With the English language release of Ponyo imminent, and his recent promotional and speaking visit to the US causing a stir, there’s no denying that there’s a buzz around Hayao Miyazaki at the moment. And it’s a buzz that’s not just getting the attention of anime fans, but also grabbing the interest of the wider mainstream media and audiences – something that is, arguably, long overdue. As such it’s either luck or great timing that Manga Entertainment have just released Panda! Go Panda! on DVD here in the UK, and while it’s been out in the US for several years, this was the first time I’d had a chance to sit down and watch this early chapter in Miyazaki-san’s career.
Made in 1972, to cash in on Japanese ‘Panda madness’ spawned by the arrival of some of the cuddly beasts from China for a breeding program, Panda! Go Panda! was actually directed by Ghibli co-founder and genius in his own right Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday, Grave of the Fireflies). Miyazaki wasn’t slacking on the project though; he wrote the script, designed the characters, drew the storyboards as well as doing some keyframe animation on the film. Script wise there’s nothing too exciting here; it’s a simple kids story about young girl Mimiko, who is living alone while her grandma is away, and lets two panda’s move into the house with her. Unsurprisingly, hilarity and chaos ensues. Like I said, nothing groundbreaking, but it was popular enough with the Japanese public – as pandas still were, presumably – to warrant a sequel a few months later. Both are on this disk, with a combined running time of about 75 minutes.
So the story might not be some of Miyazaki’s finest work, but the character designs – while also not his best – are undeniably his. Any fan catching just a glimpse of the two pandas will instantly see how they were a blueprint for the Totoros, and similarly Mimiko herself seems to be a precursor to the redheaded Mei of the same film. She also bears some similarities to Pippi Longstocking – a character that Miyazaki is reportedly a fan of, and who had unsucessfully tried to get the rights for just prior to making Panda! Go Panda!. But it is the similarities with Totoro that shine through – to see the Pandas smile, and to see Mimiko jump up and hug Poppa Panda will make Totoro fans grin with joy, and for them is probably reason enough to pick up the film. The quality of the animation throughout is pretty good, and although it lacks the sophistication of later Miyazaki and Takahata works like Future Boy Conan it’s still arguably better than a lot of the mass produced anime of that period. Plus it’s worth remembering what this is – not some undiscovered Ghibli classic, but an apparently hastily thrown together, opportunistic anime special meant to cash in on a passing fad. As such, the fact that it’s still as charming as it is to watch is yet more testament to the duo’s unique and lasting talents.
Manga Entertainment have put together a nice product with this disk – the packaging is bold and bright, with the reverse of the cover made up of a huge image of a grinning Poppa Panda, just in case you still hadn’t noticed the similarity with Totoro’s smile. Plus there’s a warning that it ‘contains one scene of smoking’, just in case you had forgotten this was a Miyazaki film. As for the contents themselves – well, the quality of the transfer is great, remarkable even for a film of it’s age. There’s both English and Japanese audio tracks, with the dub being of surprisingly good quality – even if Poppa Panda sounds strangely like Rainier Wolfcastle at times. The extras section is a little disappointing – the main thing of interest being the original Japanese title sequence, that apart from the text isn’t that different from the English version, to be honest. Apart from that there’s just a couple of those slighty pointless text only biographies – but really, expecting anything else for a for this old and obscure is perhaps a little unrealistic. Somehow I don’t think making interesting DVD extras was really top of Miyazaki and Takahata’s priorities back in 1972 as they struggled to get their early careers off the ground.
So should you pick this disk up? If you’re a hardcore Ghibli fanatic like myself, keen to see what these two geniuses where doing before they were famous then yes: Panda! Go Panda! is an unmissable purchase, especially as it can be picked up fairly cheaply. Similarly, if you’ve got young children that enjoy the likes of Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, this offers you another – perhaps slightly less challenging – option for keeping them entertained. Just be warned that if they do take a liking to it, and insist on watching it over and over again, the theme tune (see below) may well drive you insane.