"Pom Poko" tells the tale of a group of mystical "tanukis" who represent Japanese tradition.

fans rejoice

Disney releases little-known
works by the prominent
director on DVD

Hayao Miyazaki might be the most prominent name attached to Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, but he's not the only talented director there.

Isao Takahata has been renowned in American fandom circles for his work on the animated tearjerker "Grave of the Fireflies," about two children struggling to survive in World War II-era Japan. But other than that and the pre-Ghibli "Panda! Go Panda!" none of his works saw formal release in America until Tuesday, when Disney released "My Neighbors the Yamadas" and "Pom Poko" straight to DVD.

"Yamadas" is a rather unusual release, unlike any other Ghibli movie seen in America to date. Where most of the studio's films involve lushly drawn landscapes and characters, "Yamadas" features simply painted sketches that echo a child's doodles.

There's also no sweeping epic tale in "Yamadas"; calling it a series of comedy sketches about family life grounded in reality with a few ventures into fantasy would be more fitting. Takashi is the typical Japanese salaryman, while Matsuko is his (sometimes lazy) wife with whom he has squabbles every now and then. They live together with Grandma Shige and their two children -- Noboru, a boy who can't believe how incredibly lame his parents are, and Nonoko, a 4-year-old girl with a rather loud voice.

The appeal of this film lies in how audiences can see their lives reflected in the Yamadas. Who hasn't tried to block someone numerous times from changing the station with a remote, for instance, or called his wife at home looking for a misplaced document when the document is actually safe at work somewhere?

The trials of the Yamadas reflect real life.

For THOSE people who prefer more traditional Ghibli fare, "Pom Poko" might be more their style. This is the tale of a group of "tanukis" struggling against the encroachment of human development on their beloved forest. (It should be noted that Disney's translation refers to these creatures as "raccoons"; while tanukis and raccoons look similar, there are differences between the two in Japanese folklore.)

While the tanukis start out looking like realistic animals, they quickly become more cartoonish animals who walk on two legs and wear clothes. Being the mystical creatures they are, they also have the ability to shape-shift at will, albeit after a few lessons from elders. They use this ability to confront the humans head-on -- one group, led by Shokichi, advocates a more passive approach, while Gonta and his group are willing to take more drastic measures.

What follows is a tale that is steeped in Japanese culture, as the tanukis, representing Japanese tradition with their chants, attire and conjuring of spirits, try to stop the progress of humans determined to build New Tama Town regardless of what stands in the way. Make no mistake about it: While the tanukis might look cute and cuddly, there are some scenes that could spook children, so parental discretion is advised.

Disney has largely done a good job with localizing the films, but there are a few flaws worth noting. Neither DVD offers subtitles for some of the songs with vocal tracks, a feature that has become common with most other anime releases. When songs are converted from Japanese to English-language singers, the rhythm feels slightly off; the chants in "Pom Poko" particularly suffer from this. In addition, the lyrics to one song in "Pom Poko" that refer to a certain portion of the tanuki's anatomy are changed completely in the English dub, presumably to appease more conservative sensibilities.

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