anime

Hakujaden | Wrong Every Time


Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today we’ll be exploring the oldest work of anime I’ve ever covered on the blog, and in fact, the first full-length film Toei Douga ever produced. Known as Hakujaden, “The White Serpent,” or “Panda and the Magic Serpent,” it’s an adaptation of a classic work of Chinese folklore, and is essentially the anime equivalent to Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

In this film, we will be witnessing the process of a new art form coming into being, as the scattered shorts of prior years gave way to a new era of anime production, led in large part by the luminaries of Toei Douga. Eventually the studio’s film productions would jumpstart the careers of modern legends like Takahata and Miyazaki, but for Hakujaden, the key animation would be composed by just two animators: Akira Daikubara handling the humans, and Yasuji Mori taking care of the animals. Hakujaden is a staggeringly significant work by any metric, and I’m frankly well outside my depth in attempting to “critique” it in anything but the most wildly ahistorical of styles, but I hope at the very least we can simply sit and appreciate it together. Let’s explore the birth of Toei Douga’s film catalog!

Hakujaden

My god, a version of the Toei logo I’m not familiar with. We really are in uncharted territory here

Incidentally, the copy of the film I snagged has both English and French hardsubs. Presumably it was snagged from a French film festival and had English subs added later – France has always been far, far more appreciative of anime’s breadth and history than any other foreign nation, owing in part to France’s own distinguished history of comic art and animation

We’re presumably going to see an astonishingly short staff list. If you’re sitting here watching Hakujaden with me you probably don’t need to know this, but more animators and directors is not the sign of an impressive or healthy production – it generally means the project was running out of time, so they had to throw manpower at it to make up the difference

Toei president Hiroshi Okawa is credited with the general term “Production,” while Taiji Yabushita both directed and wrote the script. As I said, very tight production staff

Yasuo Otsuka is credited for “animation,” by which they presumably mean animation direction. Otsuka is one of the greatest titans in anime history, the director or animation director of many of Toei Douga’s most acclaimed works, and also the mentor of both Miyazaki and Takahata. Without Otsuka, the anime landscape would be a far different and greatly impoverished place

The opening is played as a fablesque song sequence, with still images of our young boy protagonist buying a snake at the market

The boy’s ornate design for this sequence is striking, like a cut paper doll used for puppet theater. And conveying this exposition through song is an excellent way to cut through a great deal of information that would be difficult to parse visually

The fact that one actress is just changing her voice for all the parts also contributes to the sense of a puppet theater presentation. As with the animators, all of this film’s original dialogue was recorded by just two voice actors

This ornate cut-paper look also reminds me of some European animation. Interesting to see more diverse aesthetic influences informing this early anime, simply because the conventions of anime itself had yet to be formalized in any way, and thus all of this film’s predecessors were necessarily drawn from a wider cultural net

Simple story so far: a boy buys a snake at market, but the adults tell him he must abandon it

The setting sun is portrayed by shifting the filter on the backlight projecting through the cel, another puppet theater-evocative trick

The shift to formal animation is accompanied by a dramatic storm, with lightning evoking a vivid chiaroscuro on the scattered rocks and trees

Lightning strikes a tree where the white snake rests, turning the snake into a young woman

Gosh her animation is fluid. Her dress simplifies her shape, allowing for small yet elegant gestures, in contrast with the playful, energetic movement of this flopping fish

Love how these backgrounds embrace the thin linework and minimalism of traditional watercolor paintings. Interesting seeing the interplay between those eastern influences in the background and the seemingly more Disney-inspired designs for the buildings in the foreground

Panda and Mimi, a fox, are the attendants of our protagonist, Hsu Hsien

Already we’re seeing some impressive parallax panning effects, creating layers in the composition and a sense of fluid movement through the staggered slide of these foreground obstructions

Music remains tightly tethered to the overt narrative, as the two reunite through their shared song

The film is quite willing to abandon its illusion of constancy when it comes to the maiden’s escapes, with her cel either fading over time or being dragged along the screen

There is terrific personality in the animals’ movements, as they basically squash and stretch with every step. The naturally simplified, two-tone design of a panda facilitates the film’s movement goals

As we follow the animals, music once again guides us on our journey through the drama, illustrating the peaks and valleys of their investigation without a word

The fish-maiden has her own distinct style of movement, with her little hops forward evoking both the initial splashing of the fish, as well as her seemingly mischievous nature. Even the profile of her face echoes her original fish design 

