Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko?, lit. "Heisei-era Raccoon Dog War Pom Poko", also known as The Raccoon War) is a 1994 Japanese animated film, the eighth written and directed by Isao Takahata and animated by Studio Ghibli.
Consistent with Japanese folklore, the tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dogs, Nyctereutes procyonoides) are portrayed as a highly sociable, mischievous species, 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 and other shapeshifters). 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 Shigeru Sugiura (of whom Takahata is a great fan). They tend to assume their realistic form when in view of 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 shapeshifting. This remains unchanged in the DVD release, though the English dub (but not the subtitles) refers to them as "pouches". Also, in the English dub and subtitles, the animals are never referred to as "raccoon dogs", the more accurate English name for the tanuki, but rather incorrectly as simply "raccoons".
The story begins with a prologue set in late 1960s Japan. A group of tanuki is threatened by a gigantic and ongoing 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.
As construction continues, the story resumes in early 1990s Japan, during the early years of the Heisei era. With the amount of living space and food decreasing every year, the tanuki begin fighting among themselves for the diminishing resources of their habitat until at the urging of the matriarch Oroku ("Old Fireball"), they decide to unify against the humans to stop the development.
Several prominent tanuki lead the resistance, including the aggressive chief Gonta, the old guru Tsurugame, the wise-woman Oroku, and the young and resourceful Shoukichi. Using their illusion skills (which they must try to re-learn after having mostly lost and forgotten them), they stage a number of diversions including repeated attempts at industrial sabotage. These attacks injure and even kill some people, frightening many construction workers into quitting their jobs, but more workers immediately replace the ones who've been scared away. In desperation, the tanuki send out messengers to seek the help of various legendary elders from faraway regions, while continuing their resistance at home.
After several years, one of the messengers returns bringing a trio of tanuki elders from the distant island of Shikoku, where development is much less of a problem and (or perhaps because) the tanuki are still worshipped more actively. In an all-out effort at re-establishing respect for the supernatural, the entire group stages a massive "ghost parade" to make the human residents think the growing town is haunted. The strain of the massive illusion kills one of the elders, and the effort seems wasted when the owner of a nearby theme park falsely takes credit for the parade, claiming it was all just a publicity stunt.
With this tremendous setback, the unity of the tanuki finally fails and they break up into smaller groups, each following a different strategy. One group led by Gonta takes the route of eco-terrorism, holding off workers for a time until they are eventually wiped out in a pitched battle with the police. Another group of tanuki including Tsurugame and Oroku desperately attempt an option that was previously unthinkable; they arrange for television coverage and publicly reveal themselves to the media to plead their case against the destruction of their habitat. One of the two surviving elders becomes senile and starts a Buddhist dancing cult among some of the tanuki who are unable to transform, eventually sailing away with them in a treasure-ship that takes them all to their deaths, while the other elder investigates the possibility of joining the human world as the last of the transforming kitsune (foxes) have already done.
When all efforts fail, in a last moving act of defiance, the remaining tanuki stage one last grand illusion, temporarily transforming the urbanized land back into its pristine state to remind everyone (including themselves) of exactly what has been lost. Finally, their strength exhausted, the tanuki most trained in illusion are left with no choice but to follow the example of the kitsune: they blend into human society one by one, abandoning those who can't transform.
While the media appeal comes too late to stop the construction, the public responds sympathetically to the tanuki, pushing the developers set aside some areas as parks. However, the parks are too small to accommodate all of the non-transforming tanuki; some of them try to survive there, dodging traffic to scrounge through human scraps for food, while others disperse farther out to the countryside to compete with the tanuki who are already established in those areas.
In a touching coda to the story, one day Shoukichi, who also joined the human world, is coming home from work when he sees a non-transformed tanuki leaping into a gap in a wall. Shoukichi crawls into the gap and follows the path, which leads to a grassy clearing where some of his former companions are gathering. He joyfully transforms back into a tanuki to join them. In an emotional final scene, Shoukichi's friend, Ponkichi (pictured below) 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 camera pulls out and away, their surroundings are revealed as a golf course surrounded by suburban sprawl.
Here are the Japanese/English voices:
- Narrator - Kokontei Shinchou/Maurice LaMarche
- Shoukichi - Makoto Nonomura/Jonathan Taylor Thomas
- Okiyo - Yuriko Ishida/Tress MacNeille
- Seizaemon - Norihei Miki/J. K. Simmons
- Fireball Oroku - Nijiko Kiyokawa/Tress MacNeille
- Gonta - Shigeru Izumiya/Clancy Brown
- Inugami Gyobu - Gannosuke Ashiya/Jess Harnell
- Bunta - Takehiro Murata/Kevin Michael Richardson
- Kincho Daimyoujin the Sixth - Beichou Katsura/Brian George
- Yashimano Hage - Bunshi Katsura/Brian George
- Abbot Tsurugame - Kosan Yanagiya
- Tamasaburo - Akira Kamiya/Wally Kurth
- Wonderland President - Takehiro Murata/Kevin Michael Richardson
- Osho - Andre Stojka
- Kiyo - Jillian Bowen
- Hayashi - Osamu Katou/Brian Posehn
- Ponkichi - Shōzō Hayashiya (9th)/David Oliver Cohen
- Ryutaro - Akira Fukuzawa/John DiMaggio
- Sasuke - Megumi Hayashibara/Marc Donato
- Koharu - Yorie Yamashita/Olivia d'Abo
- Otama - Yumi Kuroda/Russi Taylor
- Reporter - Mark Moseley
- News Anchor - Mark Moseley
- Additional Voices by Newell Alexander, Erica Beck, Jeff Bennett, Clancy Brown, Reeve Carney, Mitch Carter, David Cowgill, Olivia d'Abo, Holly Dorff, Ike Eisenmann, Zac Gardner, Richard Steven Horvitz, Sherry Hursey, Maurice LaMarche, Hope Levy, Mark Moseley, Mary Matilyn Mouser, Jordan Orr, Peter Renaday, Mark Silverman, J. K. Simmons, Alyson Stoner, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Audrey Wasilewski, and Adam Wylie
Japanese cultural references
The film plays heavily upon Japanese folklore, and many references will be lost on people who are not familiar with the details. The following is a list of some of the basic facts which may help people understand the film.
