What the synopsis above doesn’t tell you is how Mimiko ended up with such a family. Mimiko’s grandmother goes away on a short trip and after sending her off at the train station, Mimiko comes home to find a baby panda asleep on her porch. Before long a big (and I mean big) papa Panda comes looking for baby panda. Inspired by this cute panda duo and perhaps reminded of her own orphan status, Mimiko immediately asks the pandas to be her family, big Panda as her dad and, Panny, the baby Panda as er.. her baby. They agree and their adventures begin!
All is going swell so far, but spare a thought for Mimiko’s grandmother, to whom Mimiko promised a letter every day. The first letter read “Dear grandma, something terrific happened today. I got myself a daddy and I also got a baby.”
Of course, by this point it’s well established that it’s a fantasy but like all of Ghibli’s work, the point when the realisation dawns and when you go along with it is almost negligible: in this case talking pandas for a family and a little girl who has penchant for doing handstands whenever she’s happy.
Directed by Isao Takahata, with concept, key animation and layouts by Hayao Miyazaki, this was one of their earlier collaborations. Released at the theatres in 1972, this featurette was followed by Circus on a Rainy Day in 1973, another wacky installment of the trio, both of which are on this disc.
Supposedly during that period, Japan was gripped with panda fever, as a pair of the animals had been donated to their zoo from China. While Miyazaki may have taken advantage of the public’s adoration for them, he also pokes fun at pandas’ well-known habits – their love for bamboo shoots and their mostly sedentary lifestyle – and uses it to humorous effect here.
While it would have been quite sufficient to pacify the audience visually with cute pandas and a little girl with red pigtails, Ghibli steps it up a notch by making this a bizarre and funny fantasy. Despite being super cute, it’s balanced with some rather engaging set pieces – as exemplified in Circus on a Rainy Day with an extended action seqeunce where Mimiko and the pandas save a runaway train full of circus animals from going underwater, using her bed as a boat. If anything, the intriguing adventures in both these features would send a child’s imagination into overdrive, and that seems to be what the filmakers are cultivating.
If you’ve seen My Neighbour Totoro then you won’t have to strain your eyes too much to to note that Panda! Go Panda! may have been the prototype for it. Papa Panda is almost Totoro with 2 black eyes, and Mimiko looks a lot like Mei, but character designs aside, this is probably where the similarities end. Panda is aimed straight at the very young crowd (the Wigglers), so the themes tackled are much more straightforward. There is a hint of subtext in both films about a child needing parents, but for most part it’s relatively simple. So much so that its innocence may even be too much say for a mildly cynical 5 year old weaned on Yugi-Oh. For the rest of us with the heart of a pre-schooler (like me), this is ace, despite it being made 30 years ago.
If you are thinking of showing this to kids then you’ll be happy to know the English dub is decent although it still amuses me no end why papa Panda speaks with a slight rastafarian accent.