viewing guide

A Guide to the Pre-Ghibli Work of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata

Photo: Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli has created some of the most beloved animated films in the history of the medium worldwide. Yet here we are, nearly four decades after the studio’s founding, with much of the work of its two great directors — Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, etc.) and Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, etc.) — almost entirely unheralded outside of Japan and animation circles. That’s beginning to change, with American institutions like the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles holding retrospectives of both directors’ films and the distributor GKIDS bringing more and more of Miyazaki and Takahata’s extra-Ghibli works Stateside. But despite Miyazaki and Takahata’s outsize influence on the history of animation, many cartoon lovers still haven’t seen some of their most significant works, either for want of access or simply because they’ve never heard of them.

We can’t help the former, but we can address the latter. Here is a guide to the major non-Ghibli works directed or written by Miyazaki and/or Takahata, and where to watch them (if you can).


The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963)

Takahata, while never an animator himself, left as large an imprint on animation as a director and writer as his protégé turned partner Miyazaki, however overlooked it often is. In fact, Takahata’s career as a director began long before Miyazaki’s, arguably with this 1963 film, which he assistant-directed. A stylistic departure from previous films released by powerhouse Toei Animation, the film — based on a Shintō myth involving a storm god’s battle with the titular eight-headed dragon, the mythical Yamata no Orochi — feels more influenced by the visuals of United Productions of America and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty than prior anime landmarks, with its abstracted character animation, bold colors, and stylized backgrounds.

Watch: Available dubbed on YouTube (for now)

The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (a.k.a. Little Norse Prince Valiant) (1968)

Takahata’s directorial debut and Miyazaki’s first major film (he contributed scene design and key animation) was a landmark in Japanese animation history, for those reasons and more. It’s a classic fantasy adventure film, set in ancient Norway, whose unassuming Chosen One hero, the titular Horus, pulls the Sword of the Sun, Excalibur-like, from the body of a stone giant. Horus is charged by his dying father to return to the village of his birth and avenge his people, all slaughtered by the ice devil Grunwald years before. The film presages a number of the hallmarks of Studio Ghibli animation, including realistic character movement — the young prince Horus, for instance, runs in a manner somewhat akin to a number of Miyazaki’s later characters — and a more mature subject manner than was typical for a children’s anime at the time. One sequence in particular, of Horus taking down a giant fish, is a marvel of movement and pacing.

Watch: Amazon Prime Video (dubbed, rent or buy)

Panda! Go, Panda! (1972) and Panda Kopanda and the Rainy-Day Circus (1973)

Now in theaters in a restored version along with its 1973 companion film, the smile of Panda! Go, Panda!’s eponymous massive mammal and the peppy pigtails of his pint-size human companion should trigger instant recognition in anyone who’s ever seen My Neighbor Totoro. (So do a handful of scenes, which really have to be watched to be appreciated — and yes, there sure is a baby panda in it.) Both it and Panda Kopanda and the Rainy-Day Circus, which Takahata directed and Miyazaki wrote, are short films — about a half-hour each — and all sweet, silly charm. Initially, both men wanted to adapt Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking series, and, along with their mentor Yasuo Ōtsuka (who was animation director on these films, Horus, and a handful of other projects on this list), went to Sweden to beg permission, which was denied them. The dream of Pippi lives on, however, in protagonist Mimiko’s red ponytails.

Watch: Now playing in select theaters

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Miyazaki’s feature-film debut is a barn burner of a pulp-fiction adventure comedy, all dashing derring-do and cheery, self-knowing humor. At the time of release, not everyone was pleased with the way the director reimagined famed gentleman thief Arsène Lupin III and his plucky partners in crime, but the film has aged magnificently. (Miyazaki’s unwillingness to baldly sexualize the film’s femme fatale in particular is a move that keeps the film eminently watchable decades later.) It’s arguably Miyazaki’s most purely fun feature film, with all the escapism of a James Bond flick and the setting to boot, filled with nefarious plots, knuckle-dragging henchmen crawling out of every orifice, wit for days, and an exaggeratedly wondrous pseudo-European landscape.

