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Pom Poko DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Japanese Theatrical Release: July 16, 1994 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Isao Takahata

English Voice Cast: Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Shokichi), Maurice LaMarche (Narrator), Clancy Brown (Gonta), J.K. Simmons (Seizaemon), Tress MacNeille (Oroku), Kevin Michael Richardson (Bunta, Wonderland President), John DiMaggio (Ryutaro), Andre Stojka (Osho), Wally Kurth (Tamasaburo), Olivia d'Abo (Koharu), Brian George (Kincho, Hage), Jess Harnell (Gyobu), Jillian Bowen (Kiyo), Russi Taylor (Otama)

Japanese Voice Cast: Makoto Nonomura (Shokichi), Kokondei Shinchou (Narrator), Shigeru Izumiya (Gonta), Norihei Miki (Seizaemon), Nijiko Kyocera (Oroku), Takehiro Murata (Bunta), Kosan Yanagiya (Osho), Akira Kamiya (Tamasaburo), Beichou Katsura (Kincho), Bunshi Katsura (Hage), Gannosuke Ashiya (Gyobu), Yuriko Ishida (Kiyo)

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese, English)
Subtitles: English, English captions; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: August 16, 2005
Two single-sided discs (DVD-9 & DVD-5)
Black Keepcase with Cardboard Slipcover
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99

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Review by Lindsay Mayer

"Buta, buta, buta... tanuki!"

Purportedly, this is what Hayao Miyazaki mused aloud as he brainstormed ideas for future Studio Ghibli films, after having finished Porco Rosso in 1992. Literally meaning "Pig, pig, pig… raccoon dog!"; the famed director hopped from helming a film with porcine themes (Porco being about a bounty hunter pilot cursed with the façade of a pig) to producing one rich in Japanese culture and modern history
- all from the perspective of some extremely cute critters known as tanuki, or raccoon dogs. Occurring in the 1960s (or on the tanuki calendar, Years 30-33 of the Pom Poko Era), this is a fairly straightforward tale of survival, adaptation, and the inexorable force known as mankind.

A most unusual Asian native, tanukis, though a part of the dog family, look almost exactly like the common Northern Raccoon found throughout Central and North America - hence, their incredibly creative English name. The characters for this brand new English dub of the film, however, are simply called "Raccoons." In truth, it does simplify the potentially awkward dialogue, and the characters look enough like Northerns to pass off the ruse. The misinformation is still a bit of a shame, nevertheless. The film begins with depictions of Raccoon Utopia - forests and fields with plenty of space and bountiful food. Flourishing families of Raccoons live alongside the lands of the simple farmers of that forgotten era, and both worlds coexisted amicably. In fact, the Raccoons think they’ve found heaven when they discover a recently-abandoned farmhouse… until they find out why it was deserted. When a steamshovel levels the house one morning, it signals a grim beginning to a long battle. Soon, hoards of developers are mercilessly razing the forest and clearing the habitat to make way for a vast residential project expanding out from Tokyo into Tama Hills, where the Raccoons live. Paving the earth over with concrete, the encroaching humans quickly isolate the Raccoons and other wildlife into increasingly smaller patches of land. Feeling an overwhelming sense of indignity, the Raccoons gather to brainstorm, and soon decide to resurrect the ancient art of transformation. According to Japanese legend, foxes, tanuki, and some elder cats have the ability to shapeshift into anything they will, and often use this talent to blend in with, and exploit, human beings and their technology. This time, though, the Raccoons use it for defense, scare tactics, and outright war. Many have the desire to save their Tama Hills forests at any cost - and the whole of the film chronicles their plight.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas ("Home Improvement," The Lion King) voices Shokichi, the film’s closest thing to a main character. A precocious young Raccoon who has always been fascinated by humans, Shokichi proves to be far ahead of the curve when the Raccoons begin their transformation lessons, which are guided by the tough, wise elder lady Raccoon, Oroku (Tress MacNeille), and contain some of the film‘s most humorous scenes. Shokichi acts as a mediator between the far-ranging mentalities of the other Raccoons in how to handle the invading humans. He especially butts heads with the belligerent and aggressive Gonta (Clancy Brown), who is always a hair away from engaging in open war, and indeed even storms off with his guerilla troops several times to do so.

Oroku shows the Tama Hills clan just how vast the devastation to their home has been. Shokichi discusses human matters with the Tama Hills elders.

Shokichi’s main task in the course of this great conflict is to moderate the Tama Hills clan while two talented transformers, Tamasaburo (Wally Kurth) and Bunta (Kevin Michael Richardson) journey out to seek the great transformation masters of the Shikoku and Sado Islands, in an attempt to bring them back to Tama Hills to aid in the fight. The passive elders of Tama Hills preach patience while they wait for the masters to arrive, but Gonta wants to use offensive tactics to physically hurt the humans. In the meantime, the Raccoons employ other strategies - like holding off on reproduction, or journeying into the city for human observation and research.

