If anyone had asked me a few months ago what was the first anime that had engaged me, I would have said that it was the run of Dragonball Z on Cartoon Network that premiered about twelve years ago. Then with a start I might have remembered Alakazam the Great, Toei's take on Monkey and his journey to the west, which I had watched and enjoyed as a toddler in the Sixties. But what had become a vague, fugitive memory in my brain, and which was just as old, was Panda and the Magic Serpent.
Panda and the Magic Serpent (a.k.a. Hakujaden, Legend of the White Snake, The Great White Snake, The White Snake Enchantress) was the first color anime feature film, created by the Toei Company and released in Japan in 1958 and then (edited and dubbed) in the US in 1961. Although it had won awards overseas, it did not do as well in an America with its expectations set by Disney, and in less than a decade Panda was appearing on TV. This is where I saw it, before I was even in first grade.
The movie begins with a vast, supernatural storm striking China. In its wake, a magical white snake is transformed into a beautiful maiden, Bai-Niang, and a stranded fish is turned into her maid-servant, Xiao Chin. Years before (in snake form) Bai-Niang had been friends with a boy called Xu-Xian, whose fearful parents had parted them. Now that she is human she goes in search of him once more.
Xu-Xian, now an orphan, lives with his friends Panda (an immature Giant Panda) and Mimi, a Red Panda, in a tumbledown little house. Mysterious music responding to his flute playing and the mischievous Xiao Chin lead him and his friends to Bai-Niang, now living in a magically restored great estate nearby. While youth and maiden woo, their three sidekicks frolic. Their antics bring a wooden dragon decoration to life and the comedy relief is carried off, to plunge through the roof of a state treasure-house. The maid-servant finds two jewels shaped like stars and she gives them to the lovers.
Fa-Hai, a local monk with a magical crystal, has been on the trail of Bai-Niang and Xiao Chin, whom he believes are evil spirits. When he hears the jewels are missing, he sends the local authorities to the magic palace. The girl and her maid escape, but Xu-Xian remains and takes the fall. He is arrested, convicted, and exiled to a distant province. Panda and Mimi go in search of their friend. Fa-Hai follows the boy, feeling sure the spirits will seek him out.
Panda and Mimi finally find Xu-Xian, with the help of the White Pig Gang, whose gigantic leader Panda has defeated (making him the original Kung Fu Panda, by the way). Bai-Niang sends the boy a dream, telling him to meet her at the Thunder Pagoda, but the monk finds out about it on his crystal ball. He interferes before they can embrace, and a magical battle ensues.
Bai-Niang and Fa-Hai ascend to a spiritual space and match their powers against each other. The resulting fight leaves the monk hanging from a rooftop by his robes and the lady weakened and reverting to her serpent form. When Xu-Xian hears from the monk that he has defeated the evil spirit, he rushes back to Thunder Pagoda to find her.
Bai-Niang decides that she can never be with Xu-Xian unless she becomes truly human. She changes to her astral form and starts to leave; Xu-Xian rushing into the top of the tower sees her, tries to follow, and falls to his death. Fa-hai sadly takes his body to the Temple of the Golden Isle.
Bai-Niang travels through the heavens to the Dragon God, Master of All Spirits, who for the price of her immortality and magic powers gives her the Flower of Life to restore Xu-Xian. She returns to earth, where Mimi is waiting to lead her to the Golden Isle, where Panda and the White Pig Gang have followed Fa-Hai. The monk does not believe the now-mortal maiden, and will not let her boat land on the island. He turns the maid Xiao Chin back into a fish, and the Flower of Life falls into the sea.
But Xiao Chin still has her powers, and with the help of the Great Dragon Fish stirs the sea into a storm, and another battle with Fa-Hai and his crystal begins. Bai-niang's boat capsizes. Mimi and Panda retrieve the Flower of Life and restore Xu-Xian to life; seeing Bai-Niang in trouble on the stormy seas he plunges in to save her. Fa-Hai finds the Flower and realizes that the girl was telling the truth.
The monk tosses his crystal ball into the sea, which stills the storm and transforms into a boat, rescuing the lovers. Fa-Hai now gives the young couple his blessing; Bai-Niang and Xu-Xian sail off together under a rainbow sky, Xiao Chin returns to her life under the sea, and Panda and Mimi wave a tearfully joyous farewell.
The version of this film most widely available is presented by "Cartoon Craze" (Digiview Productions), and seems to have been created from stock in very poor condition. It is full of skips, jumps, and scratches; the beginning is particularly rough. This is a film that could truly benefit from a restoration and remastering, perhaps even a new editing and English dubbing (though it would be a shame to lose the narration of Marvin Miller, whose voice-overs included work on Pink Panther and Rocky and Bullwinkle; his most famous job was as Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet). A little polish on this historical gem could really make it sparkle.
But even in its present condition it is full of considerable nostalgic charm, redolent of old times and different sensibilities. To me it speaks of long summer afternoons, when you could lose yourself for a few hours in strange worlds of fantasy and adventure, and sudden unknown by-ways to distant lands and ancient legends could open up before unsuspecting eyes. It is a splendid kind of movie for little children, whether in front of the TV or inside the heart.