Pom Poko (Japanese: 平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ Hepburn: Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, lit. “Heisei-era Raccoon Dog War Ponpoko”) is a 1994 Japanese animated comedy-drama fantasy film directed by Isao Takahata, animated by Studio Ghibli for Tokuma Shoten, Nippon Television Network and Hakuhodo, and distributed by Toho.
The phrase “Pom Poko” in the title refers to the sound of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs, Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) drumming their own bellies as a form of Tanuki-bayashi. Specifically, the phrase started as a jocular explanation of meditative percussion at Shōjō-ji taken up in a 1919 poem by Ujō Noguchi, which became a popular nursery rhyme recorded in 1925.
Consistent with Japanese folklore, the tanuki are portrayed as a highly sociable, mischievous species, who 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 distinct ways at various times: as realistic animals, as anthropomorphic animals that occasionally wear clothes, and as cartoon-like figures based on the manga of Shigeru Sugiura (of whom Takahata is a great fan). They tend to assume their realistic form when seen by humans, their cartoon-like 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 “raccoon pouches”. Also, in the English dub and subtitles, the animals are never referred to as “raccoon dogs”, which is the more accurate English name for the tanuki, instead they are incorrectly referred to as just “raccoons”.
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.
Several tanuki lead the resistance, including the aggressive chief Gonta, the old guru Seizaemon, the wise-woman Oroku, and the young and resourceful Shoukichi. 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.
After several years, one of the messengers returns bringing a trio of elders from the distant island of Shikoku, where development is not a problem and the tanuki are still worshipped. In an effort at re-establishing respect for the supernatural, the group stages a massive “ghost parade” to make the humans think the 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 takes credit for the parade, claiming it was a publicity stunt.
With this 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 until they are wiped out in a pitched battle with the police. Another group desperately attempts to gain media attention through television appearances to plead their case against the habitat’s destruction. One of the elders becomes senile and starts a Buddhist dancing cult among the tanuki who are unable to transform, eventually sailing away with them in a ship that takes them to their deaths, while the other elder investigates joining the human world as the last of the transforming kitsune (foxes) have already done.
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.
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. 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.