After several ups and downs, the transformation masters of the Shikoku Islands finally arrive, and engage the Tama Hills Raccoons into the elaborate Operation Specter - an enormous undertaking of transformation skills and energy to, ideally, frighten the humans so profoundly that they will pull out of the Tama Hills development project once and for all. The masters rally the Tama Hills Raccoons into a short, grueling period of preparation, teaching those that can transform how to take on larger and more elaborate forms; as well as teaching those unable to transform how to hone their energy and augment the metamorphosis of the transformers. Finally, in what is arguably the film’s most spectacular scene, the Raccoons parade into Tokyo morphed into many a weird and wild form - making for a sequence that’s not so frightening, as it is fabulously surreal. But will this spectacle work as planned? Or will the brave Raccoons have to resort to more desperate methods before they learn a hard lesson in coexistence?

Maurice LaMarche ("Animaniacs," "The Critic") narrates the action with an interesting hybrid style of part-storyteller, part-nature documentarian, which is fitting because of the film’s interesting visual style. The Raccoons are shown in three vastly different designs, all used according to the mood and setting of the scene. The first are the "real" Raccoons - the wild tanuki of Japan. Studio Ghibli, employing mostly young animators who grew up in the cities, has had trouble before with the depiction and movement of realistic animal characters before - since many of the crew were never exposed to creatures larger than a cat. So often their creature animation looks stilted and practiced, but not understood. Perhaps since they appear so infrequently in the film, the "real" Raccoons don’t suffer this same fate - indeed, I liked this first depiction the most of any.

Shokichi offers a bouquet to his Love One, Kiyo. The Raccoons are overjoyed at the news of a would-be victory.

The second and most frequent form they take is a softened, familiarized anthropomorphic look; indeed, when the Raccoons shift to this chubby, two-legged shape - several even wear human clothes - they look strikingly similar to Care Bears. It’s a more appealing design to the audience, plus it is justified in the film as the form the Raccoons prefer when there are no humans present. The third form is the most simplified, and the most infrequent. The cartoony design was taken from Shigeru Sugiura’s 808 Tanukis
manga. Director Isao Takahata used it when the Raccoons feel sad, depressed, humiliated, or if they become "distracted" - as when they’re partying - and they cannot retain their "full" form. The technique of shifting designs is a bit unusual at first, but one becomes quickly accustomed to the changes after they occur regularly enough.

Another point of contention, concerning marketability of this film to the U.S., was the heavy references to Japanese culture and folklore that most in the Western world would not understand. In my personal opinion, however, I found that - short of a few asides and in-jokes here and there - the film was perfectly "watchable" for someone unfamiliar with the myriad legends and folk tales of the tanuki that exist in Japan. I suppose it would be somewhat similar to the Japanese seeing a film like Shrek, with all of its heavy references to Grimms’ Faerie Tales, and enjoying it nevertheless because of the story and characters themselves.

Probably the most obvious "point of contention" would be a certain anatomical feature of the male Raccoons. One aspect of the Japanese tanuki folklore, and a feature of the Raccoons themselves, is their large testicles. In the Raccoons main humanized form, it isn’t so apparent - but part of their shapeshifting abilities is that the males can stretch their scrotum to an incredible degree, taking any size or shape they wish. Mostly the pliable use of their scrotum is depicted matter-of-factly, or as a point of humor. There is, however, a climatic kamikaze battle between Gonta, with his guerilla troops, and the humans that is simply beyond any real description; to wit, they use their balls as massive weapons against a troop of police special forces. It’s, needless to say, quite a sight. To get around this issue in the English dub’s dialogue, Cindy and Don Hewitt, the couple that have written the English scripts to most of the Ghibli films, suggested using the word "pouch" to get around any terminology issues that Disney had with the film. Hence, any mention of testicles within the English dub are instead referred to as "pouches." Slightly awkward, but I suppose it works well enough - at least for the squeamish U.S. audience it’s aimed at!

With a running length of nearly 2 hours, Pom Poko, for all of its simple premise, is an engaging story throughout. It tempts viewers with its tease of an idyllic story - maybe the humble forest creatures will defeat the evils and live happily ever after - especially with such intimidating supernatural powers! But Ghibli’s films, as fanciful as they are, always have one foot firmly planted in reality. There is never a clear black-and-white, good vs. evil story with this studio’s excellent output. They make wonderful films, but they are by no means peddlers of fairy tales. The Tama Hills project is also based on actual events from the late 60’s - this same town was constructed then, and the natural habitat that existed there previously really was cleared away and paved over. Though the film does not end "happily ever after," it shows a compromising reality, a lesson in respect for the environment, and a plea for coexistence; clear, profound, and applicable messages that are not often seen in animated family films. This was a very refreshing story… for being a "cute critter" film!

A Shikoku Island transformation master shares the details of the ingenuous Operation Specter plan. The Raccoons assume various ghoulish forms in a mass attempt to frighten the humans away for good.


