Panda Kopanda, 1972
After working as a key animator on Toei features such as Prince of the Sun (Taiyō no Ōji Horusu no Daibōken, 1968), Puss ’n Boots (Nagagutsu o Haita Neko, 1969) and Animal Treasure Island (Dōbutsu Takarajima, 1971), as well as directing select episodes for Lupin III at the beginning of the seventies, a then 30 year-old Hayao Miyazaki was given the opportunity to create something unique of his own. With panda fever having hit Japan hard, thanks to China opening up further relations, he touched upon the rather simple idea of bringing humans and animals together once more with a short feature aimed toward children, simply entitled Panda KoPanda [Panda, Baby Panda]. Miyazaki not only adapted his tale into a screenplay, but he also took on art and scenic design duties, providing key animation for several segments. Directing duties went to fellow collaborator Isao Takahata, who had worked with Miyazaki previously throughout the sixties with Toei Doga on various films and shows. They would later continue to work hand-in-hand, most famously for Studio Ghibli, which the pair had co-founded alongside producer Toshio Suzuki during the mid-eighties.
1972’s Panda KoPanda – re-titled in English as Panda, Go Panda! The Panda Family – tells of a young orphan girl named Mimiko, whose grandmother must leave her alone while she heads to Nagasaki to attend a service. When arriving home after school one evening, Mimiko happens upon quite the little mess, which eventually leads her to discover a baby panda named Pan-chan sitting on the porch. Taking the panda inside, she quickly makes friends with Pan-chan, but it’s not long before the father turns up. PaPanda, however, is quite laid back, expressing far more interest in the bamboo grove which shelters Mimiko’s home. Sure enough they get on good terms with one another, and Mimiko takes it upon herself to adopt Pan-chan as her own child, while looking upon PaPanda as being the father she never had. But with the local zoo trying to track down the pandas, the family bond is soon threatened.
Panda Kopanda – Amefuri Saakasu no Maki, or Rainy Day Circus, followed a year later and this time the rather understanding zoo has allowed PaPanda and his son to continue visiting Mimiko. One day, two strangers belonging to the circus enter Mimiko’s home in the search for a runaway baby tiger, but leave in haste when they sense the presence of something monstrous nearby. Of course it’s only PaPanda. Mimiko, excited by the prospects of meeting what she thought were burglars, soon notices some strange goings-on: somebody has been eating the curry she prepared for dinner, while also using Pan-chan’s personal items. Well, Pan-chan goes to his room rather upset, but he soon stumbles upon something in his bed. Indeed it’s a baby tiger and it’s not long before Mimiko affords it the name of Tora-chan. But she knows that Tora-chan must be returned home and after delivering him to his mother a huge flood breaks out, threatening the existence of all its furry inhabitants.
There’s certainly something charming in the wide-eyed innocence, or naivety if you will, in work of Miyazaki and Takahata here. Panda, Go Panda! readily enjoys the notion that all creatures should live in harmony, no matter their placement within the eco-system; it fantasises about the kind of things we used to as children, capturing youth in its purest form and presenting its ensuing events in a rather surreal fashion. The storytelling itself isn’t too wrapped up in handing out moral sentiment; its simplicity is gratifying and its curious ideals lend enough scope to see the animators envision some ripe situational comedy, set against the backdrop of a unelaborate landscape and the wonderfully sweet music of Masahiko Satou.
And it’s sure enough interesting from a historical viewpoint, which will no doubt go some way toward pleasing Ghibli purists. Clearly a couple of shorts very close to the heart of its creator, it no less proves its worth as a template for several Ghibli productions to come. Both Miyazaki and Takahata have since referenced and re-visited key scenes in their own feature-length productions; it’s certainly a joy to watch My Neighbour Totoro (directly inspired by Miyazaki’s first kids feature here), and being able to point out some of the in-jokes and visual cues. A delightful little production which tested the waters for far greater things to come.