She almost stumbles into a monk who hunts supernatural beings

Another interesting lighting effect, this pinwheel of colored lights inside his crystal ball. This film is frequently using tricks of lighting to convey what later anime would generally assign to animation; the results push against the holism of the composition, but are fascinating in their own right, and in keeping with this production’s general embrace of puppet theater aesthetic techniques

Ooh, beautiful animation of these birds taking flight from the river. They’re gracefully animated in a more realistic style relative to the film’s focus characters, emphasizing the beauty of nature rather than the personality of character acting

The voice acting doesn’t match the characters’ mouth movements too closely, and was presumably done after animation was complete, rather than the current system of voice actors using rough animatics to inform their performances, which in turn inform the final animation of their scenes

The fish-girl’s name is Hsiao Ching

And the white serpent is Pai Niang. Feels like the precise negotiation of this story’s drama speaks to its ancestral origins, in how the first meeting between our romantic leads is largely coordinated by their servants

Hsiao’s movement is so generous it actually moves into the realm of overacting, emoting more than any actual person would

And indeed, much of this film is simply a celebration of movement, detailing the characters’ journeys to and from the actual dramatic events

More dramatic uses of simply fading in one cel layer over another, as Pai’s ruined palace is restored to glory

Oh, I adore the color work and pattern layering for Pai’s palace. Also appreciate this smart dramatic framing here, using the rounded front entrance as a sort of framing device for the imposing palace, which also facilitates a greater feeling of immediacy and movement into depth as the camera zooms in

Once again, the negotiation between background and foreground aesthetic is fascinating – you can almost see the moment where realistic draftsmanship gives way to impressionist watercolors

More intriguing uses of frame-in-frame devices as they navigate the palace. These are fairly advanced layouts and camerawork for such an early production!

And this effect of partially obscuring the characters through these colored curtains – feels like this production is proud to show everything it can do

I feel like you could draw a direct line from this film’s Hsiao to Princess Kaguya’s handmaiden in Takahata’s film

Hsu Hsien keeps putting his foot in his mouth, but fortunately Pai is plenty bold enough for both of them

This garden is gorgeous, embracing a wide swath of colors while still evoking the traditional background aesthetic. Interesting to see how this film recreates the “fog” effect of obscured terrain common to classical tapestries. Naturalism once again abandoned in favor of the unique texture effect afforded by blurring watercolor paints

It’s interesting to see all these creative liberties taken in an art form’s earlier days. Just like how naturalism wasn’t really enshrined as a general cinematic goal in the first half of the 20th century, so is Hakujaden embracing a wider variety of bold aesthetic influences than many later productions

And here’s a sequence of the animals celebrating their masters’ good fortune, which becomes a celebration in turn of Yasuji Mori’s uniquely bouncy, expressive animation

The story itself is similarly freewheeling, embracing more magical whimsy as this papercraft dragon takes flight

Love the ambition of these cuts as the characters shift in position relative to the camera. The variables are so reduced in terms of both production elements and creators that you can really see specific styles emerge, like the unique personality of Hsiao’s exaggerated movements

The dragon crashes into the roof of the local treasury, where Hsiao finds two glimmering gems to bring back to the lovers

These three guards are a celebration of comedic character acting in their own right. You can see how this film isn’t just drawing on the exceedingly limited pool of dramatic film animation, but also the much broader pool of Disney’s comedy shorts, Fleischer cartoons, and other early-20th-century reference points. At this point, it feels like the pool of existing animation references almost necessitates a significant degree of comedy vignettes in a full film

Alas, the monk has discovered Pai’s estate

That night, Hsu has an ambiguous dream about Pai flying away as a butterfly. The unity of visual and musical design is so tight in this film that many scenes feel reminiscent of Fantasia, just the emotions of music translated into movement

Hsu is raided by police for allegedly stealing from the treasury, and is taken off to jail

For his crimes of “sorcery,” Hsu is sentenced to exile

The differences between the design sensibilities of Hsu/Pai and the other townsfolk is so striking. Our leads have a reserved, more classical design sensibility that seems a bit more iconic than emotive, while the guards have exaggerated profiles and enlarged facial features more naturally suited to animation. It’s like the difference between Leiji Matsumoto’s heroes and sidekicks – one built for iconic still shots, the other for playful movement

More expressive, Fantasia-reminiscent splashes of full color as we return to a festival, with the festival’s fireworks and banners allowing for a pure celebration of color in motion

Along with other non-narrative animation spectacles, like this sequence of watching the festival performers. It makes sense – this film isn’t really trying to prove anything in a narrative sense, it is a firm declaration of “Japanese animated cinema” as a viable and vital art form