Pom Poko is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Without overscan - as most DVD-ROM players can attest - the film is very slightly letterboxed on widescreen displays, though the few pixels are hardly noticeable. Thankfully, like the other Disney-released Ghibli films, presentation is more than adequate - sharp picture and clear colors were apparent throughout this very "nature-y" film. Known for predominantly using natural settings in their films, Ghibli again doesn’t disappoint in using the available palette of colors to create a visual treat for its audience, and the picture on this DVD does it justice.

The DVD’s audio features the new English dub the Disney produced, and the film’s original Japanese language track - both recorded in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Another neat feature continued from the other Ghibli waves concerns the subtitles; in addition to closed captioning, the DVD includes both the English dub’s "interpreted" dialogue, and the literal English dialogue, translated directly from Japanese. Often there are slight differences in terms and phrases between the two, in order to make some references easier to understand for Western audiences. Since this particular film was so heavy on narration, there was a frequent pattern of shifting the timing and flow of dialogue and information between the Japanese and the English, but fortunately most of the same storytelling found its way through nevertheless. The dub is, as per usual, excellently produced, though short of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the ADR cast is noticeably more obscure, but no shorter on incredible talent.

A title screen from one of the film’s promo spots. Shokichi and friends make a rescue attempt in this sketch from Disc 2's storyboard version. The very light Disc 1 Bonus Features menu.


As well-endowed as the male Raccoons in this film may be, this DVD surely is not! The most significant "skimping" difference this wave has from the other two is the lack of even a "Behind the Microphone" featurette that was present on previous releases. The only extras Pom Poko has to boast are direct ports from the Japanese release - a section of trailers and tv spots, plus the whole film in storyboard form, which is the only feature present on Disc 2. While the promo spots are always amusing to watch, and the storyboards are amazing to see - when they illustrate just how closely the final film mirrors the boards in design, timing, and layout - it really is a shame that nothing else is present.
In addition to the standard making-of and cast interview featurette, it would have been nice to see an "appendix" of some sort that educated Western audiences on the significance of tanuki in Japanese culture - their mythic traits, as well as some of the more well-known songs and folk tales. Perhaps even a mention of shape shifting abilities in animals in general. Overall, though - for such a relatively obscure release, one would suppose this is the best you could ask for.


Pom Poko features 16x9 enhanced, selectively-animated menus. Poko‘s main screen is a delightful ruse - a Disneyfication that attempts to pass the film off as a much lighter, "cute critter" film than it really is. It consists of a cycling montage of what seems to be every single sequence of Raccoons running and frolicking from the film - overlaid with cheerful score music. I find it amusingly ironic that most of those running sequences, within the context of the film, depict the Raccoons in a agitated or panicked state. Because, well - usually when wild animals run that fast, it’s not for a good reason! Unlike the previous Studio Ghibli waves, this disc doesn’t feature any "transition" animation when a menu it selected from the main screen. The Bonus Features screen (which is also Disc 2’s only menu, as with the other waves) is the second menu with cycled animation, featuring the "Sugiura" Raccoons in one of their many celebrations, accompanied of course by its respective score from the film. The Set Up and Scene Selections are just still frames with an accompanying, always chipper, film score.

The Sneak Peeks menu is a bit livelier than usual - with flashy animated openings for the logos of the advertised films. Shown on the first screen, and automatically at the disc’s startup, is the theatrical trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle, a combo ad for the last Ghibli wave of Nausicaä, Porco Rosso, and The Cat Returns, a separate trailer for Spirited Away, and the upcoming Platinum Edition of Cinderella. The second Sneak Peek screen features trailers for Valiant and previews of the upcoming DVD re-releases of Tarzan and Toy Story (10th Anniversary Edition).

As with the last Studio Ghibli DVD wave, Pom Poko comes housed in a black dual-disc Amaray keep case and features a slipcover identical to the keep case cover art, with a red band across the top proclaiming "Walt Disney Studios Presents A Studio Ghibli Film." The lone interior insert provides scene selections on the front and an ad for all of the available Ghibli DVDs from Disney, including this current wave, on the back.

Tanuki sentries (in their real form) watch the activity of the Tama Hills developers. Wow!  Those, uh, "pouches" sure can stretch!


Never believing that this would even see the light of day in Region 1, due to its heavy Japanese references and its "frank" depiction of male anatomy, I was certainly heartened seeing real plans for Pom Poko to unflinchingly be released here. While it isn’t the greatest or most epic of Ghibli’s films, it still belongs unquestionably in with the rest. It’s Ghibli’s one "critter film," and it shows the studio’s trademark "grays" - that life is more nuanced than a fairy tale, and there are no absolutes. And though there may have been more opportunity for some informative extras, this is still a solid set all around. A recommended buy for Ghibli fans, and animation aficionados in general, Pom Poko certainly deserves a look!

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the WindCastle in the SkyMy Neighbor Totoro
Porco RossoSpirited AwayHowl's Moving Castle

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Tress MacNeille: Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three MusketeersMickey's Twice Upon a Christmas
Clancy Brown: Gargoyles: The Complete First SeasonThe Guardian
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Reviewed August 16, 2005.