In my estimation, Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest films ever made. It’s an almost perfect fantasy film, where the overlap of the fantastic elements (big old fuzzy Totoro) intersect seamlessly with the natural life of the characters. The existence of the Totoro doesn’t shift the real life around him, he’s completely integrated into it. At any point, the protagonists of that film could ignore Totoro and continue with their lives. They just would have been colder, smaller lives.
Panda! Go Panda!, produced in 1972 with a sequel Rainy Day Circus in 1973, is basically a dry run for My Neighbor Totoro. Though directed by Isao Takahata, the script and storyboards were created by Hayao Miyazaki. He also was a key animator on the films.
Panda Go Panda! is an extremely straight-forward story: young girl Mimi is left on her own for the first time. She lives with her grandmother, who has to go out of town. She’s worried about how Mimi will get on. Mimi herself has no doubts. She’s the living embodiment of “genki” – Energetic, high spirited. She tells neighborhood cop she hopes there’s a burglar while she’s on her own, since she’s never seen one before. Instead of burglars she finds a pair of pandas, papa and son. The son looks like a stuffed animal, while Papa is a formidable figure, and is very impressed by Mimi’s bamboo grove.
Mimi doesn’t have parents, so she adopts the papa panda as her own father. And she understands what dads are supposed to do. They wear a hat, they smoke a pipe, they go to work. Papa Panda has no problem with the first two but is deeply disturbed by the notion of having to go to work. He then reasons that maybe he could have a day off. Every day off, that suits him.
Panda! Go Panda! is not a high concept story. It doesn’t actually do much but be adorable. There’s a minor conflict when the local zookeeper arrives looking for his missing pandas. There’s a crisis, involving Mimi and the baby panda caught on a river, approaching a dam. But that’s relatively easily averted. Cuteness, coziness, adorability is the point. Panda! Go Panda! is the anime equivalent of a mid-summer swim. You cool off, you feel great. It doesn’t change your life, but at the time nothing feels better.
Panda! Go Panda! was 33 minutes long, and at the time was as an opener for a triple-bill. In one of the supplied extras, director Isao Takahata says he was excited that the children who watched this admittedly slow, leisurely paced film paid attention to the whole thing. The action films that it opened for only got their attention during the violent scenes.
It was successful enough to lead to a second short film, which takes the tone of calm acceptance of ludicrous events even further than the first. Rainy Day Circus starts with events similar to the first film: a creature is missing from a venue (this time a circus, not a zoo) and people look for it. The animal is a baby tiger, and it has of course stumbled upon Mimi’s house
Mimi takes it in, and eventually leads it back to its mother. It’s a tense sequence, where the deadly tiger regains its kin. But Mimi is her usual unconcerned self and makes the tiger mom feel at ease with her long-lost baby. The second half of Rainy Day Circus is the most visually interesting and creative of the films. There’s a storm that ends up flooding out the entire town, so Mimi and her pandas have to move to the roof. Their stomping grounds become a place to sail. It’s an almost surreal shift in the narrative that changes the literal landscape of the story, and creates a sense of visually interesting variety rare in stories aimed at kids.
But it’s also the sort of thing that only an adult, forced to watch this kid’s show, would notice. And clever, fun, and beautiful as Panda! Go Panda! is, it’s definitely a kid’s show. The conflicts are minor and resolved through ridiculous (but fun) means. While directed by Takahata, the stories for both films were created by Hayao Miyazaki and they share his concerns. All of the conflicts between various people and species are resolved with good natured interaction. The tensest moment in the two films is when the tiger gets out of her cage, but Mimi resolves that with just her good nature. It’s a constant theme in Miyazaki’s films that communication, and commitment to non-violence is a key to resolving conflict. It wouldn’t get me to hang out in a tiger’s cage, but it makes for some cute moments in a kid’s film.
And that’s what these Panda short films are about: cute moments. The sweet silliness of youth. Papa Panda has immense strength and could be terrifying, but he’s too lazy and sweetly natured for that. He just wants to enjoy himself, and lets other enjoy themselves, too. And that’s the entire point of these little films that launched two of the most important careers in the late 20th century of Japanese filmmaking.
I imagine Panda! Go Panda! would be a hit with kids (though suffering through some of the garbage my nieces and nephews actually like, I don’t know.) As a critical observer, I admire the amount of unnecessary craft and attention to detail there is in these films. The Blu-ray presentation is amazingly clear and detail for old animated films. They have more interest and cleverness than their audience requires. The stories are simple but fun, and the direction is sophisticated beyond what it needs to be. This is top quality children’s entertainment.
Panda! Go Panda! has been released on Blu-ray and DVD by GKIDS. Extras include “From Mimi to Heidi, From Papanda to Totoro” (40 min), an interview with Isao Takahata about the development of the film; “Panda! Go Panda! Exhibit – The Impact of Hayao Miyazaki’s Image Boards (14 min), a featurette about an anniversary screening of the film and a Ghibli Museum display of Miyazaki’s storyboards; “Conversation with Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki in 1994” (22 min) where the filmmakers discuss their work; and trailers.