Meanwhile, Hsu earns some beautifully melancholy compositions, contrasted against the lovely backgrounds of the riverside

We are introduced to “the bandits of the city,” a duck and a mongoose, who go on some food-stealing operations. This film is sort of hedging between being a strict film narrative and a collection of skits, using each new location or set of characters in order to facilitate short sketches between installments in the main narrative

Of course, these vignettes also fit into a broader tradition of eastern storytelling, wherein stories are allowed more time to luxuriate in a specific moment or atmosphere, rather than the more strictly beat-to-beat narrative design common to western narratives

The pigs seem to run the bandit scene. Meanwhile, Hsu’s being taken advantage of in his work on the docks

Ooh, love the way they use colors and negative space for this night festival. The lights shimmering on the water are a beautiful effect

Even this early in the form, there are lots of cinematographic tricks stolen from cinema, like this use of soft focus and shots moving into each other used to create a smooth transition from Hsu’s sleeping form to his dreams of Pai

Hsu is glowing with magical energy and surrounded by spectral serpents in his sleep, which understandably freaks out the neighbors. Once again, the vast differences in their fundamental design aesthetic are so striking; they’re like creatures from different species

I also appreciate the wide variety of weird noises our two voice actors are using to represent the hundred side characters they’re responsible for

The monk returns, warning Hsu that Pai has ensnared him again. Goddamnit monk, some guys just want to be ensnared by treacherous snake spirits, and isn’t that their choice to make?

Gosh this shot of the city is beautiful. Once again, I love how the carefully lined shapes fade into evocative smudges of color over time, this time in a way that naturally evokes the heavy mist over the harbor

Meanwhile, Panda and Mimi have made their way to the city Hsu was banished to, and are immediately affronted by the rudeness of the locals

As before, this confrontation between groups of animals mostly seems like an excuse for Mori to show off their profoundly expressive character acting, with movement combining the standard poses of these animals with more human touches

The locals attempt to intimidate Panda, but he is having none of it. A rare opportunity for this narrative to engage in classic slapstick antics

Interesting to see the rare points where this film embraces smears, like this spinning shot of the big pig. They’re not really used in the modern way, to replace movement entirely

Hsu at last reaches the tower where Pai is staying, only for that goddamn monk to show up and spoil things again

And Pai appropriately responds why “why you gotta be a dick, everyone’s happy with this arrangement”

Once again, extreme light filtered through the cells is used for unique dramatic effects, as Pai and the monk square off in magical battle

Pai in her true form is gorgeous, like a flood of pure white energy spiraling in intricate patterns. I really like how this confrontation is using distortion of physical form to represent their attacks on each other

The monk proudly declares his victory, to the applause of no one. For an ancient tale, this story sure is pro-demons and anti-monks. I figured it took till more modern interpretations of stories like these for people to realize they always wanted to shack up with demons, and that monks were just buzzkills getting in the way

And then Hsu chases after the ghost of Pai, falling off a cliff in the process. It’s like a version of Romeo & Juliet where the only moral is “monks are the absolute worst”

Meanwhile, Pai Niang’s spirit is surfing the cosmos

She travels to the Dragon, in order to beseech him on behalf of Hsu’s soul

Pai is willing to give up her powers and immortality in order to save Hsu

The monk now has the temerity to blame Pai for Hsu’s death, and is actively preventing her from saving him. This is definitely not buddhism’s finest hour

Love how Hsiang’s dress essentially becomes a fish’s fin when she’s in the water

They’re really flexing with this final, massive storm of fish. Quite a remarkable display of animation

Hsiang’s friend the catfish summons a mighty storm, offering a visual bookend with the opening scene

While Hsu’s life is restored, Pai is being washed away in the storm, which in retrospect might not have been a good thing to summon

At least the monk gets his “wait, am I out of touch” moment with the flower of life

And Done

Well, that was a rewarding journey! To be honest, I was a little concerned this film would be early enough in anime production to feel more like pure research than an engaging drama in its own right, but I was hooked almost immediately. In spite of the simplicity of the narrative, the character animation just lent so much personality to every member of the cast that it was easy to care about them, and to rage at the monk for standing against true love. And in the absence of so many of anime’s eventual aesthetic and dramatic assumptions, it was also fascinating to see what tools these artists drew from other elements of world cinema, and what they brought in from the worlds of manga and traditional painting. A fascinating historical document and a vivid film in its own right; I greatly enjoyed this one, and will surely be checking out more of Toei Douga’s classic catalog.

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