The Daily Stream: Pom Poko Will Teach You The Ancient Raccoon Dog Art Of Transformation

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Pom Poko"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: A tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) tribe wages war on human interlopers in Tokyo's suburbs in this Studio Ghibli animated film from the late Isao Takahata.

"Pom Poko" is as much a war movie — with casualties on both sides — as "War for the Planet of the Apes" is, except it passes the Six Laugh Test as a comedy and centers on shapeshifting raccoon dogs with occasional parachute scrotums. If that sounds like a recipe for something special, it is.

The thing I love about "Pom Poko," what keeps it tied with "Spirited Away" as my current favorite Ghibli film, is that it starts out like a quaint oral history, this kids' movie with gentle music, anthropomorphic animals, and droll narration. But then it transforms, much like the tanuki themselves, into a paranormal nature vs. man battle. Call it a folk horror comedy.

As the tanuki of Tama Hills learn to stop fighting among themselves and band together against a common enemy — suburbanites — they must relearn the lost skill of shapeshifting so they can employ scare tactics against the local humans. Construction on Tama New Town, Japan's largest housing development, is encroaching on their territory, so in an effort to drive people off, the tanuki set about forcing truckers off-road (yes, killing them) and spooking construction workers. One scene sees them scaring the wits out of a cop by assuming faceless forms on the road at night and in a koban (police box) and convenience store.

Come for the hamburgers; stay for the monster parade.

Why it's essential viewing

The full Ghibli library recently became available to rent on digital for the first time, so stateside viewers are living in a moment of unprecedented access to the studio's films. For anyone who prefers to travel light and not be wedded to physical media (as iffy as that can be), you now have the option of streaming the movies on HBO Max or renting them or buying them on platforms like iTunes. The only downside to renting versus buying is that you might only have the option for one language, English or Japanese.

I usually prefer to watch anime in Japanese with English subtitles, but "Pom Poko" is the rare movie where I don't actually mind the English version. Maurice LaMarche, voice of the Brain in "Pinky and the Brain," plays the narrator. His fellow "Animaniacs" alum Tress MacNeille, also the voice of Seymour Skinner's mom Agnes on "The Simpsons," gives life to Oruko, the bipedal raccoon dog baba (old maid). Her spirited protest song ("Red will lose tomorrow, and blue will lose today," and that applies to America, too) helps break up the tanuki civil war before she trains them in shapeshifting.

Just imagine those two voices, the Brain and Agnes Skinner, as talking raccoon dogs on a mission to frighten humans. Now, throw in other recognizable voices like Oscar winner J. K. Simmons ("Whiplash," J. Jonah Jameson in the "Spider-Man" movies) and Clancy Brown ("The Shawshank Redemption," "Carnivále," Lex Luthor in the DC Animated Universe), and you'll have some idea of the wonderful tone of "Pom Poko." It and Takahata's work in general might get overshadowed sometimes by that of his Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, but everything about this movie is a delight. If you haven't seen "Pom Poko," you're missing out.

Operation Specter (Yokai 101)

One of the most fascinating scenes in "Pom Poko" sees the tanuki trying to scare a whole town by staging a "monster parade" in the tradition of the Hyakki Yagyō ("Night Parade of 100 Demons"). For a few glorious minutes, the movie turns into the Japanese equivalent of that "Ghostbusters" scene where all the ghosts escape containment and fly free in Manhattan. The tanuki call their spook-tacular parade "Operation Specter," and it offers a great crash course in yokai, all the goblins and ghosts and other supernatural entities of Japanese folklore.

Under "perfect transforming weather," the tanuki shapeshift into a dragon, a giant toad, various skeletons, ghostly Oiwa or yurei/onryō shadows, foxes on their hind legs, a chōchin-obake (or "paper lantern ghost"), the one-eyed, one-legged umbrella monster karakasa, a fire-breathing tiger, some colorful oni (demons or ogres), miniature Awa Odori dancers (courtesy of the tanuki grand masters from Shikoku), Raijin and Fujin (the thunder and wind gods, one of them a "Mortal Kombat" character), rolling Daruma dolls and jumping tengu demons, a kneeling Fukusuke and beckoning maneki-neko cat (both good luck for money), a cyclops and creatures doing the akanbe eyelid-and-tongue gesture, the stretchy rokurokubi, the gold-throwing shichifukujin (Seven Lucky Gods), and a spectral tsunami wave.

Blink and you'll miss her, but the witch girl from "Kiki's Delivery Service" even flies by on a broomstick in her signature red bow. While all this pandemonium is going on, two middle-aged guys sit at a street-festival drinking stall, talking about how the boogeyman seems so real when you're young but now it's just stupid to think ghosts really exist. "It must be your brain plays tricks on you when you're young," one of them says, ignorant of the teeming spirit world behind them.

Save the tanuki

I lived for years in Tama, where "Pom Poko" is set, and I used to go jogging at night along the Tama River, where I'd occasionally have real-life tanuki cross my path. They would disappear into the grass, and I never saw one shapeshift, but "Pom Poko" establishes that they can blend in with human society. So, who knows, maybe the next power-walker or pedestrian you pass will be a tanuki in disguise...

The title "Pom Poko" is an onomatopoeia of the sound of tanuki drumming their bellies. The movie's full Japanese title is Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko. Heisei refers to the era that ended in April 2019 with Emperor Akihito's historic abdication of the throne, while gassen is usually translated as "war" in this context.

As I was rewatching "Pom Poko" over the weekend, I took a bathroom break about halfway through it, and happened to check the news before I restarted the movie. New York had just declared an emergency state over a new polio outbreak, and thoughts of this — on top of monkeypox and all the different coronavirus variants of the 2020s — made for a sadly appropriate juxtaposition with "Pom Poko" and its environmental themes (which get even hungrier for human blood in "Princess Mononoke").

In "Pom Poko," we see nature, personified (or animal-ified) by raccoon dogs, pulling out all the stops in its attempt to fight back against humans. The tanuki are quick to celebrate their victories, and some of them bear an undying hatred for humankind. But the older, wiser ones feel sorrow over the loss of human life. "We wish that we could save our forest without harming any humans," one says.

Would that it were possible for us to live in harmony with the tanuki.