The first full color anime feature film, from Toei in 1958.
So, full stop and without question, that alone makes this a pretty nifty little slice of animation history to experience.
Given that this is a film from more than a half century ago based on a tale older than written word itself, please be aware that I will not be guarding for spoilers.
I have been meaning to write about this for a while actually, it just gets a bit tricky trying to ensure accuracy, particularly when dealing with things this old that do not have the same wealth of internet research resources behind them compared to the might the Disney canon and associated western works have at their disposal. This particular movie actually had an English release way back in the early 1960’s under the title Panda and the Magic Serpent, but that version makes a fair number of sweeping edits and changes, such as redefining the animal characters and the like. It even categorizes Mimi, denoted appropriately as a red panda in the original version, as a cat! Anything called a panda to western general audiences could only be black and white, you see, (and Mimi’s associate through most of the film is that kind of panda named, well, Panda) or it would confuse folks. Or so went the thinking at the time.
This version I am otherwise going to be talking about is the real deal though, that original Japanese cut from the 1950’s.
Following in the footsteps of those classic fairy tale Disney productions of the era though, this is an adaptation of an old oral tradition folktale. Going by the name of “Legend of the White Snake” or “Madame White Snake,” it is notably a centuries old hand down of Chinese origin. From what I found when researching it, this was a highly intentional focal choice for this full color movie direct from the President of Toei, who was aiming to produce something based on a story from the cultural heritage of Japan’s largest neighbor. This was to ideally generate more of a tone of reconciliation between the two peoples given the rather strained history Japan has had with the mainland, particularly the case at the time given the immediate post-World War II era and the shockwaves still being felt domestically and especially abroad from actions taken then.
To that end, it is vitally important to note that this legend was originally a horror story. A tale of a vicious demon and a monk’s quest to save the soul of a young man. Over the centuries however it has developed and morphed into a well loved romance, where the female spirit and human male actually care for one another and the conflict of their relationship is more of an “against the laws of nature” sort of affair, the monk character shifting from a more heroic force to a primary antagonist in his trying to break them apart. Various interpretations of this narrative are still performed in theater and other mediums well into the present.
I am certain that all made this folktale a very appealing choice for Toei indeed. The historical relationship dynamics of the leads, once a story of fear and terror, morphing over time towards something far more considerate and touching. As a means of thematically representing the international relations and cultural shifts they hoped the future would be able to eventually bring for their people on each shore, while also trying to take an age old story in the vein of Disney and presenting it in a soaring animated feature film format, it was an impeccable selection.
For an animated movie, it actually does not start out as such.
The first five minutes or so are actually flat and static paper dolls, as a combination of song and interspersed dialogue delivering the background of the leading young male and the snake that nobody will allow them to keep. It is a rather interesting little mixed media way to deliver “the past” as it were, as it makes its presentation clearly and vastly different from any of the events that happen in the larger present of the production. To a degree, it is actually a bit jarring or potentially even unnerving in a certain light, like seeing a series of stop motion animation pieces or puppets or something just… not move, as if broken, and yet the vocal narrative of this introductory heartbreak plays on regardless. Certainly it is not how I expected the film to begin, though I do not dislike the actual effect in practice.
The actual animation itself, as always, comes down to the battle of fidelity versus fluidity. I always side on fluidity, and in this they certainly more than did as well. Near as I have been able to find, more than thirteen thousand people were employed in the production of this film (the number I see most repeated is 13,590 staff), and while not all of those are going to be animators, there was certainly a colossal effort behind this process of ensuring frame by frame consistency. One of those fellows was even Rintaro, who worked on Hakujaden as their first professional anime industry in-betweening gig!
Animal body movements and tails, all manner of clothing fabrics and ribbons, parade dragons and other sundry things may not be incredibly detailed on an individual level. But the way they move in concert with one another is with an extremely lively amount of liquid reactivity and vibrancy. Some incredibly small sequences (like an array of festival ribbon dancers as a part of a larger celebratory event) are really just there for no pressing narrative reason than to just assist in selling the present situation and show off the wide amount of a technical manpower in play here. There is an animal street fight that would still put many modern action anime to shame with the raw number cel frames and numerous little touches of body blow reactions. The film, as a physical piece of animation know how, looks simply wonderful even today.
Oddly, there are only two people who provided all of the voices among every character in Hakujaden, and a fair amount of the movie either has a narrator talking over a scene as it plays out before us or may at other times lack verbal material for us entirely.
Critically, this means the all important Amusing Animated Animal hijinks are generally devoid of words. That is really refreshing to me in this day and age, actually, given the years of smart talking and wise cracking cuddly sidekicks that have been pumped out from many animated productions in recent decades. To not hear them say much of anything at all means that they are defined to us as viewers more by what they do, and how they move.
There is an extended sequence where the two primary animal pals of Panda and Mimi go on a whirlwind whimsical rampage through a temple for instance, and the strength of the animation and general creature noises alone just sells everything for us. We do not need some crazy barrage of witticism when the characters realize “Uh oh, this was in no way intentional, and something has gone radically out of control.” We can just have the scenes where the stuff happens and the characters react and we just know they are thinking that because their thoughts were sold to us to well in other ways.
