Curry panda and other crosscultural pleasures

I get paid to watch anime. For many that’s a dream job, but every job has its boring side. A lot of the anime I watch is basically schedule-filler, fun in its planned weekly half-hour dose but indigestible consumed at a single sitting.

Still, there are some shows that never fail to deliver a shot of sunshine. They’re not always the newest or most technically accomplished. Revisiting Panda Kopanda and its sequel Circus In The Rain was an absolute joy. Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Isao Takahata in 1972/3, these delicious little films, as much fun as rolling down a grassy slope in the sunshine and then going home for tea and toast, are soon to be released in the UK by Manga Entertainment, under the title Panda Go Panda.

Like many anime, both films contain traces of the cultures that produced them. That’s ‘cultures’, plural, because although not universally acknowledged, it is a fact that anime, a ‘uniquely Japanese’ source now extensively mined by the media of other nations, has also mined other cultures since its inception. Circus in the Rain, for example, borrows from The Three Bears, as well as exploiting the panda craze triggered in Japan by China’s 1972 gift of two giant pandas, Lan Lan and Kang Kang, to the Ueno Zoo.

It also gives a small tip of the hat to Osamu Tezuka’s 1962 adventure comic Brave Dan, in which a perky boy hero befriends a tiger escaped from a zoo train. All artists mine their own culture’s back catalogue, and anime and manga are as much part of Japan’s back catalogue as folklore or history. There’s a scene in Panda Go Panda that reminded me strongly of Hikaru Suemasa’s 1995 character Tarepanda.  I’ve no idea if Ms Suemasa ever saw the film, but as a Japanese child in the 70s she could hardly have missed the panda craze. (The majority of Britons have never been to India but we are, to a Brit, familiar with curry.)

And of course, creators mine themselves: fans of Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro will be almost overwhelmed by thematic and visual deja vu throughout Panda Go Panda. But I think some of anime’s finest moments come when its creators draw on their observations, fantasies and fears of the world beyond Japan.

At the moment, and despite the ongoing debate about the early fragment of film discovered by an animation historian and an iconography expert in Kyoto in 2005, the earliest anime that can be securely dated is Oten Shimokawa’s 1917 film Mukuzo Imokawa the Doorman. Foreign animation had already been screened in Japan from 1914, with 21 cartoons from Europe and America seen on Japanese screens in 1915. Anime began its career as one of Japan’s coolest exports a few months after Shimokawa’s film, when Seitaro Kitayama’s Momotaro had its world premiere in France. Japanese audiences wouldn’t see it until three months later. That exchange of ideas and images would continue for more than twenty years, until interrupted by war, and resume again after hostilities ended. Whatever its date of origin, anime didn’t blossom and grow in splendid isolation.

Cultural homogeneity is, in itself, a sterile concept, and usually invoked for negative reasons. We are, individually and collectively, the result of countless collisions of energy, from the moment two particles pinged off each other and created something with the potential for life to the point a few seconds from now where a child in West Africa or Pakistan or Alaska hears something on the radio or TV from the other side of the world that changes her life. Change is life, the positive face of entropy.

I don’t love anime because it’s ‘uniquely Japanese’. I love anime because it tells me about what makes Japanese people tick, what inspires them and revolts them, what they think about themselves and the world beyond their islands. I love it because its creators take all kinds of influences, from all over time and space, and make things I would never have thought of, from a viewpoint I couldn’t have imagined until they shared it with me. Whether their product is a wodge of filler for local prime-time TV or a sublime piece of art for the whole of mankind, it’s their own take on our changing and increasingly interlinked world.

Curry panda. Love it.

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