Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Chipster’s Film Review: 'Pom Poko'

Gabby got back from Birmingham last night so we settled down the for the night and watched a DVD I’ve had sitting under my TV for months. It made for the most surreal night of film viewing I’ve experienced in a long time. It also made me realise what a odd world we live in. An odd and sometimes woefully thongless world.

The film was called ‘Pom Poko’ and, as you might imagine from its title, it doesn’t come from any Hollywood studio. It’s actually a Japanese animated feature by Studio Ghibli, whose films I’ve been collecting for a number of years.

I’m quite the fan of Hayao Miyazaki or Mister Miyazaki as I insist he’s called in this house. Miyazaki was the mind behind ‘Spirited Away’, the film that won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars in 2003. Many claim that ‘Spirited Away’ is his greatest film, though it’s really only the work that brought him worldwide acclaim. His most recent feature is 'Howl's Moving Castle', but if, like me, you’ve had an interest in Japanese cinema stretched back before that time, then you’re likely to have great affection for his earlier films. ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is just about perfect. It’s a small film, with the briefest of stories, but has an simple emotional depth that’s hard to convey. Also recommended are those films where Mister Mizazaki’s love of exotic flying machines come to the fore; with ‘Porco Rosso’ and ‘Castle in the Sky’ two of my favourites. And if you want a film perfect for the children, there’s ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, the everyday story of a child witch.

At some thematic level, all these films share Mister Miyazaki’s obsession with nature. It’s also to be found at the heart of his two most environmentally aware films: ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’. It was also at the centre of last night’s film.

‘Pom Poko’ isn’t actually a Hayao Miyazaki film. It’s directed and written by Isao Takahata, who made the monumentally depressing film, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, set in World War 2 Japan in the aftermath of the nuclear strikes. ‘Pom Poko’ is based on an idea by Miyazaki and is another film that sets nature against man.

It tells the story of a super cute troop of raccoons whose habitat is being destroyed by developers building an extension to Tokyo. The raccoons have a magical ability that allows them to shape shift and become any person or object they wish to be. It's a power they find useful when it comes to disrupting the building work, which makes this the perfect Miyazaki fare, with nature fighting back against human industry.

I imported most of my Ghibli DVDs from Japan, which means they lose the Hollywood soundtrack, though this is never a problem. I only watch them in Japanese with an English subtitles anyway. One of the few I’ve not imported was ‘Pom Poko’, which is perhaps a reason it’s taken me so long to get around to watching it. Another reason is the film’s cuteness, which always reminds me of The Care Bears Movie. How much more wrong could I be…

Only, five minutes into the film, Gabby turned to me and asked rather quizzically: ‘Chippy, is it me, or do all these raccoons have bollocks?’

You have to forgive her the odd vulgar phrase but I can’t deny how perceptive she is. I hadn’t noticed but it was true: every one of the male raccoons was blessed with, how shall I say, a couple of generously sized love orbs. This picture really doesn't do them any justice and after half an hour of watching, I began to think the film really needed an emergency supply of thongs. Only much later, after the film had finished, did I discover all about Tanuki folklore and its unusual emphasis on testicles.

It might have more useful to know a bit about this before I sat through two hours of film with my jaw sitting in my lap. It might have been helpful to understand what was happening when a group of raccoons sat down on a large rug before the grand master teaching them the ancient are of turning their bodies into other objects. He asked them, ‘what do you think you’re sitting on?’ To which he quickly and impressively answered: ‘my testicles!’ He had, you see, shape-shifted his testicles into a large square rug. Now, I've watched my fair share of films involving shape-shifting, including X Men and Star Trek, but I've never seen testicles turned into Axminster before. It makes 'Pom Poko', in my opinion, much more impressive.

Indeed, testicles played a very large part in the next two hours as the raccoons went to war with the developers. Waves of raccoons surged forward, swinging their magically swollen testicles around their heads like maces. Then they were flying through the sky, using their testicles as parachutes, before dropping onto the developers, their hugely grotesque undercarriage now the size of boulders. It really was the oddest children’s film I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching and I can’t recommend it more highly.

A final word about how you choose to watch this film. I'd go for the Japanese audio track and the English subtitles. At the end, I rewound in order to listen to how the dour American narrator described the action. To be honest, it was quite a disappointment. The translation lost all the colour of the Japanese, with one line changed from:

Master Tazaburo Hage, last surviving witness of the battle of Yashima, was 999 years old. But now he had seen enough, and we decided to big the world farewell. With a song of triumph, the raccoons stretched his vast testicles into a fabulous treasure ship with fittings of lacquer and gold.

Had become

Master Tazaburo Hage, the last surviving witness of the age of the samurai, was 999 years old. Over the years he had earned many honours and seen many fascinating sights. But now he had seen enough and decided to bid the world farewell. With a song of triumph, the raccoons stretched Master Hage’s pouch to the limit and into a fabulous treasure ship.

I’m searched everywhere but I can’t confirm that raccoons even have pouches. I'd really like to know, because if you ask this old gyrator, it's a bit of a liberty that ruins an otherwise enormously fun film for all the family. I’d recommend you go out and rent or buy this film immediately. There are far too few films in which raccoons get to play conkers with their magical love sacks.


max said...

Hi Chip, I'm a big fan of Myiazaki too. When a few months ago Film4 showed Pom Poko unfortunately I had visitors and they must have thought that I was rude because as they were speaking to me I had the telly on and couldn't really pay attention to what they were saying as the screen was showing giant testicles flying all over.
Thanks for the tip, I'll try to get the Japanese version on DVD.

Anonymous said...

Raccoons do not have pouches, not even the raccoon-dog of Japan.

Anonymous said...

takahata's earlier work, Chie The Brat (1981), has a bittersweet subplot about alleycats and their testicles. highly amusing doesn't even begin to describe it - check it out!

Anonymous said...

They aren't raccoons. They are Tanuki, different animal entirely. the testicle situation is something real about the actual animal, they have large testicles, and in ancient imagery and mythology, Tanuki is a Ancient God/symbol of fornication, causing a ruckus, gullibility, jolliness, and mischievousness. theres so much more about these characters connected to Japanese culture than you are seeing, this movie is a homage to the creatures and I feel should be viewed and talked about with a little bit of knowledge of the history and symbolic association.