In the middle of watching Dirty Pair and Higurashi: When They Cry, I decided to watch a movie, the better to have something to review, quick. So I decided to, once more, reach way back into anime’s early years for my viewing choice, and selected Hakujaden, or The Tale of the White Serpent, which I‘d heard of in a documentary on the history of anime. Tale of the White Serpent isn’t very anime at all in appearance. To be expected perhaps, as the first feature length production in color from 1958 (but not the first color anime; TV special short Mole’s Adventure premiered earlier, a mere week prior). The surprising thing is, it looks even less recognizably anime than Momotaro, Sacred Sailors back in 1945! But that intensively patriotic film had Japanese protagonists and some scenes in Japan itself, while our present anime is inspired by a Chinese legend (in the spirit of patching things up with their late foe, I read), and anime hadn’t yet built the confidence to tote all of its domestic cultural tropes overseas, so with the exception of the language and a dango salesman at a market there is little reminding the viewer of the land of its manufacture.
The prologue features a primitive stop-motion technique I found dull, but don’t let that discourage you. The main action is in drawn animation that is often appealing, and the narration at the outset is beautiful, melodiously readying the viewer for a story adapted from a Chinese classic. In his boyhood, Hsu Hsien bought a white snake at a market, and the two became close friends. But the grown-ups hated the snake, and forced him to abandon it after a tearful parting. Years later, during a fantastic storm, the serpent transforms into a beautiful lady, Pai Niang, who in turn summons a fish demon that transforms into her lady-in-waiting, Hsiao Ching. Visually they are a striking pair; Pai Niang is the only character with blue eyes, and fairer skin (I’m tempted to label her “waifu zero”), while Hsiao Ching has slant eyes, yellow skin, and even a shuffling gait apiece with “chink” stereotypes of the Chinese; not sure whether this’s from artist’s whimsy or to show social rank.
In the next scene, Hsu Hsien’s pets Panda (a panda) and Mimi (a fox) join their master at flute practice—and in a convention beloved of classical Oriental romances, he hears, then espies, a young lady playing accompaniment on her lute. It is the transformed serpent, Pai Niang, who remembers well her childhood friendship with Hsu Hsien, though she knows he doesn’t recognize her. Never having seen a girl the more beautiful, Hsu pursues her, but she vanishes on his approach, and they lose her in town, but the mischievous lady-in-waiting, Hsiao Ching, guides Panda and Mimi on to Pai Niang’s lute—but becomes alarmed on learning that a famous monk who hunts troublesome supernatural beings is also in town. The next morning, after Hsu Hsien and friends set out to return the instrument, Hsiao meets them, and leading them to her lady’s imposing palace, introduces Hsu to Pai. Then ensues the loveliest scene, as the pair, immediately lovers, stroll the beautiful grounds.
Early anime is often likened to Disney, but in Hakujaden there’s only time animals break into song and dance, and that is now, as Panda and Mimi celebrate their master’s good fortune.
But in one of the weirdest segues imaginable, an ornamental dragon they are playing with starts flying; Hsiao Ching tries to help, grabbing hold just as it takes flight. They crash through the roof of the imperial treasury, and Hsiao sees fit to take back two shining jewels for the couple. The authorities soon find out, arrest Hsu, separating him from Pai as well as Panda and Mimi; charged with sorcery (not theft?), he is sent into exile. We next find him in a port city during a great festival, heart still filled with longing for Pai, while his pets faithfully try to find the way back to his side.
None too long, this anime movie will please lovers of romance and supernatural adventure. But it’s especially a good choice for sinophiles and adorers of classical Oriental culture overall. Though set across the Sea of Japan, to a non-specialist‘s eye that favorite, the lover’s walk in the garden, could be mistaken for a Tale of Genji outtake from Heian Japan. Hakujaden‘s strength is being a most historic, atypical anime that can stand on story and art without leaning on historicity, or surviving as a favorite of connoisseurs of the strange.