Watch: Netflix

Chie the Brat (1981)

Ten-year-old Chie Takemoto, “the most unfortunate girl in Japan,” does her best to keep her yakuza father in line while working at his tavern and trying to reunite him with her runaway mother. At the time, no one expected this sort of bawdy comedy from Takahata, who adapted it from the manga by Etsumi Haruki, although he would go on to top it in ribald weirdness with Pom Poko a little over a decade later. In a strange way, the film was responsible for the birth of Studio Ghibli: Takahata was interviewed after its release by a punchy young journalist named Toshio Suzuki, then an editor at Animage, who would go on to co-found the studio alongside Takahata and Miyazaki and become one of the great anime producers of all time.

Watch: Unfortunately unavailable to stream, rent, or buy in the U.S.

Gauche the Cellist (1982)

A strikingly beautiful film, Takahata’s adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa’s short story of the same name tells the tale of a young, amateurish cellist rehearsing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony, in his quaint country home, hoping not to screw up when he performs it with his local orchestra. As if by Disney magic, a handful of very smart local animals show up night after night before the big gig, driving Gauche batty but, miraculously, helping him learn the part and become a better musician. It’s a short film, at just over an hour, but one of Takahata’s very best, and it’s a huge bummer that there’s really nowhere to watch it online right now.

Watch: Unfortunately unavailable to stream, rent, or buy in the U.S.

Space Adventure Cobra: The Movie (1982)

Okay, so neither Miyazaki nor Takahata directed or wrote this one, but the legendary Osamu Dezaki — director of Ashita no Joe, the all-time great boxing anime, and, of all things, joint director of Rainbow Brite — tapped Miyazaki as the film’s key animator. It is, to put it mildly, nothing like anything else Miyazaki has ever done: a gritty sci-fi with a bounty-hunter lead, a weapon called a “Psychogun,” and villains with names like “Crystal Bowie” and “the Snow Gorillas.” It’s pretty ridiculous. You should probably watch it.

Watch: Vudu (dubbed); Tubi (dubbed, Spanish-language)

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Pretty much everyone assumes this movie is a Studio Ghibli film, but, in fact, it was animated by Topcraft and released by Toei. Still, it more or less led to Ghibli’s creation, it’s since been rereleased with the Ghibli logo proudly introducing it, and, like other Ghibli films, it’s streaming on HBO Max. An adaptation of Miyazaki’s manga of the same name, this tale of a pure-hearted warrior princess in a postapocalyptic medievalish fantasy world George R.R. Martin would probably call an interregnum world doesn’t need much of an introduction if you’ve made it this far in this list. It’s a bona fide masterpiece and has influenced everything from the Final Fantasy series to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Watch: HBO Max


Lupin the 3rd: Part I (1971–1972)

Before The Castle of Cagliostro, there was Lupin III, now known as Lupin the 3rd: Part I, since it was so successful that it would go on to spawn series after series of TV adaptations of Monkey Punch’s classic manga. Like Cagliostro, it follows the escapades of Arsène Lupin III and his companions, laconic eagle-eyed marksman Daisuke Jigen, the mostly disciplined master swordsman Goemon Ishikawa XIII, and femme-fatale fellow thief Fujiko Mine as they consistently outwit the dogged Inspector Zenigata and a rotating handful of baddies. Viewers with eyes as sharp as Jigen’s should note the influence he and Lupin had, in both character and character design, on Cowboy Bebops Jet Black and Spike Spiegel, respectively.

Watch: Crunchyroll (subbed); PlutoTV (subbed); Tubi (subbed)

Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974)

One of the most influential anime series of the 1970s, Heidi went a long way toward proving that kodomomuke, anime aimed specifically at a children’s audience, could be as artistically valuable as more adult series — a point Studio Ghibli would later prove again and again. Miyazaki himself calls this series, which he worked on but Takahata directed, Takahata’s “masterpiece.” In fact, its stellar opening sequence made it the only non-Ghibli property by either Takahata or Miyazaki to land on Vulture’s list of the 100 Sequences That Shaped Animation, although the fish sequence from Horus came close. Based on the children’s book Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri, the series runs the emotional gamut: Heidi’s romps through the Bavarian Alps, where she lives with her grandfather and his dog in a cabin after the death of her parents, are charming, and her struggles with mental health and orphanhood and being shipped here and there at the whims of her aunt are deeply affecting. Heidi is an icon in Japan (where her face is even on a postage stamp), and was quite popular with global audiences everywhere from Spain to South Africa, but deserves more love from American audiences, especially considering the recent success of Netflix’s Hilda.

