Currently, Toei Doga's landmark 1958 movie Hakujaden is commercially available in only two regions: Japan and France. Let's take a quick look and see how they compare.
First, here is the Japanese DVD. All of the classic Toei Doga films were released on DVD around the year 2000 in Japan. The cover features the movie poster, which is quite nice. I always have a thing for Asian movie posters; they're always so densely packed works of montage art. Hakujaden features an elegant design, the title centered on the page, seperating the two lovers. The other major characters appear on the bottom, and we even see Panda riding on the Dragon sculpture - one of the film's great moments.
As for the downsides, there are many. There are no extras, save the trailer. There are no subtitle tracks. The disc is single-layer, resulting in darker, muddier, grungier picture quality. And then there's the aspect ratio. Hakujaden is presented in a traditional 4:3 ratio, but a number of sources, from IMDB to the French DVD, suggest the correct picture frame is 1.66:1 widescreen.
The discussion thread from this post (Hakujaden screenshots) brings up this topic. I'm inclined to agree with this reader's sentiments:
"The aspect ratio for the two releases is different. IMDB says the original aspect ratio for the film was 1.66:1, which is what the French DVD has framed inside anamorphic 16:9. The [Region-2 Japan] has a fullscreen 4:3 aspect ratio. If the [Original Aspect Ratio] really was 1.66, it means that the film was originally produced in fullscreen, but matted to 1.66 when projected in theaters. In any case, the French DVD is missing some image at the top and bottom, and the Japanese DVD is missing some image on the left and right."
After tinkering around with the fansub on my VLC player, it does appear to me that the 4:3 ratio is cramped and tall. When stretched to 16:9 ratio, the picture appears more balanced, but perhaps a bit too wide. I do wish 1.66:1 was an option for VLC so I could judge for certain, but this in fact a common occurance for many movies. The 35mm film will be set to a 4:3 ration, and then properly stretched out by the projector camera. It's not a common practice for animation films (far easier to just draw in paint in the correct size), but we must remember that Hakujaden was Toei's first animation feature. So it would appear that this practice was very quickly abandoned.
In any event, it's very obvious that Hakujaden, like all the Toei Doga classics, is in need of a proper restoration and reissue. Perhaps these issues will be resolved on Blu-Ray.
Now let's take a look at the French DVD. This is a very recent release, from 2008. The title, Le Serpent Blanc, is a translation from the original title; "Hakujaden" means "Legend of the White Serpent." Thank goodness they chose to ignore the American dub title, "Panda and the Magic Serpent," but the French DVD companies have shown a remarkable respect for the Toei classics as well as the films of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki ("Horus, Prince du Soleil").
Wild Side has previously released Chie the Brat and Horus, Prince of the Sun in France, and they've done an excellent job with both. Extensive interviews with Yoichi Kotabe and Isao Takahata were conducted for those two seminal films, and footage of their impressions of Hakujaden appear here. This may seem strange, since Toei Doga's first film came in 1958, before Takahata or Kotabe joined the studio, but it's great to hear their insights.
Also included on the French DVD is a 26-minute documentary, a 24-page booklet, and a host of other features. Wild Side has really done an excellent job. I'll leave it for you to decide whether or not the cover design works. It is very modern, I'll give it that, but when did DVD covers become so cliched? And have you noticed how Hayao Miyazaki gets name-dropped on the back? Heh heh... buy this movie, because a 17-year-old high school student who one day becomes world famous liked it! Heh heh....funny.
The picture frame is set to 16:9 widescreen, and by the few screenshots that I've seen, it does appear that part of the top and bottom are cut out. This movie seriously needs to be restored to its proper aspect ratio. But I don't expect anybody to complain. This is an excellent package and Wild Side should be proud. My only beef - obviously - is the lack of English subtitles.
I am greatly impressed that Hakujaden was finally released outside of Japan. Perhaps the rest of the studio catalog will make their way Westward. Horus, Puss in Boots, and Animal Treasure Island are already available in many regions. I'm still patiently waiting for the others, especially Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon, and especially Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. And, obviously, I'd love to see everything released here in the States.