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Pom Poko: Collector's Edition

GKIDS Films // PG // February 6, 2018
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted January 26, 2018 | E-mail the Author

Even within the boundaries of Studio Ghibli's ambitious and diverse output of animation, Isao Takahata's Pom Poko (1994) is a little tough to describe. On the surface, it looks like a simple story about magical tanukis -- a real-life subspecies of Japanese "raccoon dogs" -- and their ongoing battle with local developers looking to destroy their beloved forest. Yet like Watership Down, Princess Mononoke, and other animated films that look like kids' fare at first glance, there's a lot more going on below the surface. Though substantially less well-known to domestic audiences than, say, My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away, it's a worthwhile and highly original film that older audiences should enjoy immensely.

Anyway, back to the critters. Previously at war with one another, these newly-united tanukis -- identified as "raccoons" in Disney's American dub of the film -- have different opinions about how to stop the land development: some are content with tricking construction workers using their transformation magic (see above), while others are straight-up out for blood. (Nonetheless, they agree to make sure a few humans are allowed to stick around: these tanukis love leftover food scraps, after all.) Eventually securing the help of three "Transformation Masters" from the small island of Shikoku, the tanukis -- unofficially led by matriarch "Grandma" Oroku, who initially united the warring clans -- stage a massive attempt to trick the locals into thinking their town is haunted, but it seems as if every effort just postpones the inevitable.

While it sounds like a fairly standard tale on paper, Pom Poko is presented as a darkly comedic mockumentary that spans several years, complete with rotating accounts of voice-over narration (NOTE: the American dub mostly employs the calm, authoritative voice of celebrated voice actor Maurice LaMarche, which actually makes it feel like more of a nature special). This unusual formula, combined with the deeper themes of nature vs. man, layers of Japanese folklore, and the presence of other cultural elements that might be foreign to casual American audiences, doesn't exactly make Pom Poko the most immediately accessible of Ghibli's films. For some, even the *ahem* prominent tanuki testicles (identified as "raccoon pouches" in the American dub, amusingly enough) might be the breaking point. But for those looking to expand their horizons beyond "Miyazaki or bust", Pom Poko remains a thought-provoking film with great characters, a wholly original story, and the fantastic animation and music that have been Ghibli trademarks for the past 30+ years.

Along with Goro Miyazaki's Tales from the Earthsea (review coming soon), Pom Poko represents the last wave of GKIDS' ongoing re-issues of Studio Ghibli titles previously churned out by Disney. Like several others in this collection, the only differences here are packaging and the addition of a new "literal" subtitle track (more on that later) that improves upon Disney's dubtitles. No new extras this time around, though. Still, it's a small step in the right direction and, if you've never owned Pom Poko on Blu-ray or DVD, an inexpensive way to get the best version currently available.

Disney's 2015 Blu-ray featured a suitably attractive and balanced 1080p presentation sourced from a recent master, and unsurprisingly GKIDS' new Blu-ray looks more or less identical to my eyes. Though I don't have the tools to do a side-by-side comparison (either on-screen or via captures), I spot checked a handful of scenes from both discs and found no major variances in detail, texture, black levels, compression, bit rate, and color balance. Quite simply, both looked fantastic and virtually flawless, aside from trace amounts of banding during a handful of tricky gradient scenes. Overall, this seems to be a clear case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", so fans will have no reason to be disappointed here.

DISCLAIMER: The images on this page are decorative and do not represent the title under review.

Like the Disney disc, viewers can choose between the original Japanese 2.0 track or an English 2.0 dub (featuring the likes of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Tress MacNeille, Kevin Michael Richardson, J.K. Simmons, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and more, recorded back in 2005 and included on just about every previous Region 1 release of the film). I've always been partial to the original Japanese, so I mainly focused on that track during the show: it's a great mix with crisp dialogue, solid channel separation, and even a few effective uses of LFE along the way. Naturally, the most enveloping moments are during action scenes, while Shang Shang Typhoon's original score also enjoys a strong presence without overpowering the dialogue. (It's also worth noting that Pom Poko was only the second Ghibli film not to employ composer Joe Hisaishi, the other being Takahata's film Grave of the Fireflies.) Either way, there's very little room for complaints.

What's more is that optional English subtitles are, unlike Disney's Blu-ray, available in both dubtitles (for the English track, naturally) and a closer translation of the Japanese track. It varies quite a bit during many scenes: for example, "raccoon pouches" are correctly referred to as both "testicles" and "balls" (what am I doing with my life?), although the tanukis are still referred to as "raccoons". I'm guessing that, like most of the other Ghibli re-issues, this "literal" track was possibly sourced from an older DVD or VHS-era dub; I've been told that the studio often prefers those, so that might explain why it's what they've been including on the GKIDS discs. Either way, this second subtitle track is a major plus in my book; perhaps not worth a double-dip, depending on your audio preferences, but definitely worth noting as it was my only major complaint with the previous Blu-ray. An optional French dub with matching subtitles is also included.

GKIDS' static, silent menu interface is smooth and simple to navigate, offering separate options for audio/subtitle setup, chapter selection, and bonus features, with no annoying trailers beforehand and a handy "Resume" function. This two-disc release arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive two-sided artwork and a matching slipcover; a nice Booklet is also tucked inside, featuring short reprinted essays by producer Toshio Suzuki and director Isao Takahata.

Everything from Disney's 2015 Blu-ray -- that is to say, not much -- including a Storyboard Reel that plays during the film and a handful of original Japanese Trailers with forced English subtitles. I know at least one short "tanuki" featurette was included on the Japanese Blu-ray, which makes the lack of new bonus features even more disappointing.

Aside from My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Cat Returns, and the director's own Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata's darkly comic Pom Poko is the least typical Studio Ghibli film in their back catalog -- and that's not a bad thing, of course. That said, it's much less accessible and probably not one that younger audiences will immediately warm up to; I first saw it on DVD over a decade ago and didn't even fully appreciate as a twenty-something, but revisiting Pom Poko on Blu-ray convinced me that it's one of most underrated Ghibli films to date. Listening to both the English dub and original Japanese track -- which is finally paired with more accurate subtitles, unlike Disney's Blu-ray -- reveals a lot of key differences in the story and tone as well, so be sure and try both if you're never done so. Aside from the subtitles and packaging though, GKIDS' new Blu-ray appears to be identical to Disney's disc and the lack of new bonus features is pretty disappointing. This one's still firmly Recommended, whether you already own Pom Poko on home video or not.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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