In the early 1970s, in the midst of the then-novel panda diplomacy, a group of animators at the Japanese studio A Productions decided to cash in on the trend. They produced a pair of short films featuring a vivacious girl named Mimiko, who befriends the baby panda Panny and his enormous father PapaPanda. The two shorts, 1972’s Panda! Go Panda! and 1973’s Panda! Go, Panda!: Rainy Day Circus delighted audiences who saw them preceding theatrical features like Godzilla vs. Megalon. Few might have guessed that the talent behind them would go on to revolutionize animation both in Japan and around the world. More than a decade before they co-founded Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata directed these shorts, while Hayao Miyazaki wrote, designed, and made scene layouts for them. Now a digital restoration of the Panda! Go Panda! double feature is hitting US theaters ahead of a fresh home media release, giving new audiences an introduction to early work from multiple titans of animation.
A year before the release of their first Panda! Go Panda! short, Miyazaki and Takahata left Toei, where both had gotten their starts in animation during the ’60s, to follow their mutual mentor Yasuo Ōtsuka to A Productions. After considerable prep work on an animated series based on the Pippi Longstocking books fell through when author Astrid Lindgren denied permission to license them, the team recycled some ideas they developed into Panda! Go Panda! (the inspiration is fairly obvious, considering details like Mimiko’s red pigtails). Miyazaki and Takahata weren’t the only future Ghibli luminaries working on the shorts; Yoshifumi Kondō, who later directed the masterpiece Whisper of the Heart, served as an animator as well. Both shorts are light as a bamboo leaf, but everything that would later make these artists’ work beloved is fully in evidence.
Some of the foreshadowing is fairly direct, as the animators — Miyazaki especially — would reuse shot compositions, story concepts, and character designs they established here later in their careers. This is most evident with PapaPanda, a clear antecedent for Totoro. (Their grins are even drawn the same way!) Panny clings to his father’s tummy in the exact same way that the young sister protagonists of My Neighbor Totoro do with the eponymous creature as well. Rainy Day Circus ends with a flood engulfing a town and the characters setting out in a makeshift raft to join their friends — much later closely replicated for the closing scenes of 2008’s Ponyo. For Ghibli fans, these shorts are more than a curiosity. This was Miyazaki’s debut as a writer for animation, and Takahata had only recently gotten into directing. These shorts make for an exciting glimpse at how characters and sequences they hold dear took years, sometimes decades, to develop.
But you don’t have to be a Ghibli-head to appreciate these lovely little films. They wring an incredible amount of charm out of limited resources, conjuring a dreamy world operating on a child’s logic. Panny and PapaPanda can speak Japanese, and no one finds this odd, though some of the adults are of course terrified of the older bear. Mimiko eagerly accepts PapaPanda as her new surrogate father, while she takes on the role of a mother rather than a sister to Panny. It’s the kind of nonsense but sweet scenario a kid will pull out of nowhere during make-believe. “And then the whole town flooded, but only a little bit, and nobody was hurt, and we used the bed as a boat, and we brought lunch to the circus!” This is the kind of magical mindset that Miyazaki, Takahata, Kondō, and their compatriots would pour into some of the greatest animated films of all time.
Panda! Go Panda! is now playing in select theaters and releases on DVD and Blu-ray June 21.