- Tanuki in Japanese folklore are mischievous, lazy, cheerful and gullible creatures who use their supernatural shape-shifting powers to trick humans. It is often said that a tanuki would put a leaf on top of its head and chant in order to change its form into anything (for example, a monk). They are also said to try to con humans with leaves turned into banknotes, although Oroku prohibits them from doing this in the film.
- Statues of tanuki can be seen everywhere in Japan, especially in temples and shrines, and often holding a barrel of sake (nihonshu).
- In Japanese folklore, foxes are also supernatural creatures (known as kitsune) with the ability to transform themselves into a human form. However, in contrast to the absent-minded tanuki, kitsune are usually portrayed as more witty, cunning and sometimes malicious. Kitsune are also messengers of (or sometimes a depiction of) Inari, the Shinto god of rice. In the film, a tanuki manages to terrify the humans planning to move a shrine by appearing as a white fox. Statues of kitsune mark the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 outdoor Inari shrines scattered throughout Japan.
- The stone statues which the tanukis turn into are those of Jizō, the protective deity of travellers, people condemned to Hell, and the souls of stillborn, miscarried, and aborted fetuses. The roadside statues are a common sight in Japan.
- The film also references the Japanese folktale Bunbuku Chagama. In the film the tanuki transform into Chagama while honing their skills
- Most of the characters in the monster parade are Yōkai, creatures from Japanese folklore. However, some of the characters from other Ghibli films make cameos, including Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service, Taeko from Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso from Porco Rosso, and Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro. Among the yōkai references in the film include a retelling of a story called The Mujina of the Akasaka Road which features a noppera-bō, a woman with no face. There is also a tribute to the director Akira Kurosawa with a brief appearance of a foxes' wedding very similar to that which occurs in the Sunshine through Rain episode of his film Dreams.
- The songs which appear in the film are Japanese children's songs, with some change in lyrics for effect. Some of them are repeated with different lyrics over the course of the film. Some of them are known as warabe uta, songs which are sung as part of traditional children's games, often with lyrics incomprehensible to modern Japanese. (The melancholic electronic melodies which many Japanese pedestrian crossings play, a short clip of which appears in the film, is a famous warabe-uta.) Among the songs which appear include:
- Shojo-ji no tanuki-bayashi ("The tanuki party at Shojo-ji temple"), a popular song written in the 1920s based on a traditional Japanese fairytale.  
- Anta gata doko sa ("Where is your home?") - a traditional warabe uta sung by children while bouncing a ball. 
- Tan tan tanuki - A common schoolyard song which makes explicit reference to the tanuki's anatomy:
- Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
- Kaze mo nai no ni,
- Bura bura
- Roughly translated, this means "Tan-tan-tanuki's "golden balls", there isn't even any wind but still go swing-swing". . It then proceeds to continue for several verses, with many regional variations. It is sung to the melody of an American Baptist hymn called Shall We Gather At The River?..
- In keeping with Japanese folklore, the original Japanese version of Pom Poko made numerous references to raccoon dog testicles in song, conversation and in relation to transformation. All of these references were removed from the English dub, but are included in full on the English language subtitle track of the DVD.
- "Ponpoko" is a word for the sound of tanuki tsutsumi (tanuki drum): According to Japanese legends, a tanuki would inflate its belly (or its testicles in another version) and beat upon it with its paws to scare wayfarers: pon poko pon poko pon.
- Real tanuki are sighted in urban areas more often in recent years. This is blamed mainly on the destruction of their natural forest habitat by development projects like the one shown on this film.
- Tama Hills is a vast area of gentle hills spanning two prefectures and many towns and cities on the southwestern flank of Tokyo. Most of it is a patchwork of modern suburbia and hilly forests. Tama New Town, where the film is set, is a real residential development project (Japan's largest) built in several phases starting in the 1960s, spanning the cities of Tama, Machida, Inagi and Hachiōji (which are all part of Tokyo.) Another Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart, is set at the same location and shares some of the same environmentalist undertones (although environmentalism is not its main theme).
- The train station which appears in the film is Seiseki-Sakuragaoka Station on the Keiō Line, in Tama City, Tokyo.
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