Watch: Available subbed on YouTube (for now)

3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976)

Takahata was a remarkably prolific TV director throughout the 1970s in particular. 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother is yet another adaptation from childhood literature — in this case, a looser one, of a portion of the book Heart by Italian author Edmondo de Amicis. It’s another Takahata series that saw lots of love from international audiences, including both Italy and South America, where the series is set, and in nations as ideologically disparate as Israel and Iran. Like Heidi, the series stars a child hero — this time a Genoan boy named Marco, flung far from home and into adventure by unfortunate childhood circumstances — with an often sorrowful story and, yet, a happy ending. Also like Heidi, U.S. audiences have mostly slept on it.

Watch: Available subbed on YouTube (for now)

Future Boy Conan (1978)

Takahata historically had better luck with television than Miyazaki, whose series simply weren’t as successful with audiences. There’s a likely reason for that: During the period Takahata was most prolific as a television director, he often mined the rich veins of childhood nostalgia and children’s literature, even if his series were often emotionally taxing. Miyazaki, by and large, tended to be interested in concepts that were, well, a little weirder. Future Boy Conan, set in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by war and featuring child heroes and a ragged band of fellow survivors who face seemingly insurmountable odds, is a perfect example. Conan foreshadows many of the themes Miyazaki would explore in his later cinematic works, including Castle in the Sky. It’s proven influential outside of the Ghibli oeuvre as well, especially in Sumito Ōwara’s manga Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, which was adapted into a hit series by a younger anime great, Masaaki Yuasa.

Watch: Amazon Prime Video (dubbed, for purchase); Google Play Movies & TV (dubbed, for purchase); Vudu (dubbed, for purchase); YouTube (subbed, for purchase)

Anne of Green Gables (1979)

Takahata and Miyazaki never could get the rights to Pippi Longstocking, but Takahata did manage to adapt Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 Canadian children’s-lit classic, which features another vivacious redheaded girl. The series was a massive hit in Japan, where the book has been part of school curriculums since the 1970s, making it a natural choice for an adaptation. It also marked something of a turning point in the relationship between Takahata and Miyazaki, the latter of whom left the show early in its run over creative differences with its director, and henceforth, each would develop even more distinct signature styles and themes.

Watch: Available subbed on YouTube (possibly legit!)

Chie the Brat (1981–1983)

So it turned out that, despite Toshio Suzuki’s impudent skepticism, Chie the Brat did well enough that it was adapted into a series, which brought back all the original lead voice actors and Takahata as director to boot. The series begins as a reimagining of the film, then turns to the anime for further story lines. Like the film, alas, you won’t find it streaming anywhere Stateside.

Watch: Unfortunately unavailable to stream, rent, or buy in the U.S.

Sherlock Hound (1984–1985)

Sherlock Holmes, but with dogs, basically. Miyazaki directed the first six episodes, and they’re all, of course, terrifically animated and a whole lot of fun to boot. Then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate got annoyed, and by the time the show was able to go on, Miyazaki was too busy to return to the project. (Nausicaä, preparing to start up Studio Ghibli, and Castle in the Sky will do that to you.) The quality took a nosedive after that.

Watch: Amazon Prime Video (rent or buy)

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990–1991)

Another spin on a western literary classic, the great Hideaki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame and infamy) directed this series based on a concept Miyazaki had dreamed up years earlier. While the initial series idea, Around the World in 80 days by Sea, never went anywhere, production company Toho kept the rights to the story — although Miyazaki would cannibalize pieces of it for some of his own works — and Anno was finally tapped to direct it. (Evangelion was initially going to be a sequel to Nadia, but that’s another story.) Nadia is flooded with the influence of the works of Jules Verne, especially (despite its initial title) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which lends Captain Nemo and the Nautilus here in supporting roles. Miyazaki’s trademarks are equally noticeable here, especially in the young, plucky heroine, who’s on the run from jewel thieves seeking her magical pendant, the Blue Water, and has to save the world from a violent invasion from below the sea.

Watch: Coming soon from GKIDS

A Pre-Ghibli Guide to Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata