Miyazaki Riffs #2

Panda Kopanda (1972)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Here we have one of my favorite of all the Miyazaki riffs. It's a favorite because it's so clever, so very subtle and graceful. It's all wrapped around a line of dialog in the opening scene of My Neighbor Totoro, a little throwaway line for most people, but one that, in truth, reveals to the audience just what kind of movie awaits them.

A quick backstory first. In 1972, after the first Lupin III television series went off the air (due to abysmal ratings, in that classic Star Trek vein of "What Were They Thinking?"), Takahata and Miyazaki went ahead with the project that brought them to A Pro: a TV adaptation of Pippi Longstockings. They completed their preliminary work, did the necessary research, and drew extensive image boards. Then they went to Astrid Lindgren, the original author, for permission. Lindgren refused.

Miyazaki, especially, was disappointed, and in a sense, he never really got over being snubbed. He, along with Takahata and most of the regulars from Toei, poured their efforts into a 35-minute short film called Panda Kopanda. It seems a lot of what was intended for Pippi was changed into Panda, in particular the young girl, who sports the same red pigtails.

If you'll notice, the "Pippi look" popped up from time to time in Miyazaki's career: Dora, the pirate leader in Castle in the Sky; Fio, the firey mechanic in Porco Rosso; even the heroine in his 2005 short Yadosagashi ("House Hunting") wears the pigtails. Take this as a lesson, kids: don't cross Miyazaki.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Where were we? Ah, yes, the opening scene in Totoro. If you'll recall, there's a moment early on where the moving truck, carrying the father and two girls, passes a man on bicycle. Satsuki tells her sister to duck and hide; after the truck passes, they pop their heads back out, and they wave to the man on the bike.

"That's a relief, I thought he was a policeman," Satsuki says.

Now here's the riff. That sideways shot, of the bike moving past the moving truck, is directly quoted from Panda Kopanda. In that scene, the man on the bike was on his way to check up on Mimiko, the girl, and get scared stupid by the giant panda living in her house.

What does the man do? He's a policeman.

That's bloody clever, and not only because it's subtle. It's Miyazaki's way to telling you that Totoro is going to be similar, in content and style, to Panda Kopanda. It allows us to see the new film in light of the old, playing them off one another, making comparisons, and noting just how far the director has grown in the space of fifteen years. Of course, My Neighbor Totoro is far more than merely an updated Panda short. It's so much more. But that's where its roots lie. We'll chat about that more some other time.

(P.S. A little port-game trivia for you: the policeman from Panda Kopanda was voiced by the late great Yasuo Yamada, famously known as the voice of Lupin III. He voiced the character in every Lupin production, except one, until his death in 1995.)

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