Welcome to the second volume of Scouse Ghibli; a critical analysis and exploration into the many varied works of the critically acclaimed Japanese anime movie company, Studio Ghibli. This month looks at the second of three films that were created by the company’s founders prior to it’s establishment in 1985; Panda! Go, Panda! Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Isao Takahata after leaving Toei Animation where they previously worked on The Little Norse Prince together, the project was originally envisioned as an animated series based on the Pippy Longstocking novels. After being rejected the rights to do so by the author of the series, Astrid Lindgren, many of the ideas were reworked into the short movie that became Panda! Go, Panda! It also marked the first time that future Ghibli employee Yoshifumi Kondo would work with both Miyazaki and Takahata on a feature film, who would then later on play a pivotal animating role in some of Ghibli’s most critically acclaimed works.
Though this film didn’t have anywhere near as much of a silent influence as The Little Norse Prince did on anime films in general, it did go on to influence certain design elements and plot threads in later Studio Ghibli films, such as Ponyo, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbour Totoro, which many see this film as being a precursor to.
The story of the film follows a young girl called Mimiko, who is portrayed largely as being unusually independent for a girl of her age, and appearing unfazed by many things that would be of considerable concern to most other people. One day, her grandmother heads off to Nagasaki, and Mimiko is left on her own to look after the house. When she makes it back home, she discovers two anthropomorphic pandas have stumbled upon the house and have eaten large quantities of the bamboo that grows around the area. She immediately befriends the two pandas, and invites them to live with her as adopted family members, with the big panda, who she names PapaPanda, deemed the father of the family, and the infant panda, named Panny, as the son. The rest of the film follows the exploits of the three characters and various different predicaments they find themselves in, and how they all pull together as a family to come through to the other side of each one. The film is split into two parts; the first part being about how the pandas settle into life with Mimiko taking care of them, and the second part following their attempts to help a local circus, which has fallen on bad times since coming into town.
Going into this film, I expected a quirky experience with both a strong and heart-warming family feel to it with a fair amount of more mature undertones making it enjoyable for both kids and adults, which can be associated with many of either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata’s works. Unfortunately, this film only provided one of those elements in great abundance, and as a result, the overall experience suffered in my opinion. The first thing I noticed about it was unlike the majority of Ghibli or pre-Ghibli films, the animation, as well as the film’s overall scenery and style, were particularly basic, and much less stylised as the likes of The Little Norse Prince or even Only Yesterday, which had a lot of bland backdrops attached to it. It is interesting, however, to notice some of the Easter eggs this film has, such as Mimiko’s hairstyle being replicated to that of Pippy Longstocking, or the pandas having expressions very similar to both the Totoro and the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro. Also, when the mother tiger in the circus has a shadow cast over it before it comes out of it’s pen to find it’s cub, it looks quite scary as it glares at the circus tamer, and it was just about the one standout element I found interesting about the film’s animation.
The story unfortunately doesn’t fair any better. In my opinion, it’s the kind of narrative that kids may enjoy, because they’d have a much better time deriving pleasure from the intended humour of each situation that the characters find themselves in. But as an adult, I simply found myself asking too many questions about why it was necessary for the characters to act the way they act in some particularly grave situations, such as when the two circus tamers break into Mimiko’s house, and her and the pandas rejoice at the prospect of experiencing their first burglary.
Overall, I found there being very little to enjoy about this film in stark contrast to many of Ghibli’s later works. The story and the behaviour of characters are questionable at the best of times, and the animation did very little in terms of either breaking new ground or standing out from many of the countless anime films that had either been or would later be. The works of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata would show drastic improvement, but I found myself feeling much less impressed with Panda! GO, panda. It’s not the worst film to be associated with Studio Ghibli, but it’s certainly not one of the best either.