audiences it is confusing to see these sexual organs so vividly on display without any explanation as to why they are necessary, thus making this taboo subject uncomfortable when they play with them before expansion and change; plus when the targeted audience watch the film, namely children, it must be awkward for uneducated parents to explain these frequent scenes without knowing the folklore behind such portrayals. Sadly, Disney could have added a few seconds of an information insert before the feature to avoid confusion and embarrassing conversations, but this neglect simply adds to the mystery of the Japanese tanuki lore.

The case packaging is the first thing a buyer notices about this product and thus, it should project the proper attitude for this film, with GKIDS doing a great job in creating an appealing mood. You cannot but smile seeing a welcoming image from the movie depicted upon the front of this disk collection’s cardboard sleeve: one of the many celebrations the tanuki group has while playing instruments and laughing at the simple joys of their lives. And while the same delightful display is repeated on all important media within and the exterior of the Blu-ray disk case, it not until we open the box do we see a new vista for imagination – an expanded view of their home at the abandoned shrine, oddly displayed through neon blue plastic, but then we must consider between the two video formats suspended above them, with different charming screenshots silkscreened upon each disk. However even as that choice may be essential, it is the exclusive information booklet held within which leaves an impact upon the viewer, allowing us to absorb insight and wisdom from Studio Ghibli Producer Toshio Suzuki and director Isao Takahata. Their thoughts and reasoning into creating Pom Poko are enlightening, allowing us to understand how mutable ideas develop into such an enjoyable movie.

GKIDS makes a favorable impression upon the viewer after they load a disk by displaying the same joyous image we were presented from the welcoming presentation case: one of the many celebrations the tanuki group has while playing instruments and laughing at the simple joys of their lives. And while we still have standard menu selections etched along the lower screen, emblazoned in white appropriately surrounded within a vivid red, GKIDS has made a tactical error with an absence of any musical accompaniment to make our choice less boring. To stare at this aforementioned screen in silence may not be bad, but with each minute spent musing as to which of the many bonus features you wish to view, it only makes the wait all the more tedious and strenuous.

This bonus section has some of the best choices I have ever seen for any animated presentation, and this is all thanks to Studio Ghibli’s need to please their audience. However while prior releases have had an overwhelming choice aside from the obligatory trailers, for some reason this movie does not have the diverse collection of programs concerning behind the scenes documentaries about the film, with the only extra being the full length storyboards for the movie itself, but this is enough. Although some production companies may endeavor to piecemeal this for their own features, Miyazaki-sensei himself drew most of the layouts which exactly follow the entirety of this wondrous film, from beginning to end. And if this wasn’t enough, they also included the entire movie soundtrack with every Japanese seiyūs reproducing their performances for this sketch based artist walkthrough of the presentation. This is one time I wish for two copies of the Blu-ray, accompanying televisions and players, all to watch both versions in a side by side comparison, allowing full enjoyment of seeing the differentiation between roughs and the final product – that truly would have been a delightful treat.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Tanukis have always lived in the countryside surrounding Tokyo near farmhouses, however they did not survive by raiding crops, but thanks to this abundant food supply their main diet of rodents were gathered and this was also supplemented by succulent persimmons and mulberries. However one day the people moved out and abandoned their homes, allowing the raccoon dogs to explore this new world, until large machines began to destroy everything, including the surrounding forests. Normally tanuki do not fight over territory, but due to this intrusion which decimated the land by clear-cutting trees and bulldozing the mountains, this left the growing population with less range to gather food. As such this competition grew more fierce, this finally lead to a battle between forces, and since there were no humans around, it allowed the tanuki to transform and fight on their rear feet, picking up sticks and stones to use as weapons in ritualized combat. The struggle for supremacy was between two groups – Gonta the Brave commanded the Taka forces and Seizaemon the Elder lead the raccoon dogs from Suzu, with each side attempting to prove themselves through unique feats of strength and pronounced usage of their magic.

