Unlike his partner Hayao Miyazaki, who almost completely turned to feature film direction once he started his career, Isao Takahata directed television predominantly for more than a decade following his first feature, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. It would be 1981 before he’d direct another feature. That doesn’t help someone like yours truly who’s trying to do a career retrospective. Luckily for me, and for lovers of adorable things everywhere, he did direct two theatrically-released short films in 1972 and 1973 that are often shown together as a single film. Here in the English-speaking world, it has the wonderfully cheery title Panda! Go, Panda!
The title in Japanese is Panda Kopanda which actually means “Panda, Baby Panda,” which is much more apt than a ra-ra sis-boom-bah chant that it became. After directing a few episodes of anime television, and co-directing the majority of the first season of Lupin the Third with Miyazaki, Takahata and Miyazaki teamed up again for a short film that would capitalize on the panda craze in Japan in 1972. It began when the government announced the loan of a pair of giant pandas from China to the Ueno Zoo as part of “panda diplomacy.” Yes, that’s really a thing. Miyazaki wrote the script, did the layout, and was the scenic designer on Panda Kopanda while Takahata took directing duties. The 33-minute short would lay the groundwork for later Studio Ghibli projects.
The short features a little red-headed girl in pigtails named Mimiko who lives with her grandmother in a quaint little only-could-exist-in-anime village. When her grandma has to go into the city for a funeral (morbid), Mimiko is on her own. After making some stops for supplies, Mimiko comes home to her house in a bamboo grove and finds a little baby panda (which she calls Panny) sleeping on the back porch. Panny and Mimiko become friends but soon Panny’s father, a giant talking panda named PapaPanda, arrives as well. He offers to be Mimiko’s father as well when it’s revealed the little girl doesn’t have any parents of her own. Everything seems okay and Mimiko writes the first of many letters to her granny about the happening.
Naturally, things aren’t as easy as they ought to be and the zookeepers are out looking for PapaPanda and Panny, and seem really worried because evidently PapaPanda does this all the time. Mimiko brings Panny to school with her and pretends he’s just a lifelike stuffed animal, but he eventually gets into the cafeteria’s curry and people start chasing him. He gets away, though, because no danger in this short is actually dangerous. We later learn that Panny has super strength when they’re approached by bullies. The short ends with PapaPanda and Mimiko having to search high and low for Panny. But, whew, he’s okay.
This is an enormous departure from Prince of the Sun. Obviously, this was meant to just be a cute children’s cartoon with talking animals in it, but the previous film had talking animals in it, too. It sort of proves how versatile a filmmaker Takahata is. There are obvious visual similarities in style, but that’s really it. He and Miyazaki were able to completely shift gears and change audiences on a dime, and do so effectively. Remember, they’d just come off the action-oriented, very grown-up Lupin the Third and are somehow able to make talking pandas and a little pig-tailed girl with the same quality. Impressive is the word that comes to mind.
Panda Kopanda proved to be incredibly popular and two years later, Takahata and Miyazaki teamed up again for a sequel short, Panda Kopanda and the Rainy-Day Circus. A circus comes to town and a baby tiger gets loose and ends up at Mimiko’s house (her grandma’s gone again) so she and the pandas have to try to find the tiger cub’s mother, but the circus owners want the pandas for their show. So, naturally you see the trouble. Also, it rains a whole lot and eventually PapaPanda has to use his own incredible strength to free the circus animals from their train cars before they drown from the flooding. Adorable family fare.
You can watch the two Panda Kopanda films in a little over an hour and they work very well for what they are. You can, however, see the influence this work would have on both Takahata and Miyazaki. They’d go on, right after this, to direct and key animate, respectively, all 52 episodes of the series Heidi: A Girl of the Alps which is very much in the same tone. Miyazaki would also reuse some of his character designs of PapaPanda for My Neighbor Totoro and of Mimiko for the abandoned film of Pippi Longstocking. Even if it is a light, frothy kids adventure, it definitely led to greater things.
Next week, I’ll talk about Isao Takahata’s second feature film, which he directed in 1981. Keeping with the theme of a little girl protagonist, it would be another big step for the director on his way to Studio Ghibli formation a couple of years later. Chie the Brat is next time, but in the meanwhile, let me know your thoughts about Panda! Go, Panda! in the comments below!
Images: Toho Studios
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him in Twitter!