by Luke Baumgarten & r & Pom Poko & r & Disney did a smart thing in 1996 by licensing the animated films of Japan's Studio Ghibli. It was kind of a gamble, as they were getting exclusive American distribution rights to films that hadn't yet been created, but it paid off. They ended up with Japan's highest-grossing film ever (Princess Mononoke) and an Oscar (Spirited Away). In the deal, though, Disney also got an entire catalog of older films that, while containing the studio's trademark whimsy and grandeur, are also steeped in obscure Japanese culture and myths and brimming with oddball humor. Like, really weird stuff.
The recently released Pom Poko is the strangest yet. It centers on shape-shifting raccoon fertility spirits with huge weaponized testicles. Yes, that's right. See, the film is about ecosystems and stuff, like so much anime, but this one goes crazy on the folklore. With the destruction of their ancient habitat, the playful raccoons of the Tama Hills are forced onto dwindling patches of land with shrinking resources and must relearn certain legendary abilities (shape-shifting man-parts, etc.) to survive and, hopefully, fight off the human encroachment.
Yes, the anatomical exaggerations are a little off-putting. Pretty quickly, though, the madcap action takes over. The raccoons work their way through a shape-shifting boot camp, turn themselves into humans to conduct reconnaissance and celebrate battles more than they actually fight. They shape-shift into samurais and ghosts, pulling pranks on construction workers and destroying machinery like Watership Down's version of the Monkey Wrench Gang. And, adding to the absurdism, matter-of-fact narration frames the action with facts and statistics, turning the film into a Frontline-style documentary. The contrast is delightful. Though it's hard to stay in human form all the time, it becomes easier when the raccoons discover things like Red Bull. The narrator caps off the discovery by stating flatly: "The recent rise in popularity of fast-acting energy drinks is almost entirely due to the needs of transforming raccoons."
Of course, we know the raccoons are doomed -- and that's sad -- but the film focuses less on their slow demise than on the enviably raucous and endearing way they embrace life. Though it might not be the best Studio Ghibli film, it's easily the most fun.