However as the tide of battle constantly shifted between the mock savagery of comical exchanges, the seriousness of the combat began to teeter toward the ridiculous, with no one attempting to strike a decisive blow aside from the noble leaders. But even as individuals were carried off the field either due to non-fatal blows or running out of magic, a lone female tanuki boldly strode between the forces beating her drum in a solemn manner, mockingly cheering for one side then switching to the other, grimly declaring it was best for these foolish men to kill each other in order to lessen competition for resources and also gradually lower the population, leading to the death of all. As this matronly woman named Granny Oroku’s drove her point across, she directed these oafish soldiers to climb a nearby construction crane to see what they were fighting for, leading to the shock of all to see their beloved hills were now gone and the earth was stripped bare, allowing the assembled to question what they were fighting for and what was left to leave future generations.

This massive deforestation and land deconstruction started in the Sixties thanks to Japan’s booming economy, with the surrounding hills and countryside around Tokyo becoming the largest urban project named Tama New Town. Mountains were razed and forests stripped, leaving nothing for the raccoon dogs and no time left to consider what to do with this sudden invasion, and so all combatants and their kin were gathered in Tama Hills for a midnight meeting at an abandoned temple in Manpukuji Tsurukame. The council of elders lead by Seizaemon decided all tanuki must give up their nocturnal habits to deal with the men during the day in order to stop the development, with two major points made to forward their plan: during a five year period they would concentration on human research and revive their art of transformation, with messengers sent to distant Shikoku and Sado to seek help from the famous Transformation Masters. However this journey would be dangerous and with none of the assembled volunteering for the trip, they left this part of the proposal to the younger generation.

After gathering a discarded television to aid in gathering information about humans, it was up to Granny to train the young tanuki in transformation, but since raccoon dogs have a short attention span and this magic required extreme physical and mental discipline, not all succeeded in the teachings. But after classes were complete, Gonta received a desperate summons from his homeland – humans were on the move and were quickly destroying everything he ever knew. Calling an emergency meeting with the elders, he demanded they immediately declare war against the construction workers to stop all of this destruction, but his plea was immediately rejected without a clear plan of action. With his anger consuming any sense of reason, the fiery leader did not care for their decision and stated he would carry out his guerrilla tactics against their approval, with the younger Sokichi joined him and those who followed their forthright commander.

On a stormy night the small army gathered at a nearby site for an audacious surprise attack, using their cunning and transformation skills to sabotage roads, steer machinery into ditches and create chaos, all in order to put a stop to this unwanted destruction of the home which so sincerely loved. However as they returned to the temple and their kin began to praise the returning heroes, it was only then did they hear an announcement over the television concerning their exploits: while the confusion did hamper development efforts due to confusion and the death of workers, this project was too important to abandon due to an ever growing population. If this level of destruction was not enough to frighten off the humans … what could they do to stop these greedy people?

In Summary:
Pom Poko creates a wondrous display of heartwarming entertainment for the audience while educating younger viewers to the horrors of ecological devastation, and yet while the narrative is moving and comical, director and screenwriter Isao Takahata attempts too much within a limited period of time. From the beginning the pacing feels tedious, with so much information being presented by anthropomorphic raccoon dogs that the audience start to relate to these animals, and yet at the same time this manner is hypocritical since they are imitating the same beings they claim to hate. And as the story becomes bogged down by overwhelming domestic routine such as watching television and celebrating with a sake and dancing with modified traditional songs, one begins to wonder if Takahata-sensei is using this extra time to fill in as a crutch for the main premise of the movie – stopping construction over their beloved Tama Hills. There are so many tangential subplots as they wait for the Transformation Masters, one begins to wonder if even the tanukis have forgotten what they are after, being distracted over the decades by raising families and finding new ways to amuse themselves. While the overall framework of the movie is sincere, it is the underlying foundation which is lacking in its central focus, constantly wandering off the true path of the parable and making us question how this humorous tale could have become more distinct if it did not try to expand too much off its main topic.

Features: Exclusive Booklet, Feature Length Storyboards, Original Theatrical Trailers

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B+
Extras Grade: B+

Released By: GKIDS
Release Date: February 6, 2018
MSRP: $34.95
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p High-Definition Widescreen/480i mpeg-1/2 video codec
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Review Equipment: Sharp LC-42LB261U 42” LED HDTV & Microsoft Xbox One S Blu-ray player via HDMI connection

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