Studio Ghibli is a film studio known for beloved gorgeous animated stories with striking character design, breathtakingly fully realised worlds and awe-inspiring soundtracks. We’ve all watched Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service growing up.
And, while they’re all special in their own way, there’s one film we don’t talk about enough. One that I only just watched over the weekend but will stay with me forever. Featuring an image that I can’t get out of my head. Ever. One that confronts your very perception of reality and your understanding of the limits of the human mind and body.
We need to talk about Pom Poko, Studio Ghibli’s horniest animated film, and its magical raccoon testicles.
What is Pom Poko?
Directed by the late Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale Of Princess Kaguya) instead of Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaä: Of The Wind, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), Pom Poko is a whimsical tale about the importance of collective action during a crisis. Pretty topical rn as we all collectively stay at home to minimise the spread of Covid-19.
It follows a clan of tanuki (magical raccoon creatures in Japanese folklore and irl native creatures to Japan) as they try to defend their forest home from humans and their plan to deforest the area and convert it into a new city complex.
What begins as a series of trickery through the tanukis’ ability to shapeshift into humans, household items and yokai (supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore), evolves into a story about the multifaceted reactions to a crisis.
They terrorise the workers involved, taking over a town and its residents by transforming into a community of terrifying human beings without a face, creepy little twins and a literal giant skeleton. Visually, it’s breathtaking and striking with all its incredible details and varied images, but it is also, uh… pretty fucked up.
Anyway, some try to push the humans out using forceful violent protests, others accept their urbanism of their surroundings and assimilate into human life as a human office worker. All in all, as a Ghibli film, it surprisingly ends up fronting you with its politics and critique on human capitalism and urban expansion.
But, how exactly do these funky little guys transform and perform their cheeky magical trickery? Well, it’s all stored in their balls.
The secret to shapeshifting is found in tanuki testicles
I’m not joking.
This film starts with a long shot of two tanuki clans in an open battlefield at a vast luscious green hill with a background fit for a Ghibli film. They begin marching down their respective hills, gradually accelerating and summoning armour and swords before crashing into each other in an epic medieval Shogun-inspired battle.
And, throughout it and the rest of the film, you see them. The source of their power. Their chunky chonks. Their family jewels. Their giant tanuki nuts.
Pom Poko is 1 hour and 59 mins long. And, in each of those seconds, those frames, those detailed gorgeous backgrounds are pairs of hanging ball boys swinging in and out of frame. At one point, one tanuki elder *seemingly* asks the others to hold onto his nuts, as they stretch them out like pizza dough and it transforms into a trampoline and then a carpet. In another scene, groups of them are gliding to safety after a hefty operation with “homemade” hang gliders.
In the film’s closing battle where the disgruntled faction of tanuki clash with human riot squads, they’re seen bashing their raccoon supersized meat balloons against riot shields. As in, they literally whack people in the face with their balls.
That scene from Pom Poko where the tanuki attack the riot police with their testicles pic.twitter.com/rJ4okakIdq— Drew (@nolifeneet) February 15, 2020
Now, as a person who has testicles, I can safely say: mine don’t do that.
Why is this the way it is
Shockingly, it’s actually the tanukis’ scrotums that are supersized, not the actual testicles. The more you know, huh?
According to Japanese writer Shigeo Okuwa in his book, Hagane no Chishiki (Knowledge About Steel), as cited by The Japan Times, the “super-size scrotum story” traces back to the way metal workers would make gold leaves. Historically, “these craftsmen would wrap gold in a tanuki skin before carefully hammering the gold into thin sheets.”
It was believed that because gold is so malleable and tanuki skin is so resilient that even a small piece of gold could be stretched to the size of eight tatami mats using this method. And because the Japanese word for a “small ball of gold” (kin no tama) sounds like the slang term for testicles (kintama), people began associating the two together, thereby giving birth to the mystery of the great tanuki pairs.
Side note: It’s also commonly believed that tanuki need to put a leaf on their heads whenever they transform. It’s why items and pieces of furniture given to you by actual tanuki and capitalist dog Tom Nook in Animal Crossing look like a leaf until you place it somewhere.
What can we learn from Pom Poko’s magical shapeshifting tanuki testicales?
So, at the end of the day, shapeshifting testicles aside, there’s a lot we can take away from Pom Poko. It’s a film about collective action and, without giving it away, next to Takahata’s other film Grave of the Fireflies, it’s the studio’s most political yet.
Sure, it first debuted before we were all born in 1994, but its story about a community struggling with a conflict and its individual members’ responses to it is powerfully poignant during an era of mass capitalism and our unparalleled collective need to practice social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Magical balls or not, I encourage us all to revisit it and remember that, beneath all of the whimsical and eastern-inspired Alice in Wonderland imagery and symbolism in Spirited Away, the iconic cat-bus in My Neighbour Totoro and cute little dust soot sprites at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan, lays a vault. A dungeon of untapped potential. A shrine dedicated to Pom Poko, its magical folklore world of perverse comical balls and Studio Ghibli’s alleged horny on main history.