Animation Station: Panda & The Magic Serpent (1958)

Film Editor Joe Holloran reviews 1958 film Hakujaden in this weeks animation station

Joe Holloran
18th February 2019
Image: Flickr, F. Paul Russell III
Anime. When you hear that word what do you think of? Floating castles, confused little girls conversing with sentient pigs? The genre certainly has come a long way from its highly-Westernized origins back in the early post-war years. One of the brightest gems from the acclaimed Tokyo-based anime studio Toei Animation is 1958 Hakujaden – or Panda & the Magic Serpent in English.

Before we analyse the film it’s important to note that, at the time, Toei saw themselves as the ‘Disney of the East’ and this comes across clearly in this film. It you want to watch a quintessentially Japanese anime then there are plenty of others for you to look at, if however, you want to see how the East does Disney you won’t find much better than Hakujaden. Also worth noting is that, despite being Japanese made, the characters are named and portrayed as being Chinese – due to Western anti-Japanese sentiment post-war.

It is highly charming and provides a great contrast to both the dominant Disney films of the time and modern anime.

The film features a young man named Xu-Xian, who as a child had a pet snake Bai-Niang whom he loved dearly. His parents however are less enamoured and force little Xu to get rid. Years later Xu discovers that his beloved snake has transformed itself into a beautiful princess. Forced apart by (an understandably bemused) local monk and Xu is exiled. Fear not because luckily for Xu his two pet pandas go on a quest to rescue their master and reunite him with his love.

Toei Animation was founded in 1948 and has been producing anime ever since. Image:Wikimedia

The films plot is characteristically simple and fable-based, as earlier anime is. As such the story is not taxing even for children. Despite this, it is highly charming and provides a great contrast to both the dominant Disney films of the time and modern anime. In many ways this film marks the commercial high-point for Westernized Japanese anime and represents the old ways as it were, the ways the greatly influenced later anime masters like Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii whom would go on to typify the new style of cinematic anime that we are all familiar with today.

If anime is your preferred form of cartoon based fun then take a step back in time and give Hakujaden a try. It’s a film that’s a must see for connoisseurs of the form and is perhaps the best example of anime made with a primarily Western audience in mind, something we don’t see much of today. If you’re hesitant trust me, it’s worth it just for the ridiculous antics of the two OG Kung-fu Pandas alone if nothing else.

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