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Helen McCarthy embraces panda-monium

On 17th December 1972, Hayao Miyazaki’s first short feature as screenwriter was released. Riding a wave of panda fever after the introduction of two Chinese pandas in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, Panda Kopanda (released in English as Panda! Go Panda!) did well enough for distributor Toho put a sequel in Japanese cinemas just four months later.

Panda Kopanda (Panda and Child) and its follow-up Rainy Day Circus were directed by Miyazaki’s lifelong friend and colleague Isao Takahata, with Miyazaki also taking a hand on design and key animation. Widely considered a prototype for My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki later said it was the first anime he made specifically for children, especially his two little sons, and that he made Totoro because he wanted to repeat the experience. The earliest sketches for Totoro show a girl remarkably like Panda! Go Panda‘s heroine Mimiko: she later became two sisters. Little sister Mei got her red hair and pigtails, while Satsuki inherited her domestic competence and both had her adventurous, independent persona.

The story is a simple little-girl fantasy of playing house and being mummy, tragically framed by a sense of loss. Mimiko is an orphan who lives with her grandmother. She’s left alone when Grandmother has to make a long train trip to Nagasaki, levelled by a nuclear bomb less than thirty years earlier, for Grandfather’s memorial service.

No mention of old sorrow creeps into this candy-coloured world; the death of Mimiko’s family is a plot device. She’s confident and capable enough to look after herself and lives in a supportive community, but her tiny rural village is devoid of playmates and she gets lonely. The arrival of a cuddly, caring daddy Panda and his cute little cub in need of a mother makes her world perfect, providing companionship, an indulgent yet protective father figure, a baby sibling to cuddle and mother, and the ultimate soft toys.

The first movie focuses on the family feeling that grows between Mimiko and the pandas. Initially attracted by food – the bamboo grove around Mimiko’s house – they soon settle into a typical Japanese routine, with Papa coming home each evening to his pipe and slippers while the little mistress of the house rushes about taking care of everyone.

The second film ventures into fairytale territory, with circus staff looking for a lost baby tiger. Feisty Mimiko is overjoyed when she finds them in the house, thinking they’re burglars, but the adventure of scaring them away is only the beginning of an action-packed mystery taking in a huge storm, floods and a runaway train. The story ends happily, with Mimiko at the heart of her self-constructed family, surrounded by friends and enjoying a day at the circus. Family, Miyazaki seems to say, is what you make it, even if all you have to make it from is a small community and a couple of plush toys.

Panda! Go Panda! is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment

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