The First Ever Color Anime Film: Panda and the Magic Serpent

Does anyone remember Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), the first color Japanese animated feature film?

It’s okay if it was before your time. I only just discovered it myself, but I think it’s rather neat.

The anime is based on the Chinese folktale The Legend of the White Snake from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It started out as a tale about good and evil—a monk saves a young man from falling for a demon. But over the years the story has morphed into a romantic tale—the demon actually cares for the young man, and the monk now becomes the antagonist for trying to break them apart.

Mural depicting the Chinese legend. Summer Palace, Beijing, China. (Wikimedia Commons/Shizhao)

Mural depicting the Chinese legend of the white snake. Summer Palace, Beijing. (Image: Shizhao/Wikimedia)

Panda and the Magic Serpent was also known as The Tale of the White Serpent or if you are Japanese (白蛇伝 Hakujaden).

The film was directed by Taiji Yabushita and Kazuhiro Okabe and produced by Toei Animation Studio, Japan.

Hiroshi Okawa, the president of the studio, chose a Chinese heritage story as a sign of good-will, considering the strained relationship Japan had with mainland China at the time this anime was made not long after WWII.

This is how the anime unfolds:

As a young boy, Xu-Xian has a pet snake, his parents force him to give away.  The snake is actually a young snake goddess called Bai-Niang. During a storm the snake becomes a human and many years later when they are both adults they fall in love. A local wizard thinks she is a demon, so has Xu-Xian arrested and taken to an island for forced labour in an effort to save him from the bad spirit. Xu-Xian’s pet pandas Panda and Mimi set out to save him and bring the couple back together.

Xu Xian as a boy with his pet snake. Intro is all beautifully cut our paper animation.  (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Xu-Xian as a boy being told to give up his pet snake. Intro is all beautifully cut out paper animation. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Snake being transformed in a storm. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Snake being transformed during a storm in China. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Snake turning into (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Snake turning into Bai-Niang (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Wizard / Monk... depending on if you are from the West or East. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Wizard or monk… depending on if you are from the West or East. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Xu Xian's faithful panda friends fhb and gmjj (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Xu Xian’s faithful friends Panda and Mimi. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Xu Xian being taken to an island for forced labour. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Xu-Xian being taken to an island for forced labor. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Dancers at a parade.(Screenshot/Vimeo)

Dancers at a parade. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

The adorable dddd (Screenshot/Vimeo)

The adorable Panda, and just like Disney, they sing songs. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

The couple (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Xu-Xian and Bai-Niang together. (Screenshot/Vimeo)

Another special thing about this particular film is that it inspired legendary Hayao Miyazaki (known for anime such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke) to become an animator.

And something I find quite amusing is that only two voice actors were used, providing the voices for all the different parts. But all in all, over 13,500 staff were involved in making the film.

This short clip is in Japanese and absolutely worth watching for the images. The president of Toei studio, Hiroshi Okawa, presents the movie to the audience in the same vein that Walt Disney did for his features.

He wanted Toei studio to be the ‘Disney of the East.’

It’s wonderful to get a glimpse of what actually goes into making a feature length anime; it is no small feat.

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