That this was so, so much better than Shounen Sarutobi Sasuke in just about every way – except perhaps consistency of action and coherence of narrative – at first made me quite annoyed I’d seen that film first. Why did Toei follow up a very impressive first feature film (also
’s first feature-length anime in colour and as far as I can discern only their second feature-length anime ever) with one of decidedly lower quality? Watching it the way I did made me totally underestimate Toei’s animation standards in the late fifties. But then I grew to think it was better this way – for Shounen Sarutobi Sasuke would have been much more of a disappointment and I wouldn’t have the pleasant surprise of Hakujaden being so much better. Japan
For 1958, there is a lot of impressive stuff here – and it is clearly a new studio with something to prove pulling out all the stops. It may not look anything close to as good as 50s Disney (the closest contemporary being the classic Sleeping Beauty), but for the first colour feature animation the country ever produced, long before anime was the seething mass of studios it is today, it has moments that are greatly impressive. The scene with a dragon has some clever work with angles and objects approaching the camera that reminded me of the brilliant chase sequence in The Thief and the Cobbler, and part of the plot is basically an excuse to show a lot of very carefully-done animation of performers at a festival. The animators also seem to have a grasp of making characters seem to have weight that gets forgotten for Sarutobi Sasuke, and fight scenes – both earthy ones between silly animals and fantastical ones where monks are blown away by great gusts of wind – work so much better.
The plot is unwieldy, though, especially compared with Disney’s slickness, and has to be ponderously explained by a narrator. In an opening sequence that I like to think made at least a few in the audience think they were in for a full film of still images and puppets, a young boy named Xu Xian buys a white snake at a market, but is told he cannot keep it. Unbeknownst to him, the white serpent is a youkai, the snake princess Bai Niang. When Xu Xian is older, Bai Niang, along with the fish she has transformed into a servant girl, acquaints herself with Xu through music. The fish girl, Xiao-Chin, leads Xu Xian’s little animal friends (a panda and a red panda, very similar to designs for Sarutobi Sasuke’s animals but better-drawn and with far less horribly-recorded voices) to her mistress’s shamisen, and they are soon united. However – and here it gets a bit confused – the animals then take a dragon down from a pillar, only for it to come to life, carry them through the skies and drop them in the local treasure house, where – through theft or magic – two pretty stars end up in the possession of the lovers. Using some sort of tracking, one assumes, the local police force shows up and poor Xu Xian gets exiled. Bai Niang slips away, her palace only an illusion. Xu Xian is unable to enjoy the festivities of the country/province he is exiled to, and trouble is nearby: the exorcist Fa-Hai knows of Bai Niang and wants to rid Xu Xian of the evil spirit. He does battle with her and prevails, robbing her of her human form. With the last of her strength, Bai Niang projects a human image of herself leaving the world so that Xu Xian will be able to see her disappear – only he chases the phantasm and ends up falling off a cliff. The only way to save him is for Xu Xian to give up her immortality, as for doing so she is granted a flower of life from what I’m guessing is the Jade Emperor. With the help of all their allies, love wins through and there’s a rather artificially bittersweet farewell for the ending.
It’s rather convoluted, but I’m assuming that’s because it’s based on an established Chinese folk tale, which also gives the plot some real strengths – like the way the antagonist is not evil but doing what he truly thinks is the best thing he can. Toei chose this Chinese story for, to my mind, three reasons – first, because according to Wikipedia, the Toei president wanted a ‘note of reconciliation’ with
after the atrocities of WWII. Second, because Princess Iron Fan had been so influential, and this may have been an attempt to look like part of a legacy. And third, because the story had already been made into a successful 1956 live-action film and was thus familiar to the public. China
Though the plot is clumsy and the pacing odd – for example, what ought to be the action building to a climax is punctured by a long scene of animals having a scrap to see who’s strongest – there is much to admire here, including surprisingly high-quality animation and some great experimentation with visual effects. Well worth seeing for the historical significance, but enjoyable either way. Also currently the oldest anime I’ve ever seen – until I get to the Momotaro feature film. Which will finally be going back far enough that Rintaro is not involved: his first-ever job was on Hakujaden!