When director Isao Takahata discovered a bamboo grove in his neighborhood had mysteriously transformed into a flat vacant lot, he wondered where the sparrows that once inhabited the area would go. The bamboo grove, which was hidden behind the home of a large land owner, was cut down as part of large-scale development. Takahata began to think about where animals and other life went when their habitats were destroyed due to construction of such things as golf courses and new towns. From these ponderings emerged Heisei Tanuki-Gassen Pon Poko, the story of some tanuki who band together to lash out against excessive development.
"The film is not so much fiction as a documentary of the destiny of the tanuki (racoon-like animals native to Asia) as seen through their own eyes," Takahata told The Yomiuri Shimbun.
The story is set in the Tama mountains in western Tokyo, an area that underwent large-scale development in the 1960s. In particular, land was cleared so that houses and apartments could be erected to alleviate housing shortages in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Many hills and mountains in the area were deforested and leveled, driving the animals out of the area.
In the film, the tanuki--who lived peacefully in the mountains until man brought his shovel to the area--realize that their life is being seriously threatened. So the animals join together to fight the land development. According to many Japanese legends, tanuki have the ability to transform into other objects. For example, in one famous story a tanuki changed into an iron tea kettle. Takahata's animated tanuki use special powers to transform into humans, ghosts and other objects.
Banding together and seeking help from other tribes of tanuki, the Tama tanuki live up to their traditionally mischievous reputation by changing their shape and trying to sabotage the construction effort. When this fails, they stage one last great illusion, hoping to alert the city folk to the natural wonders being bulldozed to make room for yet another Tokyo suburb, before it's too late...
Proof that Miyazaki ain't the only genius director working for Studio Ghibli, Pon Poko is an excellent family film of the same caliber as Tonari no Totoro. While Takahata is definitely a more cynical director than Miyazaki (even the darkest moments in Mononoke Hime are a far cry from the emotional intensity of Grave of the Fireflies), Pon Poko is still an uplifting and lighthearted comedy (most of the time) with an interesting mix of realism and mysticism. The tanuki have amazing powers of transformation and illusion, but as we see in the efforts of many of the tanuki, an illusion is only as powerful as the belief of its victims...they might be able to scare off a crew of workers, but there will always be more to replace them, and people who just won't believe can't be scared off. While there are some fairly heavy-handed moments in the handling of the film's message, I felt that the overall package was handled well. It drags here and there, but overall it keeps you enchanted with the entertaining characters and story. I'm not sure who did the music (pretty certain it wasn't Joe Hisaishi) but they did a good job. There are a few problems like the recycling of a couple tunes, but the rest of the music fits the scenes well and adds a good deal to movie. Like Totoro, Pon Poko doesn't talk down to anyone, and while it is primarily a lighthearted fantasy story, there are quite a few moments of rather painful realism (no ilusion is going to protect a tanuki from getting run over by a car) and Takahata is not the kind of director to pull his punches. One thing I found particularly interesting was the use of famous japanese legends throught the story--the tanuki scare people off by impersonating famous ghosts from ancient folklore.
While I loved this film a great deal, it still seemed to be missing a bit of the refinement of some of the other Ghibli works, hence the half-Rampage below the rest. While I doubt that North Americans will get as much out of this film as the Japanese fans did (you need a pretty good grounding in Japanese folklore to understand quite a bit of the oddities), it's rather difficult to not enjoy something as much fun as Pon Poko. An excellent choice for the whole family...provided you can get around the male tanuki finding new and inventive uses for their testicles. Highly recommended.
Currently only available fansubbed.