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A looks at the Hayao Miyazaki/Isao Takahata collaboration Panda! Go, Panda! By Andrew Osmond

















Exerpted from Animerica 9.5, see the issue for the full article.

In 1972, the Japanese Prime Minister visited Beijing. During the visit, the Chinese government presented him with a gift of two pandas, called Ran Ran and Kan Kan. The pandas were flown to Tokyo and exhibited at Ueno Zoo. The public reaction could only be called panda-monium (sorry!). Nine million people saw the pandas in their first year of residence, and the country was gripped by panda fever. (For more details, see the "Animal Friends" entry in Mark Schilling's Encyclopaedia of Pop Culture.)

When the Panda films were made, Miyazaki and Takahata were working at a new studio called A-Pro. The pair wanted to make a TV series based on the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren, but were refused. Panda was made with the team assembled to make the series. Indeed, the pigtailed Mimiko bears a suspicious resemblance to imageboard sketches of Pippi. (Like Mimiko, Lindgren's Pippi is self-reliant, with only a horse and monkey as family.)

The Japanese film titles were Panda Kopanda ("Panda, Pandacub," 1972) and Panda Kopanda: Amefuri Circus no Maki ("Panda, Pandacub: Rainy Day Circus," 1973). Both were theatrically released as part of the Toho Champion Festival children's programmes, which also included monster flicks such as Godzilla vs. Megalon. The Panda films were made by A-Pro and produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha.

One key animator who came to Miyazaki's attention on these films was 22 year-old Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo contributed to Future Boy Conan and designed Sherlock Hound's cast (see below) before becoming a leading Ghibli animator; he directed Whisper of the Heart in 1995. The Japanese voice-cast included Yasuo Yamada, the first and best Lupin in many TV and film adventures including Miyazaki's Castle of Cagliostro. Yamada voices a policeman in the first Panda film, a ringmaster's assistant in the second.

According to Miyazaki, "We talked about what we would do if we got to make a third or fourth episode, should we do this or that, but we only got to the second one (Rainy Day Circus). We couldn't make more than that, so when I made Totoro, well, it wasn't like I wanted to recreate Panda, but I wanted to make a movie (for children) properly."

The first thing to get straight about the Panda! Go, Panda! films is that they're very much for children. Not in the way that My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service are for children (although the Panda films have links to both) but rather in the way Sesame Street or the Teletubbies are for children. That said, they're good children's films and, like the best in the category, stand up over time. (Both films are nearly thirty years old, made in 1972 and 1973 respectively).

Their main interest for older viewers is that Panda! Go, Panda! represents an early team-up between future Ghibli founders Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke). Miyazaki wrote and Takahata directed the tales of perky little girl Mimiko, left alone by her grandma, who finds herself in an interspecies family consisting of huge papa Panda, ultracute baby Panda and–in the second film, Rainy Day Circus–an equally cute baby tiger. (Miyazaki also did design, layouts and key animation.) While not as inventive or crafted as the duo's later work, the Panda films are the source for much of what followed. Watching Panda beside Miyazaki's film Totoro, for example, it's easy to see how the later film built on the material, broadening its appeal to a f the films keeps the original song, presumably explaining why the video is called Panda! Go, Panda! (In fact, the Japanese singers are saying "Panda kopanda," meaning "Panda Pandacub"; this was also the Japanese title.) The original Japanese credits, available on DVD, feature cute illustrations of pandas riding bicycles, blowing bubbles and so forth. These look very like the closing titles/pictures from Totoro.

Visually, the films themselves take a simple approach. There's little of the realistic background detail associated with Miyazaki. Rather, the emphasis is on bright, flat colors and simple, appealing shapes. The look is reminiscent of a child's picture-book and works on that level. The character animation is generally adequate, but occasionally strained; Mimiko's skipping through the forest is especially awkward. Miyazaki himself said how, ŒI thought we had used many more cels than TV animation, but realised we were still stringent. Watching it now, I feel we should have moved it more, and it's a bit painful (to watch).' Despite this shortcoming, the films look good today.

The stories, matching the pictures, are simply told with many lists and repetitions, making them ideal for kids to rewatch on video. The second film even reworks the "who's sleeping in my bed?" routine from the Goldilocks fairy tale, with Mimiko and the pandas as the three bears. There's a fast turnover of things happening to keep youngsters' attention, even if it's just Mimiko making breakfast or putting her cub to bed. Of the two films, Rainy Day Circus has a more sustained story and action, and more gags. It's also closer to Miyazaki's adventure films, with a new environment–a flooded town which the characters treat as a playground–and a rousing finale on a circus train.

Storywise, the obvious similarities are with Totoro. Both deal with cuddly and loveable creatures befriending a little girl or girls (Mimiko in Panda, sisters Mei and Satsuki in Totoro). Papa Panda, with his huge round body and wide grin, is a close relative of "Big Totoro," while his cub recalls the timid mini-Totoros. Panda's heroine Mimiko is between Mei and Satsuki in age and personality. Like the Totoro girls, she accepts her odd friends without fear or question. There are more specific parallels. Mimiko writes to her grandma about her adventures, as Satsuki does to her mother; the cub follows Mimiko to school, as Mei does with Satsuki. The smaller characters regularly jump onto papa Panda's chest, as Mei and Satsuki do to go flying with Totoro.

There are links with other works. When the panda cub follows Mimiko to school, he impersonates a stuffed toy, as Kiki's cat Jiji does in Kiki's Delivery Service. Later i n Rainy Day Circus, the cub seems threatened by a huge tiger, which picks him up in its mouthŠand returns him to his mistress. The same thing happens with Jiji and a dog in the Kiki film. Mimiko herself is a self-reliant, confident girl, cheery and helpful, and a clear role-model for the child audience. Mimiko's most obvious relative is Heidi, the outgoing "girl of the Alps." The anime version of Johanna Spyri's classic was made for TV in 1974, with Takahata directing and Miyazaki doing layout and scene design. Like the first Panda film, Heidi shies from action, telling its story through the accumulation of everyday details. The same approach is used in Totoro.

In the end, the difference between Panda and a film like Totoro has less to do with story than presentation. Beyond the simplified, colourful look, the Panda films have bouncy, everpresent music–no trademark Miyazaki silences!–and a script that, understandably, tells more than shows. Also, the film is not really concerned with "human" interactions, so strong in films like Miyazaki's Totoro or the childhood scenes in Takahata's Only Yesterday. Mimiko is a fantasy girl whose "family" are other fantasy characters, living happily together in a picture-book world. While Miyazaki is called a fantasy director on the basis of later work, dealing with far-flung times and places, his achievement was to make these subsequent films more "real."

Panda! Go, Panda! is available from Pioneer on English-dubbed VHS video and bilingual DVD.