Pom Poko is a story rooted in Japanese folklore. This is an essentially modern fable surrounding the idea of magical shape-shifting raccoon dogs living in Japan. In the film, a group of raccoon dogs living among the Tama Hills are struggling to survive amidst the industrialization of mankind. The forest the raccoon dogs lives within is being destroyed by business owners who are seeking to expand the forest land into new shopping malls and apartment housing.
As the story progresses, it relies upon the same concepts of the raccoon dogs as commonly seen within Japanese folktales. They are portrayed as generally kind-spirited creatures who have an affection for food and peace. Though the animals are magical and can shift into other objects, shapes, and even people the raccoon dogs are generally nice and only want a place to survive together. As their land becomes torn apart and is taken away from them, they have less food, shelter, and other important living necessities.
The raccoon dogs begin to act mischievously with the humans and shift into ghosts (or monsters and dragons) to try and scare them away from the forests. No matter what they do the humans keep on coming to their land and the industrialization continues. Can these raccoon dogs find a way to survive in their forest environment or will they need to find another way to live amongst the humans by tale's end?
The idea behind the story was given to Isao Takahata by Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata, loving the concept, decided to develop the story further and he ended up writing the screenplay and directing the film. Takahata's script is simultaneously entertaining, comedic, and rather depressing. The film is clearly attempting to make statements about the way in which industrialization and the over-population of Japanese cities like Tokyo has caused the environmental care for animals and our natural earth to diminish significantly. This is unquestionably a political undertone for the film. It's thematic material is about the way mankind's search for growth in industries has affected basic needs of the world: with the importance of actual earth, our animal kingdom, and even ourselves going by the wayside.
Takahata's script even explores this though the transformations of the raccoon dogs into the human beings who traverse the city: working long hours, traveling by train in a mechanical fashion, and barely allowing time for life to be seen while trying to survive. In that sense, the storytelling device of the raccoon dogs trying to survive amidst the destruction of their sacred environment is clearly metaphorical for human beings own response to societal growth and to changes in modernization. For Takahata, it's a response to the rapid growth and changing landscape of Japan.
The simplicity of the storyline is surprising at times but when one takes a step back to mull over the implications of the storytelling and the deeper philosophical undertones it becomes clear that this is a rather intelligent and mature animated production aimed more at an older audience (who will better understand the metaphorical undertones). In a way, it's surprising that Disney released this film (especially given their unfortunate stance of holding back releasing Only Yesterday, one of Takahata's greatest masterpieces and a film which Disney owns the North American rights to). Yet it's also remarkable that a film deeply rooted in Japanese culture, tradition, and folklore has even received a release from the beloved house of mouse.
Takahata has a good sense of humor and Pom Poko finds a lot of its success with its genuinely smart comedic sensibilities. It's not all gloom and doom politics. The film knows how to poke fun, with visually imagination sequences showcasing an array of raccoon dog "pouches" flying through the air and re-creating traditional Japanese art. It's so cartoony and extravagant at times but it's also part of the fun. The characters and setting is largely meant to be entertaining and full of visual splendor.
Takahata's film manages it's stylistic flourishes abundantly well with the animation designed by acclaimed art director Kazuo Oga (Ghibli animation maestro who is famous for My Neighbor Totoro, Only Yesterday, and Princess Mononoke). While Oga is known for his landscape background designs, everything else in the animation department is equally impressive. Throughout the film, Oga's art gives equal weight to the beauty of environment and the magnitude of the construction work done by humans. There is also room for the elaborate raccoon dog pranks to be magnified with their flamboyant dragons and a truly unforgettable parade which was staged to scare away the humans and stop their construction of buildings on the raccoon dog land.
While Pom Poko is a little less mainstream for American audiences compared to bigger hits by Ghibli (such as Spirited Away and The Secret World of Arrietty), it doesn't stop the film from being a delightful experience. Though younger audiences might find this outing to be more perplexing at first glance, fans of Studio Ghibli and master filmmaker Isao Takahata will be rewarded by viewing Pom Poko. There is a lot of substance behind the storytelling and the animation is magnificent in every frame. Pom Poko is another remarkable effort from the geniuses at Studio Ghibli and it should not go overlooked.
Pom Poko arrives on Blu-ray from Disney Home Entertainment with a worthwhile 1080p High Definition presentation. The film is preserved in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Overall, the encode provided is quite strong and demonstrates strong color reproduction, detail, and clarity. There are some moments where the image is a bit soft and this is both the result of a slightly lower bit-rate and because of the animation itself. The image is free of any dirt, debris, or damage and looks lovingly restored. Film grain is left intact and has not been removed or altered by Disney for the domestic release.
The film has been presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo in both English and Japanese. Either version presents the film with fluidity and strong clarity. The dialogue is always easy to understand and sounds decidedly crisp. The film's stereo surround track is effectively utilized during the more action-oriented sequences. The score from Shang Shang Typhoon is beautifully reproduced.
Unfortunately, Disney has included only the dub-based subtitles for Pom Poko and not literal translation subtitles that follow Takahata's script exactly as it is in Japanese. This makes this release yet another Disney Ghibli release in the United States which has opted for dub-based subtitles over including original subtitles (as featured on the Japanese Blu-ray editions). It's a factor which might cause some viewers to consider importing a Japanese edition of the film (a more valid option for those seeking the most authentic representation of the film).
Extras include the original Japanese storyboards and the original Japanese trailers for Pom Poko.
Studio Ghibli produced another masterful work of art with the excellent dramatic-comedy Pom Poko. Based on an idea by Hayao Miyazaki and written/directed by Isao Takahata, Pom Poko should be essential viewing for fans of the acclaimed studio. The animation is beautiful. The storytelling is deep and reflective. This is another amazing representation of why Ghibli can easily be called the greatest animation studio to ever come out of Japan. Disney's Blu-ray is generally quite strong too. (Though serious fans should note that the release only contains subtitles based on the dub script. The Japanese Blu-ray edition includes English subtitles featuring an accurate translation of Takahata's script with none of the dub alterations.)