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Director: Taji Yabushita
Release Date: September 3, 1958
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The White Serpent © Toei Animation‘The White Serpent’ (also known as ‘Madame White Snake’ or as ‘Panda and the Magic Serpent’) is a feature of firsts: it was the first feature made by the Tōei Studio, Japan’s first post-war feature, the first one in color, and the first to be released in the United States.

The film somewhat forms the herald of a new era within Japanese animation, and is sometimes regarded as the starting point of the Japanese animation industry. The Tōei studio at least had the intention to become the Oriental Disney. Indeed, the foundation of the Tōei Dōga studio two years earlier was partly inspired by the Japanese release of Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), which made an enormous impression on Japanese animators. Another catalyst was the coming of television, for which the studio could make numerous commercials.

For its feature film studio boss Hiroshi Okawa firmly preferred universal tales. As Disney already had mined the European legacy, the Tōei studio turned his attention to Asia. Thus, the film tells an ancient Chinese legendary love story, more or less immediately familiar to Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other East Asian audiences, greatly enhancing the film’s export possibilities.

The film starts with a prologue to a song, in which we watch a boy befriend a snake. Unfortunately the adults don’t approve, and he has to set the snake free. This part uses shadow-like cutout figures with little to no animation, and has a certain elegant cartoon modern feel to it. This is replaced by classic full animation as soon as the real story starts. For the abandoned snake turns out to be an immortal spirit, who now takes the shape of a beautiful girl, Pai Nang, and who revisits her former owner, the now adult Hin Hsien.

Unfortunately, their love is disrupted by a bonze called Hokai, who fights evil spirits and who takes Pai Nang for one. Typically for a Japanese film, Hokai is no real villain, but a man who tries to save Hin Hsien on incorrect assumptions. Also starring are a fish spirit who turns into a little girl called Hsiang Ching, and two animal sidekicks called Panda and Mimi (a fox), who seem to have walked straight from a Disney movie, although they are clearly nipponified on the way. When Hin Hsien is banished, the two go looking for him, and on the way they beat and befriend an animal gang of robbers and thieves.

The fight between Panda and the gang leader, a large pig, is one of the highlights of the movie. Another is the celestial combat between Pai Nang and Hokai, an extraordinary scene by all means, as is Pai Nang’s journey through heaven in search for the dragon ruler of all spirits.

Overall the film has a poetic and magical atmosphere, greatly enhanced by Chui Kinoshita’s evocative music, and the narrative moves at a leisurely speed, sometimes aided by a voice over. The animation varies from fair to excellent. Especially the animals are very well done. There’s no attempt at lip synch, however, and at times the voices seem detached from their animated bodies. On the other hand, this feat would have made overdubbing rather easy, and as the film was designed to be distributed all over Asia, this must have been a conscious choice.

Overall, the animation style has more in common with contemporary European products than with Disney animation. There’s a poetic elegance and naivety to it that certainly adds to the movie’s charm. Indeed, the film was a success in Japan, and attracted all kinds of animators to the Tōei studio, including a young Hayao Miyazaki, who joined Tōei in 1963.

In all, ‘The White Serpent’ is by all means a successful start of a new era, and a film that still entertains today.

Watch the 1958 trailer for ‘The White Serpent’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The White Serpent’ is available as a French DVD-release called ‘le serpent blanc’

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