When the animals do talk, it is also not really lip synced; the red panda Mimi, for instance, may only flap their mouth once in a whole sentence. I’m actually OK with that as well, since it puts me in the mode that the animals are actually making, well, animal noises with their animal mouths. They are, fundamentally, making yelps or growls or the like. The sentiments expressed in such noises are then merely being transmuted into our own understanding. A bit like 1963’s The Incredible Journey for instance, or the later 1993 remake Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, where animals are acting but we do not have any mouths weirdly animated around how human lips work.
You may have noticed I have not actually gotten around to mentioning much of anything about the story of this movie outside of its historical associations and its general mutations over the ages.
To that end, it is a classically formatted timeless love story, where we have our primary male (Xu-Xian, the boy who had the snake at the beginning), a primary female (Bai-Niang, the snake spirit lady taken human form years later), and the dastardly villain out to keep them apart (Fa-Hai, the Buddhist monk spiritual warrior). The story itself goes generally exactly as you would expect for this kind of thing, where there are forceful separations and adventures attempting reunification by the lovers, but it also seems to very much know that as well.
It is akin to trying to tell the Romeo and Juliet story, in that pretty much anyone watching an adaptation of such an age old classic is likely already at least tangentially familiar with a general expectation of how it will go. It is upfront that it is not reliant on trying to wow or surprise the viewer with narrative tomfoolery or twists as much as it is just going to strongly deliver and execute on a classic story told and animated well, with the additional animal characters there to compete on Disney’s already proven excellence in the field with how they worked magic with figures like the mice in Cinderella. That is really all it needed to do, in that respect it achieved its goals swimmingly.
I do find it very interesting that the “lead” character throughout this entire affair is the lady, even if she technically is a snake who was also originally a relinquished pet of the male years ago.
She drives pretty much all the narrative action, and where characters like the leading ladies of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella are still fundamentally shut down in their stories and rescued by their male counterpart, Bai-Niang takes no such potential guff. While she is on the one hand portrayed as a traditionally calm and demure idealistic kind of figure, she takes great strides in taking threats to her relationship full force, including engaging in full blown spiritual warfare combat with Fa-Hai and heading off to a great dragon to relinquish her own ethereal powers in exchange for a single flower she then must try and deliver through an oceanic death gauntlet to bring Xu-Xian back to life.
That is the other thing: in this tale, it is the gentleman who outright bites it and is in need of revival. So while the narrative takes the turns of so many classic animated romance heroics that preceded it, the one mostly battling for it all is really the woman here, to the point where even though the film is entitled The Tale of the White Serpent one may not immediately process the raw totality of what that means for the prominence of her role when it comes to actually moving the story forwards. Xu-Xian is more of a plot device than anything else, in that without him taking in the snake as a young boy and in turn giving Bai-Niang the goal that she is striving for we do not have a movie. That is a pretty swell thing to see applied in a foundational anime work from more than half a century ago, while at the same time kind of discouraging given where one would think we should be so many decades later.
Naturally, this all comes down to a rather tricky little thing.
Would I recommend Hakujaden to people today?
It is kind of a tough question, really.
On the one hand it is certainly historic and thus has a built in set of responses that point to the value of seeing it for that purpose alone. I think it is technical marvel and still has more than a thing or two to show off as quite special against a number of its contemporaries in terms of frame by frame handling of motion dynamics and the like. At the same time, it does not by any means “look like an anime” as a modern general audiences viewer would look at it.
I suppose then the matter becomes how to convince folks to want to watch it (only a few hundred people on myanimelist.net lay claim to having seen it in any version, for instance). Or, perhaps instead, what could this movie actually provide folks who may be dismissive of older animation? Because is is not that the animation is bad (it’s fantastic!), it is that I have found over the years that many who come to say they don’t like “older animation” are really talking about things like character designs or High Definition resolution rather than actual animation prowess.
But I think it leads to an interesting discussion, on either the historical value of film in particular far beyond its age and intended audience in general or “old anime / animation” in particular, and why folks enjoy it or avoid it and where they draw the line when it comes to this sort of stuff. Availability is also certainly a key issue; One can’t currently find Hakujaden on any service like Crunchyroll or Hulu for instance. The Criterion Collection, with longstanding skill in making some of the oldest international film classics and productions of historical note available and desirable to modern cinemaphiles, does not really handle animation.
As a medium, I think it is a kind of global industry community tragedy that the first full color anime film, grandly produced as it was, is as direly underwatched and generally grossly unavailable to many modern folks as things stand right now.
I would personally recommend that people see Hakujaden, while at the same time recognizing that it is an incredibly hard sell.
At the very end of the day, it is a swell family film on the overall. While it would almost certainly never happen, a proper remastered version commissioned with a modern English dub would make it something I would most definitely watch with kids in the same rotation as the other classic era folktale animated movies it clearly wanted to stand proudly with across time and international cultures.
Because it still does, in every way.