After cutting his teeth working for Toei Animation, TMS Entertainment, and Nippon Animation before going freelance in 1979, Takahata went on to co-found Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, and today is regarded as one of the greatest anime directors of all time. More infamously, he's also regarded as one of the strictest, to the point where it's rumored that his perfectionist attitudes towards his staff was a factor in both Ghibli's lack of new blood and Yoshifumi Kondo's death of a brain aneurysm in 1998, something Takahata himself was willing to believe. Nonetheless, his films are regarded as some of the best to ever come out of Japan, and no one will argue that his legacy and acclaim is undeserved. In that sense, one could consider Takahata the anime industry's equivalent of Stanley Kubrick.
His directorial work included:
- Horus: Prince of the Sun, also released as Little Norse Prince Valiant (1968)
- Lupin III: Part 1 (1971, episodes 8-23; co-directed with Hayao Miyazaki)
- Panda! Go Panda! (1972, 1973)
- Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974)
- 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976)
- Anne of Green Gables (1979)
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
- Only Yesterday (1991)
- Pom Poko (1994)
- My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
- Winter Days (2003, director and animator for the 28th segment)
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Isao Takahata's works provide examples of:
- Children Are Innocent: A theme frequently deconstructed in his films, which devote at least some time to examining how flawed childhood innocence is and how it inevitably gets broken down by both time and experience.
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata's films leaned more towards bittersweet at best; the most extreme case of this was with Grave of the Fireflies, an infamously depressing film about two children trying to survive in the midst of the American military's devastation of Japan in World War II, sandwiched directly between the adventurous Castle in the Sky and the whimsical My Neighbor Totoro.
- Doing It for the Art: Takahata's films always emphasized artistry over marketability, though this inevitably didn't translate to commercial success in a few cases.
- Genre Roulette: Compared to Miyazaki, who specialized in fantasy-inspired films driven by a sense of adventure, Takahata focused on a much more varied palette of genres, with the main glue between them being a dramatic tone. Going from his work with Studio Ghibli alone, he's produced a depressing war drama, a coming-of-age-meets-adult-drama film with Magic Realism elements, a Green Aesop fantasy dramedy, a Slice of Life vignette film, and a medieval fantasy-drama.
- Grand Finale: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was created with the intention of being this for Takahata's career; he had already resigned from directing after My Neighbors the Yamadas, but decided to return for one last project to end things off on a high note.
- Humans Are Flawed: A common theme in his works, with said flaws ranging from comical to dead-serious.
- Odd Friendship: Given the radically different types of movies they make, one can get thrown off-guard at first upon learning that Takahata was one of Hayao Miyazaki's closest friends.
- Short-Lived, Big Impact: He was definitely the less prolific of Ghibli's two big directors (he actually directed the same number of films as Miyazaki, but far less of his own works were made under Ghibli's roof, with his earlier films much less known, and the gaps between his Ghibli films were far greater), but his films remain massively influential to this day; even today, a depressing animated film will always see at least one comparison to Grave of the Fireflies.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: His films range all over the spectrum, sometimes shifting place from scene-to-scene.
- Signature Style: Introspective drama films with particular focus on the flaws of human nature and the difficulty characters face in handling uncontrollable misfortunes.
- What Could Have Been: Takahata was planning to work on an animated short for Modest Heroes, but his death nixed that.