Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki... one would be hard pressed to find a more influential pair on the Anime genre. While Miyazaki needs no introduction, having an Oscar to his name from movies like Spirited Away (2001), Takahata has been making waves in the industry for decades as well, creating phenomenal films like the Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Hearing that the two had joined forces, Takahata as director and Miyazaki as writer, on this early 1970's film gave me high hopes, especially being such a fan of another early Miyazaki film: Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Those hopes were quickly dashed by the movie, though. Everyone has to start somewhere, and this movie is the most forgettable and disposable of their respective filmographies, which to be fair can be partially attributed to the background behind its creation.
For the story, the movie drops the viewer right into the narrative as a young girl named Mimiko is escorting her grandmother to the train station. Granny is on her way to her husband's memorial service, while Mimiko must stay behind, alone, to attend school. It's a rather sad circumstance, but the movie wisely doesn't dwell on this detail. It instead rushes full steam ahead into Mimiko proving her independence in a small town where everyone knows her, from the grocer to the local police. The movie establishes that Mimiko has no direct parents, laying a quick foundation for what's to occur next.
As the young girl returns home, she finds a baby panda, who initially tries to hide from her out of fear. With the level of development one might expect from a TV cartoon, Mimiko announces she is sure they will be friends and a quick nod later the two are suddenly inseparable. However, the baby panda, named Pan (or Panny in the dub), is not alone and soon the bear's dad enters the home looking for his son. Papa Panda is fully fluent in Japanese, as is his son it's discovered, and is relatively polite as he praises the local bamboo grove. The story takes a slightly odd turn, though, when the father panda learns Mimiko has no parents. This prompts an outburst where he offers to adopt the girl as his own daughter. What follows is an awkward combination of them blushing as they ask for hugs, adding a layer of creep for adult viewers, and Mimiko later adopting Pan as her son. The trio then attempt to live a suburban lifestyle per Mimiko's instructions, while the little girl also lives out playing housewife as she juggles school work. The movie then throws in Pan following Mimiko to school, as high jinks ensue, and Mimiko and Papa Panda later trying to find their son who is lost, all the while it has been discovered that the pandas escaped from a local zoo that wants them back.
The movie is a brisk 35 minutes long, making it only about 10 minutes longer than your normal serialized cartoon episode. This is attributed to the film's origin as part of the Toho Champion Festival, which were billed as almost all day events to keep kids entertained at a fairly low price point. In execution, this meant bundling several films together as part of one package. Some times this meant one full length film alongside many shorter ones, sometimes created directly from TV episodes in fact as was the case with stuff like Lupin the 3rd: The Venice Super Express (1978), or two full length films alongside one shorter entry. In the case of Panda! Go Panda, the 35 minute movie got sandwiched with a re-release of Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Daigoro vs. Goliath (1972).
A major consequence to the running time is that the movie feels light on development. Given the runtime, this movie would have benefited much more had it focused on just the baby or the father and their relationship with Mimiko, rather than trying to juggle both within the 35 minutes it had. As is, it really needed a deeper relationship between Mimiko and Pan rather than the rushed one we got. The same also applies to the relationship between Papa Panda and the girl as well, which for adult viewers will border on creepy for the first 10 minutes. While I feel like I'm exaggerating, I must confess that my girlfriend, who enjoys Miyazaki's films, tried to watch the movie as well and abandoned it during this sequence. As a humoristic note, I got an unintentional laugh when the young girl wrote her grandmother a letter to relate about her new father who is staying with her and how Mimiko is now mother to a baby. It's something that would probably send any normal guardian into cardiac arrest hearing out of context that a stranger was watching over their kid and that said kid now was mother to a baby.
To be fair, the movie does have some nice, genuine moments. Well to be more precise, one genuine moment, but it's well done enough to stand out. It happens when Mimiko is trying to convince Papa Panda to leave to go to work, as this is "what fathers do". The panda is, understandably, confused by this... having never worked before or even having a current job. The bear notably struggles with what to do, putting on a brave face, as Mimiko realizes that her fantasy of a normal suburban life has placed Papa Panda in an awkward situation. Once realizing this, the girl diffuses it by relating that she forgot today was his day off and he got relax, causing notable relief from the older bear. It's a nice moment because the realization and resolution feel natural, and anything but cartoonish or overtly spelled out for the viewer. Something that would be a hint toward the later, deeper work of Takahata and Miyazaki.
In terms of the voice acting, Kazuko Sugiyama does a good job as Mimiko, conveying the voice of a child while not being grating to the viewer. Kazuo Kumakura as Papa Panda though borders from doing an excellent job to being way too over the top and annoying, though. All in all, though, the voice acting really feels subpar as a whole, save perhaps for the police officer, voiced by Yasuo Yamada who does his famous Lupin laugh and would later become such a hallmark voice actor for his work on the character.
Music wise, the movie has a catchy if very repetitive song. It's simplistic, but striking the right beat that it's not uncommon to hum it. As for the main score by Masahiko Sato, it does little to stand out. There are moments were it is contemporary and dated as well, and makes the mistake of using the background motif from the main song one too many times. As a side note to this, the dubbed versions actually replaces the soundtrack altogether with something orchestrated that, I must admit, sounds better. I wish I knew who did it, though, as the DVD cover fails to credit them.
For the animation, the movie looks relatively crude, but for the early 1970's it does hold up better than a lot of other programming created around this time. The movie is oddly done at a 1.33:1 ratio, or "full screen", rather than widescreen and must of looked odd in combo with the Toho Scope Godzilla film it played with. In regards to the animation, though, there is one sequence of the film that does suffer more than others. This scene is the "dog fight" in the movie. It involves a bully confronting Mimiko and her new family, while they are jumping rope. In the process, the bully's dog becomes unruly and attacks them. This whole sequence is odd, as the animation is sloppy and focuses on close ups. It also drags this whole thing on in the early stages way more than it needs to. It feels painfully slow, in fact, as the two pandas continue to jump rope while this is happening, oblivious until Mimiko hugs Papa Panda out of fear. This leads to Papa scaring the dog, but not enough for the mutt to leave as it instead assaults their son, Pan. What follows can only be described as bizarre, as the dog leaps for the kill by clamping down on Pan's head with its jaws. Rather than crushing the bear's head, which would have traumatized every child in Japan who saw it, Pan instead remarks with a simple "ow" and then proceeds to effortlessly pick up and toss the dog, many times its size, at the bully. It seems Pan has some sort of super power? This isn't touched on again, and really comes out of left field.
Overall, a fairly forgettable film made by two titans in the genre. Both would go on to create, arguably, some of the best movies ever created from Japan. While some often credit this as a stepping stone to My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the 1980's production is so rich and deep in contrast that it's hard to take such a statement with a straight face beyond the element of a little girl finding a larger creature. Also, as a point of reference, this film is followed by a sequel, Panda! Go Panda!: Rainy Day Circus (1973). However, for this review I decided to only watch the first film over and over again, just to give it different context versus most who review them together.
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