Reviewed by Charles Peklenk:
This movie is available on laserdisc from Japan and in fan-subtitled versions elsewhere. Some of this movie can be understood without translation, but it is much better with it.
What are tanuki? They are of the order Canidae, and look like raccoons, hence the common term "raccoon-dog." Tanuki appear in classical Japanese literature that documents the legends of their powers: they can transform into statues or other beings. This film is a new tanuki legend - the story of their attempts to stop the construction of suburbs all over the mountain that they have called their own for generations. In the telling it brushes past millennia of Japanese storytelling, paying homage to many old tales, and uses a traditional style of music, instead of a standard symphonic score.
The playful tanuki can hardly stay serious enough to do their jobs. Once they organize and succeed at slowing the humans down, they throw a party, forgetting the seriousness of their situation. When the humans appear unfazed by the attempts at disrupting construction, the tanuki apply increasing levels of magical powers to defeat the humans and regain their forests. Joined by elders from another mountain, they create powerful illusions to frighten the humans into submitting to the local gods and the spirits that control the forests.
This movie has two purposes: to hammer its environmental message home, and to be hilarious. Director Isao Takahata plainly illustrates what is being lost in the name of living space in today's crowded Japan, as the mountains are literally paved over and new housing built. This aspect is expertly cemented to the stories of the tanuki, who, being very lazy, and easily distracted, are funny to watch by themselves, even without their many adventures. Still, the save-us-please message is a bit in-your-face.
Parent's Guide Rating:
yellow (parental guidance advised)
Approach: Simultaneously funny and depressing.
A note to parents: Although the tanuki sometimes turn into cute "super-deformed" style creatures, this is NOT a "Care Bears"-type movie! Has several scenes of violence, including car wrecks, humans getting crushed, and tanuki getting run over, but no bloody gore. The male tanuki all have visible testicles which they can enlarge and use as weapons. There is also a lot of magic and spellcasting, some of which results in images of ghosts and demons, similar in nature to American Hallowe'en cartoon specials. Some humans are shown voicing their fears about offending the local deities and bowing to images and statues. It may amaze Western viewers that the modern Japanese will submit to any sort of spirit to gain harmony and bring about peace, but in truth human nature has not changed much since the earliest recorded history, and the Japanese retain many fragments of their original animistic culture from that time.
Additional review by Lei Magnus:
Pon Poko aka Tanuki Wars should be seen by everybody. It is humorous yet underlined with an environmental message. There are numerous Japanese folktales tucked away into the movie, but no prior knowledge of these is necessary to enjoy the video:
There is a scene where the tanuki parade through the city disguised as ogres and various demons, and even other Studio Ghibli characters! (see Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Totoro) Almost all the ghouls represented here are from various Japanese folktales, ghost stories, and kabuki. This is NOT a satanic threat as some parents may be lead to believe.
Just prior to the parade, the eldest tanuki reenacts a famous Japanese legend of a samurai who pulls off a seemingly impossible feat. A woman holds up a flag tied to a pole and marches back and forth on an island far away from the army. She taunts them, daring them to shoot the fan but the men are all doubtful. Then one soldier rides forward and shoots the fan off the pole and receives praise for this feat.
When the eldest tanuki is turned into a boat and sent down the river, there is a quip made about the boat not being made out of mud. This scene has two connotations. The boat is heading towards heaven. A decent, though inaccurate, simily is Charon's boat on the Styx. The bit about the mud boat is taken from a tanuki tale where a tanuki killed a man's wife; avengeing her, the man tricked the tanuki into a mud boat which sank and drowned the tanuki.
In an attempt to save their homeland the tanuki resort to killing humans through scare tactics. However they quickly end their killing spree and stick to safe hauntings. Near the end of the movie a coup d'etat forms in favor of killing the humans. Ironically, the coup fails when the tanuki are hit by a speeding semi. The rest of the tanuki break into two: the peace lovers who consider living with the humans, and the fanatics who are unable to change shape. The latter branch off when the eldest tanuki dies.
Even with the dark tone of the movie near the end, Pon Poko is a must-see film that ends on a high note. However, after the first half of the movie, that high note seems far off. The movie gets dragged out a little towards the end; but when it is over you know you can walk out with a satisfied feeling, like reading a complete book with a clear beginning and end.
warning: While I personally believe that Pon Poko should receive a G rating here, it is a better movie if the viewer takes a little time to understand what the content of the movie is about. I do not believe that testicle attacks are a problem for little kids. The girls may not know what is going on but most boys will probably enjoy watching a Tanuki Testicle Thwomp (bad joke).
Pon Poko is a Studio Ghibli family production, so there is no cussing. This is a good movie even if you do not know any Japanese folklore. But it does have a heavy theme underlying the humor, so the intentions of the movie may go over some childrens' heads.
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