Pom Poko Isao Takahata

Hayao Miyazaki may (deservedly) hog most of the attention, but his Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata, has also established himself as an animé master, largely on the strength of his 1988 debut, Grave of the Fireflies, a gently profound wartime tragedy. Having already released most of Miyazaki's back catalogue, Disney is now putting out two of Takahata's later Ghibli works, the vastly different My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) and Pom Poko (1994). The first is hardly a movie at all, but rather a collection of quotidian vignettes of family life covering the minor tribulations of the Yamada family as they play cards, forget their daughter at the mall, order sushi, fight over the remote and try not to throttle the smartass mother-in-law. Based on a four-frame comic strip, the movie has a hand-sketched watercolour style that's actually completely computer animated, but despite moments of inspiration (especially when the look of traditional Japanese art is incorporated) and light-as-a-feather humour, the movie meanders along at a too-glacial pace.
Pom Poko, on the other hand, is an amazing environmental epic about adorable raccoons with gigantic balls — almost as big as those belonging to whomever green-lighted this at Disney. The film is about raccoon dogs, a Japan-only species of canines called Tanuki that have been part of that country's cultural folklore for a thousand years or so. The Tanuki scrotum is believed to provide shape-shifting powers, allowing them to turn into anything from a flying dragon to a weary salaryman. Originally subtitled "The Raccoon War," Pom recounts the expansion of Tokyo into surrounding forests to build the Tama Hills housing development. In their attempts to protect their land, the Tanuki kill construction workers, get smushed on new roadways and are distracted by partying and mating, all while facing the possibility that human "progress" simply cannot be stemmed, even by ancient animal magic emanating from enormous ball sacks (Disney's English dub calls them "racoon pouches"). Its uncompromising Japanese aesthetic, including grown-up politics, double-entendre humour and culture-specific references, is most welcome, but the DVD doesn't make it any easier on the North American audience. The extras include a film-length storyboard of interest only to bored animation students and a few TV spots and trailers, but there are no features explaining the history of the real-world Tama Hills, the differences between a Tanuki and a raccoon, the traditional myths evoked and, most of all, what the deal is with those transforming testicles. The Yamadas adds only a bonus "behind the microphone" mini-doc that serves to remind us that someone, somewhere thinks Jim Belushi is a "star." (Studio Ghibli/Buena Vista)
Joshua Ostroff