Saturday, October 15, 2005

Pom Poko: why anime doesn't always work in translation

Warning: the following blog post contains material which some may find offensive and/or inappropriate for children. Proceed with caution.

When I stopped by Hastings earlier this week, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko was available on DVD. I was fascinated with the film from the brief clips I'd seen on the Nausicaa DVD, but I wasn't sure if it was slated for a U.S. release or not. I snapped up a rental copy immediately, but I didn't a chance to watch it until last night.

The movie itself is lovely--not as good as some Ghibli films, but still cute and funny and odd in that uniquely Japanese way. However, I'm a bit disappointed with the way the English version was handled, for a couple of reasons.

First: contrary to what the dubbed dialogue, subtitles, and promotional copy tell you, the main characters of Pom Poko are NOT raccoons. Raccoons are native to North America and are not found in Japan, except possibly in zoos. The creatures called "raccoons" are actually tanuki, a kind of wild dog native to Japan. They do look a bit like raccoons, and are often misidentified as such in translated anime and manga. It always bugs me when that happens--it's like they don't trust an American audience to understand that different parts of the world have different animals than we do--but in Pom Poko it's especially unfortunate, because the movie revolves around the various myths and legends about the tanuki in Japanese culture. A bit of that mythology can be picked up in the film, such as the tanuki's ability to change form (a trait it shares with foxes, or kitsune) and its tendency to play pranks on humans. But there are other things that don't cross cultural lines so easily.

Which brings me to the potentially offensive content I mentioned up above. You see, in Japanese folklore, one of the things the tanuki is known for is its large testicles. No, really. And this fact plays a significant part in Pom Poko--in addition to general shape-shifting, the male tanukis can change the size and shape of their testicles to make boats, parachutes, et cetera. To a Japanese audience, this doesn't seem perverted or sexual at all; in this context, they're just another bodily appendage, like an arm or a leg. But to a Western audience...yikes. How do you deal with shape-shifting genitalia in any movie, let alone a cartoon? And a cartoon distributed by Disney, at that?

The English dub euphemistically refers to this body part as a "raccoon pouch," which I think is just going to confuse people. ("What the heck? I didn't know raccoons were marsupials. And don't only female marsupials have pouches, anyway? So why are only the males using it?") The subtitles for the Japanese language track, on the other hand, just come right out and say "testicles." Considering that Pom Poko, like Studio Ghibli's other releases, is presented as a family cartoon, I have a feeling that there will be a lot of angry parents writing letters to Disney when they accidentally switch the subtitles on. It's kind of a lose-lose situation: you either call their testicles something else and leave the audience bewildered, or call them what they are and have the audience say "OH MY GOD YOU'RE SELLING PORNOGRAPHIC CARTOONS HOW HORRIBLE!" The huge gap between Japanese and American culture means that this aspect of the film just doesn't work properly in the U.S.

Which brings me to my other main problem with the DVD. More than any other Studio Ghibli film, Pom Poko assumes that the audience is Japanese, and therefore will have an understanding of Japanese culture and history. Besides the tanuki mythology, the movie has references to famous samurai, Japanese geography, Shinto ritual, the history of Tokyo, popular Japanese children's songs, and a host of other things that I probably didn't pick up on, simply because I'm not from Japan. Many anime series are like that, but the English-language distributors are usually nice enough to include some sort of supplemental material, in order to help Western viewers make sense of the cultural references. However, the Pom Poko DVD has absolutely nothing of the sort. There's some trailers and storyboards, but that's it for special features. It would have been nice to see a featurette about tanuki folklore, or maybe a pop-up video track like ADV Films had for Excel Saga and Abenobashi. But, alas, we're left with nothing, and the audience is left scratching its collective head about half of what's happening on screen. Sorry, Disney, you guys dropped the ball on this one.

In conclusion: Pom Poko is good fun for an audience who is older and/or well-versed in Japanese culture...but don't show it to the kids unless you're prepared to answer a lot of awkward questions.

P.S. I also rented My Neighbors the Yamadas. It is absolutely wonderful, and perfectly fine for kids of all ages. That is all.



Blogger Dana said...

Sorry to be commenting two years after you posted this, but, Hi!

I was looking up info about Pom Poko online because we've got a Studio Ghibli collection, something like twelve movies on six DVDs in one case, and that was the first I'd even heard of the movie. I think it's a bit long, but really nifty.

I also let my three-year-old watch it, because I don't see what the big deal is. However, I've also somewhat retrained myself from the standard American culture's view on the subject. So it's a scrotum, big deal, you see those on male animals all the time.

The hilarious part is I said that was what it was from the first time I saw the movie, and my little girl's dad said, "No, that's not what it is, they said it was a stomach pouch!" Ha! I was right. :)

I got something out of it even without knowing all the cultural references. To me the story still comes through very well. As for the rest, oh well, that's what Google is for.

By the way, there are raccoons in Japan, and not just in the zoos. I found this out a couple of weeks ago when we were trying to figure out what the Pom Poko animals were. Apparently they were a pet fad in Japan for a while and a bunch of them have gone feral. The Japanese government is trying to find people to adopt them to get them out of the ecosystem. I never thought any government would encourage people to own raccoons, so I got a kick out of that. :)

10/25/2007 2:20 PM  
Blogger Donald said...

Sorry to comment years after the orignal posting, but I'm sure you like to hear other thoughts about things you would otherwise never get to talk about.

I have to admit that as a person who watches a lot of anime (subtitled) I've gotten pretty used to quickly picking up on the odd (well, odd to me) cultural references. I didn't find Pom Poko hard to watch or understand.

I agree with you that there is a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) references that would be lost on non-Japanese audiences. This is true of almost all works of art (it is doubtful that everyone in the audience when Shakespeare first wrote his play understood every line, and there are some parts that we in the modern era have no idea what he conclusively meant). It's doubtful that 5-year olds in Japan would recognize every reference.

I think that much of the story is so universal that the movie still works. Land development and deforestation are issues world wide, and even if kids can't pronounce those words, they understand enough of the basic story (that the Tanukis are trying to not lose their homes) that they can make some sense of the action. I watched the movie years ago, and it wasn't until I read the Wikipedia page on the movie did I realize that the animals weren't raccoons.

As for your specific comments about the how the animals use there testicles in the film, I agree that to American audiences, that is a bit risque. But as the other commenter said, they aren't doing anything sexual with them and its part of the legend of Tanukis.

I'm more concerned about the large amount of death of heroes in the movie. Granted, the story couldn't have a traditional happy ending, but watching the ship full of Tanukis going to their death or the final stand against the police, does seem to go against what is normally considered appropiate for children's entertainment. Since they feature similar subject matters (animals adapting to human development), it's interesteing to see how Pom Poko addresses the topic and how the American film, Over the Hedge addresses the issue.

11/14/2008 9:01 AM  
Blogger Bulg said...

It is nice to find a post about something I woulnd't normally get to talk about - Hi also!

Granted, the story couldn't have a traditional happy ending, but watching the ship full of Tanukis going to their death or the final stand against the police, does seem to go against what is normally considered appropiate for children's entertainment.

That bugs me about Disney. I am sure, growing up totally American, I wouldn't have been able to believe that a movie like that exists after all the Disney movies I'd seen. But I think now, I missed out! The little mermaid didn't get the prince, she died & turned into foam - the hunchback of notre dame dies too!

When I watch the Tanuki die fighting or sail away in mourning, I really care, and feel sad.. I wouldn't want my kids to miss out on something like that, because I think it will make them think harder and become better people.

12/12/2009 1:16 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home