Panda! Go Panda!
Mimiko is an orphaned girl with a perpetual pantyshot, and as our story starts her grandmother must to go away to attend her grandfather’s memorial service. Why this is being held in Nagasaki, so far away from their home she has to go on a train and be away for several days (and more disturbingly, never returns) is not addressed. It’s not important. What is important is that this turn of events leaves Mimiko all alone in her house which just so happens to be in a bamboo grove. Not very responsible parenting on Granny’s part, but then Mimiko does more or less force her onto the train so she can’t really be blamed. Upon returning home, Mimiko finds that the bamboo is not how she left it(!), and notices what she thinks is a cute stuffed Panda, except… It’s not a stuffed Panda! It is a real, live, talking Panda none of which fazes Mimiko one bit. Soon enough Totor… er, the little Panda’s father shows up and, dismayed to find her alone (but more importantly pleased to find the bamboo) takes it upon himself to become her father as well. “It’s easy to become a father!” he proclaims, presumably from bitter experience. Not to be outdone, Mimiko then decides that she will be little Panda’s mother. And so the story of this odd family begins.
Being as it is a film written by Hayo Miyazaki and directed by Isao Takahata, the two big names behind Studio Ghibli and giants in the animation world, Panda! Go Panda! is invariably going to draw comparisons to the later My Neighbour Totoro. Both films involve children left alone who find comfort in fantastic creatures they find happen to reside near to their homes, and the Totoro / Panda physical similarities are obvious but they are quite different characters. Panda’s speaking role (surely one of the most hilarious accents ever in the English dub) brings him very much into Mimiko’s world, and in a more standard cartoon manner Mimiko is the only one who is nonplussed by the fact that two pandas (and later, a tiger with suspiciously Mickey Mouse looking ears) have decided to make their home in her house. While this does provide some laughs, the plotting is nothing anyone who has been watching cartoons since childhood hasn’t seen a hundred times before.
The Ghibli style is still very much in the development phase at this point, but even at this early stage we can see the beginnings of some staple Miyazaki themes; Mimiko is a capable, stong willed independent young girl (see just about every Miyazaki film, ever) and I was particularly tickled to see that there is even a scene in the second half which involves a train driving through a flooded landscape (though not quite in the same manner as Spirited Away) and it becomes obvious that some of Miyazaki’s ideas have been developed and re-worked over a very long time. Indeed, Panda can be seen very much as the genesis of Studio Ghibli as it marks the first time Miyazaki and Takahata worked together on an original project, after failing in their attempts to secure the rights to produce an animated version of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. One has to wonder, looking at the design of Mimiko, whether this was a not so subtle riposte on their part!
The two half hour films, Panda! Go Panda! and The Circus in the Rain have been joined together and play back to back. The first introduces the characters and sees Mimiko, Panda and Pan-chan (Panny in the dub and subs, however it is thankfully not dubtitled. Perhaps the change was in order not to confuse Koreans for whom Panchan means “side-dish”) adjusting to family life together with a loose plot about the Pandas having escaped from the zoo to tie this together. Really though the plot is superfluous to the simple, gentle fun which the film is all about. Circus in the Rain has a more solid narrative about a tiger cub who has escaped from the circus, and the ensuing flood which threatens the other circus animals left behind on a train. The scenes of Papa Panda underwater and of the pandas and Mimiko coming the the rescue on a floating bed are pure Ghibli, and will probably be the most interesting part of these films for older fans.
All in all Panda! Go Panda! is an enjoyable experience but is far more standard cartoon fare than much of Miyazaki and Takahata’s later work. This doesn’t stop it from being a treat for children (or anyone who wants to revisit their childhood) and an intriguing piece of history for Ghibli fans, but unless you fit into one of these groups it’s unlikely you’ll find much of interest here.
Panda! Go Panda! Is released from Manga Entertainment on the 6th of July with an RRP of £12.99