Movie Review: Hakujaden (1958)

Review: Hakujaden
Review: Hakujaden
Review: Hakujaden
Review: Hakujaden
Review: Hakujaden
Review: Hakujaden
Review: Hakujaden
Review: Hakujaden

Yes, those red fish are really spitting on the blue fish. Don't ask.

Closing out my late-late fury of posts on Toei's landmark anime Hakujaden (The Legend of the White Serpent), here is a series of excellent screenshots to share with everyone.

Originally, I was just going to post the Youtube links to the American version, Panda and the Magic Serpent. If there's anyone who has heard of this movie on our shores, it would be this dubbed version. That video is ripped from and old VHS copy, and it (painfully) shows. The upload also resulted in the loss of many animation frames, making the whole exercise choppy and jerky. You really have to look hard to see the great movie that lies underneath. Fortunately, I've found the download link to the complete Hakujaden with subs, so you won't have to settle.

Hakujaden (1958) is a telling of a Chinese folk tale, and it's a love story between a boy and a girl. Or more specifically, it's a love story between a boy and a girl who's also a snake spirit. There is a fiery monk who battles spirits who comes between them, and we are left to guess whether she is good or evil. And there is the panda and fox, who get caught up in some misadventures of their own. It's a great movie, an excellent showpiece for the Toei studio, and there's something for everyone.

I found myself gripped all the way to the end. I couldn't tell which side is right or wrong. No doubt most of that is because of my unfamiliarity with the Chinese story, but there's a great deal of suspense in this movie, not only what happens between the two lovers, but ultimately which person is right: the monk or the girl. Oh, and I really liked Panda.

Oh, and I should add one more thing. There's a sequence near the end that involves a storm at sea, a giant fish, and an army of smaller fish. I immediately saw a direct parallel to the similar scene from Ponyo's trailer, and it seems Miyazaki might have seen Hakujaden as a source of inspiration. After all, it was this movie that convinced the young asipring manga artist to become an animator. He would join Toei in 1963 after graduating college, and the rest is yadda yadda.

If you are still fooled with the stereotype that old anime is cheap or low-budget, Hakujaden will seriously change your mind. In the late 1950's, this movie was giving Uncle Walt a real run for the money. Give this movie a chance and see what it does for you.


asuka said...

thanks so much for the hakujaden pictures and link. i look forward to downloading and watching it! as you say the only easily available version in the US is looking pretty faded these days, and the dub is slightly laughable. (though charming in its own way, and interesting for historical reasons etc.)

the backgrounds and everything are so delicate and beautiful. what happened to this artistic style in animation? was it just created for this film and then did it disappear for ever? there's something about it such that when i'm watching, i can see that it's drawn, but in my memory it fades into something with a claymation feel.

asuka said...

why don't you find us a nice japanese language dvd of hakujaden to buy over the internet? o(^_^)o

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Oh, you can get the Hakujaden DVD from Japan from any major online retailer. You just won't have any subtitles to go with it. This fansub was very recently released, and I was very pleasantly surprised to discover it yesterday.

"Panda and the Magic Serpent" is available on Youtube right now, so if you are curious about that version, go ahead and check it out. Then compare it to this fansub copy and be amazed.

And the best way to preserve the hand-crafted animation tradition is to preserve its history. This is one crucial area where Western anime fans have dropped the ball. I like new stuff as much as anyone else, but we also need the classics, too.

Great comments, as always.

asuka said...

i actually own panda and the magic serpent - it is a bit scratchy!

Unknown said...

There are two good DVD releases of this film worldwide. There is the Japanese release of course, and a French release put out by Wild Side. Both have their pros and cons, but the French DVD is better overall. It has a better quality restored progressive image, while the r2j has minimal restoration and is interlaced. 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 r2j has a fullscreen 4:3 aspect ratio. If the OAR 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. The biggest downside to the French DVD is that it has French hardsubs during the credits and opening song (though the rest is softsubbed). But French subs are a big plus if you understand French. It also has a lot of special features, like interviews with Yoichi Kotabe and Takahata, while the r2j has only a trailer.

It looks like this fansub used the inferior r2j as the video source. The subs look like an adequate translation of the subs from the French DVD, but they could be better. I am currently improving them.

The English version of Panda and the Magic Serpent that I have wasn't transferred from a VHS, it was transferred from a pretty beat up 16mm print. The dub is pretty good as dubs go, but it takes a few liberties with the original script, and the slight "asian" accents the main characters have are pretty annoying. It's interesting that the American actors did a much better job of synchronizing their dialog with the characters' mouths. Although I'm not too sure the Japanese actors were really concerned with that. It seems more like they were going for something like a benshi narration.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

When I read your comments, Joshua, I checked through my fansub copy of Hakujaden. I played my fansub copy of Hakujaden on the VLC player, and switched it to 16:9 view. The picture did appear to be more natural, perhaps a bit stretched to the sides, but it does seem that the 4:3 ration leaves the picture slightly cramped and tall. It would appear that this movie was intended to be viewed in widescreen.

I do wish VLC had a 1.66:1 ratio, because I'd love to test it out. If there are other media players that can customize the screen ratio, give it a shot.

I believe the best person to ask on this subject would be Ben Ettinger. I can't imagine anyone else in the West who would know, seeing as how Toei's movies are virtually unknown outside of Japan.

Toei's Japanese DVD's are all very basic, but they were issued back in 2000 (give or take a year). They are single-layer discs, with no effort to restore the films at any stage of development. But film restoration only became a DVD obsession later with players like Criterion and Warner Bros. In 2000, the DVD format was still very new. I'm sure we'll all agree this is a vast improvement over the Panda and the Magic Serpent VHS.

There are also no English subtitles on any of the Toei Doga DVDs, and no extras save the trailers. On the positive side, at least we get the full movies as they were originally intended, with the movie posters on the cover.

I see that Wild Side's French DVD is much more recent, but I've never seen it in action. The bonus materials - documentary, interviews with Yoichi Kotabe and Isao Takahata (their discussions appear on a number of Wild Side DVDs) should be excellent.

If you can revise and improve the subtitles for Hakujaden, great! This is the best part of the fansub community. Ideally, there should be a seperate subtitle file on the fansub, which would make all of this easier.

I'll try to snap some screenshots from VLC in 16:9 if I can, but there's a frustrating bug where the program crashes whenever I take a snapshot. I'm always having to deal with little bugs and screwups like this, and I just reinstalled Windows XP on my computer. Frankly, I can't save up for a Macbook fast enough.

I'll make a post of the Japanese and French DVDs so everyone can see for themselves. And don't forget to download the fansub, everybody!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to someone named "Madhater45," you can see the movie on YouTube. Enter "Panda and the Magic Serpent." Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

i got this movie for a $1 at walmart i loved this movie it was so funny but i enjoyed the story

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