Number of Episodes: 2
Production Company: Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS Entertainment)
Brief Overview: Mimiko is a young girl who lives with her grandmother. When Grandma needs to travel out of town, she leaves Mimiko to tend the house. One day, Mimi-chan discovers a baby panda on the doorstep, followed soon by its father. The three form a makeshift family and attempt to hide from the zookeepers trying to recapture the pandas for their exhibit.
Thoughts: (Trying out some minor changes to the formatting for full reviews here, don't be alarmed)
Panda Kopanda (known as Panda, Go Panda! in Western markets) is a series of two short films about which I had zero knowledge until reading the fascinating book Starting Point, a collection of essays by and interviews with Hayao Miyazaki. The book spends plenty of time on the subject of Miyazaki's film work, including familiar titles like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, but there's also a lot of writing and memoir that focuses on some of his pre-Ghibli work like Future Boy Conan, Heidi: Girl of the Alps, and, of course, this short series. I went into this viewing with a purely academic interest, curious about the early work of two people considered by many contemporary anime fans to be top in the field of Japanese animation (Miyazaki wrote and storyboarded Panda Kopanda, Isao Takahata directed), but I'm almost disappointed to say that my interest in it remains mostly academic; the films contain a lot of images and ideas which later found homes in Miyazaki's feature length films Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro, but they lack the charm and unbridled joyfulness that defined those later works.
The first film was animated to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the loan of two Chinese pandas to a Japanese zoo. Keeping that in mind, I can sincerely say that the final product is better than one might expect. Though generally plotless beyond the trio's adventures as a "family" and the minor threat presented by the town police force, the episode does have its moments of excitement. The climax, which takes place at a dam with Mimi-chan desperately clinging to Pan-chan, her adopted "son," is genuinely exciting. The second episode one-ups the first with a thrilling chase, as a circus train filled with animals jumps the rails and travels throughout a flooded town. One can already see a certain skill with comedic suspense in these scenes, and they provide some fun action which helps to counteract the lack of intensity at other times.
Where the films really falter are in the truthfulness of their character portrayals. Mimi-chan can almost be seen as a precursor to Mei of My Neighbor Totoro, with Pa-panda (Father Panda) serving the role of Totoro himself. One of the things that made Mei so charming, however, was how much she felt like a real three-year-old child; she was quick to accept the magic around her, sometimes stubborn and singularly-focused on the things she wanted (the release of her mother from the hospital, for instance) and quick to suffer dramatic changes in emotion, just as a real frustrated child would be. Mimi-chan, on the other hand, is almost too idealized to connect with. Her acceptance of the pandas and her adoption of them as her family is cute, but there's little hint of any emotion surrounding the loss of her own parents (she speaks matter-of-factly about not having a mother and father but there's no indication that this has really affected her in any quantifiable emotional way), so the subsequent transformation of the Pandas into her family members holds very little weight. Likewise, Pa-panda may resemble Totoro in shape and size, but his existence lacks the magic that made Totoro more than just a cute mascot character. Ironically, it's the mystery and the hints of magic that make one want to believe in Totoro even more strongly; Pa-Panda is just a talking bear.
One of the more interesting things about this film duo, as I stated before, is that some of its imagery turns up in later Miyazaki works. In the second episode, a heavy bout of rain floods the land, stranding the circus animals with whom the gang recently established a friendship, and changing the landscape around them into a watery wonderland. This is very reminiscent of Ponyo; the scene where Sosuke and Ponyo exit the house to find the world below them covered in water, fish swimming at their feet seems directly inspired by the similar (but somewhat less fantastical) scene in Panda Kopanda. The car/train chase scene has echoes in the frantic, comedic car chase in Castle of Cagliostro. Some of the sight gags seem like practice for Conan's physical humor in Future Boy Conan. Of course, having seen these later works first, these two films feel like little more than a rough draft of things to come.
These films aren't really what I'd call "required viewing," but they are still interesting in terms of the perspective they provide on how far Miyazaki has come as a filmmaker, as well as some of the themes and elements which have followed him throughout the years. Anyone with the type of curiosity that extends towards anime history or Miyazaki himself should get some enjoyment, but unfortunately, unlike some of the Ghibli-era material which came later on, these films lack sophistication, and feel a little too much like they're aimed at kids only.
Recommended? Yes, but only to viewers who feel like they have an interest in how these films fit into Miyazaki and Takahata's development as filmmakers. They don't hold up very well to closer, more critical scrutiny and might disappoint viewers looking for another Totoro.