The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Hakujaden

Title: Hakujaden aka The Tale of the White Serpent aka Panda and the Magic Serpent aka Legend of the White Snake aka The Great White Snake aka The White Snake Enchantress
Genre: Drama
Company: Toei Animation
Format: Movie; 78 minutes.
Dates: 22 Oct 1958

Synopsis: As a young boy, Xu-Xian is forbidden from keeping a pet snake. Sadly, he sets the snake free, unaware that it is actually a snake goddess who has fallen in love with him. Years later she returns in the form of a beautiful woman named Bai-Niang to be with Xu-Xian again. A local priest discovers her secret and tries to separate the two lovers forever by banishing Xu-Xian from his home. However, Bai-Niang will not give up so easily.

The Highlights
Historical significance: The first anime film in colour. An inspiration for Miyazaki Hayao.
Style: Very early Disney.
Sidekicks: Have more personality than the leads.

Hakujaden is significant in many ways. It was the first anime movie to be produced in colour and the first to ever be shown in North America. It helped to launch Toei as a powerhouse studio, and when Miyazaki Hayao saw it as a teenager, it inspired him to pursue animation. In this sense, Hakujaden is an important work, representing the starting point for many things.

The style of the film is clearly reminiscent of early Disney, especially Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, both in story and art. The designs of the characters reveal that they are clearly Asian, but they do not reflect the modern anime aesthetic. The movement of the characters is slightly exaggerated and cartoony, especially for Bai-Niang’s servant and the animals. The characters’ lips do not move in time with their speech. Their eyes often move unnaturally. In the quieter, more emotional scenes the animation feels awkward, but in others, such as Bai-Niang’s battle with the priest, it is quite impressive and smooth. Like many Disney films at the time, Hakujaden features anthropomorphized animal sidekicks who engage in cartoony violence and tells much of the story through song and movement rather than speech. The voices of all the characters and the sometimes intrusive narrator are all provided by just two actors.

The film draws upon an ancient Chinese tale and is a simple story of two lovers who cannot be together. When the local priest discovers Bai-Niang is a goddess, his first instinct is that she is seducing Xu-Xian for personal gain. She spends much of the film trying to prove him wrong, and it is not until near the end of the film that we are truly sure of her intentions. This approach is effective in creating doubt as to whether it is the priest or Bai-Niang who really has Xu-Xian’s best interests in mind. Where the story falters is in the blandness of the main cast. Hakujaden suffers from the same challenge as The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon in that the heroes of legends are not well described. Xu-Xian is portrayed as a nice boy and Bai-Niang as beautiful, but it is their love for each other that defines their characters. The two do not feel like real people. Instead, the personality is provided to the animal sidekicks, Mimi and Panda, who try to help Xu-Xian along the way. The story often gets distracted by their antics and loses focus. Scenes such as the one where Mimi and Panda fight a gang of other animals led by some mean pigs feel like they were added to fill time rather than add much to the story.

With awkward pacing and bland characters, Hakujaden cannot be considered great. It tells its story competently, doing its legendary origins justice, but is memorable more for its place in anime history than for its content. It is a film that deserves respect, but will only really appeal to those interested in exploring the early days of Japanese animation.

 

The Rating: 5
5/10

Reviewed by: Kaikyaku

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