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,
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
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.