Pom Poko

Starring (voice): Kokondei Shinchou, Makoto Nonomura and Yuriko Ishida
Optimum Releasing
RRP: 19.99
Certificate: PG
Available 30 January 2006

In the woods near a rapidly growing city, a group of racoons live in relative peace, until the development of the town begins to intrude on their land. The racoons are faced with a dilemma regarding the human beings, for their homes are being destroyed, but the racoons also rely on the human community for scavenged food and goods. They decide to try using their powers of illusion and shapeshifting to scare the humans back to the central city and sabotage further building, but will their efforts come too little, too late?...

If, like me, you've been waiting patiently for the release of a good old-fashioned feature film about magical shape-shifting racoons (an often overlooked genre in the telefantasy field), then I have some good news at last. The long wait is over, my friends. Pom Poko has finally arrived on DVD and it fits the bill perfectly.

Originally released in 1994 (and subsequently offered as Japan's entry for the 1995 Academy Awards Best Foreign Film category - it didn't make the shortlist), Pom Poko is the story of a group of tanukis (literally translated as Racoon Dogs, an animal native to Asia, actually a member of the canine family but they look more like cute and cuddly racoons) who discover that their natural habitat is under threat from the development plans of the humans. The colossal Tokyo Residential Project is now expanding into Tama Hills, home of the poor tanukis, who are now fighting for their survival as the forests are razed to the ground to make way for cheap Tokyo housing. The tanukis resort to their almost forgotten ancient art of shape-shifting, in a bid to convince the human developers that Tama Hills is haunted by angry spirits, and drive them all away from the forest to leave the tanukis in peace and safety.

At first glance, Pom Poko might appear to be a semi-educational moralistic tale aimed at children. The gentle and informative narration, the plight of the cute little animals and the rather heavy-handed 'green' message that pervades the film, help give the impression that this is a nice, harmless cartoon for the kiddies. That soon goes right out of the window though, when we first see the tanukis using their enormous testicles as weapons of mass destruction, swelling them up to breathtaking proportions and using them against the humans, some of whom are are killed as a direct result of these shocking testicle tactics. This, coupled with some of the genuinely spooky and disturbing scenes in the film (faceless humans roaming the forest, a lengthy and quite trippy 'Ghost Parade' sequence in which the tanukis transform into all manner of devilish abominations to scare off the humans) result in a rather oddly-balanced film - a bit too mature and oddball for the kids, and perhaps just a bit too immature and preachy for the adults.

Having said that, if you have acquired a taste for oddball material, then Pom Poko delivers in droves. The tanukis' struggle for their own survival becomes strangely engrossing, as we watch them shape-shift into humans, infiltrate our own society, fall in love and bicker amongst themselves in their desperate quest for life. The regular authoritative narration often makes you feel as if you're watching a genuine wildlife documentary instead of a surreal animation on shape-shifting and occasionally murderous creatures, and there are healthy dollops of real humour and real sadness. In fact, the whole thing comes across as a weird hybrid of Wildlife On One, Animal Farm, Watership Down and the darkest episode of Harry Hill you have ever seen. It's strange and it's completely nutty, but at the same time it manages to be engaging, thoughtful and, if you're in the right frame of mind, thoroughly enjoyable.

This DVD release arrives courtesy of Disney, and as you might expect, there are a couple of Disney-style 'alterations' in the new English dub, deemed necessary for a more palatable Western release. The different types of tanukis are all simply referred to as racoons throughout the English dub - a little misleading perhaps and very possibly a sign of dumbing-down for us Westerners, but I have to admit it makes for a more accessible film, and avoids any potentially baffling dialogue.

Meanwhile, the infamous tanukis testicles are now referred to as, erm, 'pouches'. Again, we're being fed slightly watered-down material here, but perhaps the western kids are more likely to identify with this, and less likely to spend the entire duration of the film sniggering into their popcorn every time a human is smothered by a giant testicle.

Besides, purists will be relieved to have the option of choosing between the English dub and the original subtitled Japanese soundtrack - in fact, you can even choose between 'literal' and 'interpreted' subtitles of the dialogue, which almost makes up for the otherwise bare minimum extras featured on the discs - storyboards, trailers and a showcase for other Studio Ghibli films.

This might not be everybody's cup of tea - in fact a couple of cans of light ale could well be the ideal viewing companion here - but Pom Poko is certainly an unusual and often entertaining curiosity, and it will almost definitely fill a big void until the next 'feature film with magical shape-shifting racoons' comes along to try and steal its crown.

Danny Salter

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