Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ, Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, lit. “Heisei-era Raccoon Dog War Ponpoko”) is a 1994 Japanese animated fantasy film, written and directed by Takahata Isao and animated by Studio Ghibli.
Consistent with Japanese folklore, the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) are portrayed as a highly sociable, mischievous species, which are able to use “illusion science” to transform into almost anything, but too fun-loving and too fond of tasty treats to be a real threat – unlike the kitsune (foxes) and other shape-shifters. Visually, the tanuki in this film are depicted in three ways at various times: as realistic animals, as anthropomorphic animals which occasionally wear clothes, and as cartoony figures based on the manga of Sugiura Shigeru (of whom Takahata is a great fan). They tend to assume their realistic form when seen by humans, their cartoony form when they are doing something outlandish or whimsical, and their anthropomorphic form at all other times.
Prominent testicles are an integral part of tanuki folklore, and they are shown and referred to throughout the film, and also used frequently in their shape-shifting. This remains unchanged in the DVD release, though the English dub (but not the subtitles) refers to them as “pouches”.
The story begins in late 1960s Japan. A group of tanuki are threatened by a gigantic suburban development project called New Tama, in the Tama Hills on the outskirts of Tokyo. The development is cutting into their forest habitat and dividing their land. The story resumes in early 1990s Japan, during the early years of the Heisei era. With limited living space and food decreasing every year, the tanuki begin fighting among themselves for the diminishing resources, but at the urging of the matriarch Oroku (“Old Fireball”), they decide to unify to stop the development.
Using their illusion skills (which they must re-learn after having forgotten them), they stage a number of diversions including industrial sabotage. These attacks injure and even kill people, frightening construction workers into quitting, but more workers immediately replace them. In desperation, the tanuki send out messengers to seek help from various legendary elders from other regions.
When all else fails, in a last act of defiance, the remaining tanuki stage a grand illusion, temporarily transforming the urbanized land back into its pristine state to remind everyone of what has been lost. Finally, with their strength exhausted, the tanuki most trained in illusion follow the example of the kitsune: They blend into human society one by one, abandoning those who cannot transform. While the media appeal comes too late to stop the construction, the public responds sympathetically to the tanuki, pushing the developers to set aside some areas as parks. However, the parks are too small to accommodate all the non-transforming tanuki. Some try to survive there, dodging traffic to rummage through human scraps for food, while others disperse farther out to the countryside to compete with the tanuki who are already there.
In an emotional final scene, Shoukichi’s friend, Ponkichi addresses the viewer, asking humans to be more considerate of tanuki and other animals less endowed with transformation skills, and not to destroy their living space; as the view pulls out and away, their surroundings are revealed as a golf course within a suburban sprawl.
I think this film is quite an enjoyable work and at the same time it alerts you to the “blind” development of our society and how humans want to control everything.