After Toei Animation, both Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki joined A Production in 1971 where they were reunited with their former mentor Yasuo Ōtsuka, his having left Toei after completion in 1969 of The Wonderful World of Puss N’ Boots.
Takahata and Miyazaki initially worked on preparations for an anime adaptation of Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s character Pippi Longstocking, however the project was shelved following an unsuccessful attempt to secure rights to the material. The pair then shared directorial credits on the Lupin III television series, but their next feature film was Panda! Go, Panda! in late 1972, followed by its sequel Rainy-Day Circus in early 1973.
The production of the films coincided with the panda craze sweeping the nation following the arrival of two pandas - Ran Ran and Kan Kan - at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo from China in November 1972 to mark a period of good diplomatic relations between the two countries. Tragically, the zoo itself has a troubling history, having slaughtered almost all its animals during the Second World War. Many zoos, including those outside Japan, did this to prevent the escape of dangerous animals during bombing raids, however the motivations and methods of Ueno Zoo are particularly horrifying. (honestly, a distressing read!)
The panda craze in the 1970s, however, was not, according to Miyazaki, the motivating factor on his part, despite acknowledging it as an obvious benefit:
As for me, when I read the wording of the proposal that Isao Takahata-san had quickly written up, I felt my heart swell in anticipation - I could create a wonderful world. The excitement remained without dissipating; I had no compunction about exploiting the panda boom. - Hayao Miyazaki, ‘Panda In Progress’, Starting Point (1996), Studio Ghibli
Both films are just over half an hour long - they were released as opening shorts to the Godzilla movies produced by Toho Co - and, compared to the adult humour of Lupin III, specifically aimed at children. Mimiko is a cheerful little girl who finds a panda father and son in her house shortly after her grandmother leaves her home alone for the holidays.
She quickly asserts that they are a family with herself as mother, Papa as the daddy, and Panny as their son. In the first film its revealed that the pandas are escapees from a nearby zoo, while in the second they are joined by Tiny the tiger cub from a visiting circus.
Panda! Go, Panda! and its sequel are bright, unabashedly cheery films with a positive message of coexisting with and allowing animals their own freedoms. This is in stark contrast to the containment of animals in zoos and circuses. As Papa Panda says, a zoo is ‘a place where there are no nice bamboo groves’ (and boy does he love bamboo groves!).
Some of the gender roles in the film seem dated by today’s standards, particularly Mimiko’s insistence that the daddy goes to work while the mama cheerfully does household chores, and certainly, by the time the film was made, equality of the sexes had already been set out in the Japanese 1947 constitution, albeit with gradual impact. The notion of a ‘nuclear family’ is also evident and seems to be Mimiko’s goal from the start (although, interestingly, she declares that she is mama to Panny, while Papa Panda is her daddy, not her husband). At times the film is a bit too old-fashioned for my liking but the social norms shown are still commonplace today, even outside Japan.
That said, Mimiko herself is a positive force for her can-do attitude and resourcefulness. She takes charge of her little family and - when everyone else in her village is horrified at the sight of wild animals roaming free - she welcomes them with open arms and is brave - and veritably excited - in the face of danger (Burglars?! How exciting!) She does, however, have a tendency to show us her underwear rather frequently(!)
It’s such a sweet film though! From the chirpy opening song with its repetitive ’Panda, Papa Panda, Baby Panda’ lyrics, to the bright and colourful palette, cute animals and silly slapstick. Miyazaki’s influence as writer, layout and scene designer is instantly recognisable in the imaginative narrative. It’s a feel-good family film where nothing bad can really happen. Even when Panny is being chased by the entire school or Tiny and his mother are caught in a rising flood, you just know everything will be all right while Mimiko and Papa panda are around.
There are more hints at later Ghibli works to be found in these films. Papa panda is a clear fore-runner to Totoro from My Neighbour Totoro (1988); from his hugs and his bellows to his self-assured everything-will-be-okay attitude. Mimiko meanwhile is reminiscent of Mei from the same film (although her red ponytails are clearly inspired by Pippi Longstocking), and elements like the flooded town and train can be likened to those found in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008), while the washing line scenes are like a similar scene from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
Daily chores are always honest, wholesome activities in Studio Ghibli films. There are also references to other films: When Panny is investigating who has been eating his curry, using his towel and sleeping in his bed, you can’t help but acknowledge the nod to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, while their makeshift boat is reminiscent of Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), released two years before Rainy Day Circus. There are even cameos of Lupin and Jigen from the Lupin III TV series in the zoo crowd and, indeed, some of the background characters on the train at the beginning are similar to Lupin.
It’s an idealised world; a love letter to the untouched places and experiences of youth. The establishing shots are particularly good, showing unspoilt countryside, bamboo groves, and communal rice fields. Additionally, baby animals, train rides, circus acts, lollipops.. are all good childhood memories represented here in a place that has the potential to exist:
The landscape of the cherry tree-lined streets, the garden where cosmos flowers bloom, and the quiet suburb where cars rarely pass by are from the Kandagawa of my childhood, a town by the river that was later sung about as a polluted waterway. - Hayao Miyazaki, ‘Panda In Progress’, Starting Point (1996), Studio Ghibli
By June 1973, Miyazaki and Takahata had left _A Production_ for Zuiyo Eizo (later to become Nippon Animation) where they worked on television series including, Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), Conan, The Boy in Future (1978) and Ann of Green Gables (1979) among others. Many of their ideas from the Pippi Longstocking adaptation found their way into the Heidi series in particular.
Next up: Say hello to the grandson of gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin in Miyazaki’s directorial debut!