When I have in the past talked about Isao Takahata, a man who's certainly in the conversation about my favorite animation directors of all time if he's not indeed #1, it has usually been to reflect on how, to a degree unseen in Japanese animation prior to the ascendance of Yuasa Masaaki, most of his films reveal a great artistic drive to test the limits of the medium. From Hols, Prince of the Sun in 1968, a movie that proved animation could tackle epic narrative scope and grand-scale action when it was still seen in most of the world as trivial kids' stuff, to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in 2013, which combined brand-new computer animation technology with an approach to graphic art predating cinema itself, Takahata's work as a director is usually quietly radical, challenging what we even think animation is, as a visual medium and a storytelling vehicle alike.

That's not what we have right now.

What we have right now is a pair of 35-minute shorts that Takahata directed in 1972 and 1973, Panda! Go, Panda! and its sequel, Panda! Go, Panda!: The Rainy-Day Circus. At that point in his career, Takahata had been rootless for a few years, after the financial failure of Hols, Prince of the Sun had gotten him demoted at Toei Animation. He and his close colleague Miyazaki Hayao had floated around for a little bit, trying and failing to get a film version of Pippi Longstocking off the ground (the project was killed when the character's creator, Astrid Lindgren, refused to give them the rights), finally getting work on the second half of the first Lupin III television series, in 1971. This got them in the good graces of the studio, Tokyo Movie, and thence came this project, which Takahata directed from Miyazaki's original screenplay; Miyazaki also led the overall design of the film and served as head of layout, in addition to working as a key animator.

If you wonder if all that means that Panda! Go, Panda! is a Rosetta stone for Miyazaki's legendary future career, I regret to say that it's pretty much definitely not that. This is definitely not the same thing as saying that it's bad. In fact, the first short is remarkably ambitious for what it is: a children's animated special, made in Japan in the 1970s, to be screened in theaters in between daikaiju eiga. It was financed solely because of a brief mania for all things panda that hit Japan in '72, after the Chinese government loaned a pair of pandas to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo convinced Toho to throw some money at the project while the fad lasted. One might say they were panda-ing to audiences, ahahaha. Ahem.

It sounds like it ought to to be weightless, childish fluff. It is weightless, childish fluff. But fluff, like anything, can be well-crafted with love and care, or it can be indifferently tossed-off by people who seem to hold the work and the audience in contempt. The creators of Panda! Go, Panda! clearly belong in the former camp: this is made with a level of thoughtfulness and artistic integrity that's incomparably better than virtually any other piece of just-for-kids animation made in Japan before the '80s that I can name. Which is an extremely small percentage of the whole, but still. Takahata, Miyazaki, and animation directors Kotabe Yoichi and Otsuka Yasuo (the latter of whom was the character designer) - a cluster of talent that had all worked together (though not in these same capacities) on Hols, and would remain in each other's orbits for a thoroughly productive run in the '70s - have gone far above and beyond anything that could possibly have been required of the project to make a vivid and expressive cartoon that's fully of movement and energy, and while the budget and other resources weren't there to many anything actually ambitious, it still pretty nifty stuff to look at.

The film's plot involves a young girl named Mimiko (Sugiyama Kazuko) - with suspiciously Pippi Longstocking-esque red pigtails - who has just been left alone while her grandmother reluctantly leaves on a trip to perform memorial observations. Which seems enormously unlikely, and all the random townspeople chatting about Mimiko's precocious ability to take care of the household doesn't make it less so. So already, we can get the sense that this is not a realistic world with rules; it's more like the adult-less anarchy of kids playing in the park unsupervised, only in this case the park is the whole town. And this matters, because the mood is, almost explicitly, the anything goes, let's-make-up-the-rules-along-the-way vibe of kids racing around play-acting at whatever crosses their mind. Immediately after seeing her grandmother off, Mimiko finds evidence of trespassers in her yard, and with great delight races after the tracks they've left, finding a baby panda bear at the of the line. And the baby, Pan-chan (Ohta Yoshiko) has a big rotund dad (Kumakura Kazuo), and thus we get the film's Japanese title, Panda kopanda, which simply means "Panda, baby panda" (Panda! Go, Panda! was obviously chosen because of sonic similarities rather than meaning). And thus we also get the entirety of the story, which basically ends here. Mimiko brightly declares that three will now be playing house, with her as mother to Pan-chan and Papa as her own dad, and the rest of the movie basically just watches them waddle about. There's some intrigue involving the zoo trying to retrieve the pandas, but it is resolved almost as soon as it's mentioned, and the obvious pleasure of the thing lies in just hanging out with the characters.

And they're delightful company. Part of the reason I made a point of naming Kotabe and Otsuka before is because, for all that Takahata and Miyazaki went on to become the big names, the film entirely lives and dies on Otsuka's character designs for the pandas. It's probably the best-known thing about the film that the panda design led more or less directly to the totoros of Miyazaki's 1988 masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro, whom I would, in a pinch, declare to be the most adorable animated characters in the history of the medium. Anything that leads more or less directly to that has to be pretty damn adorable and appealing in its own right, and the pandas certainly are. But it's not just that they're cute! They're expressively cute, Papa especially, with his big, toothy smile - one of the specific elements copied for the big totoro, along with his ellipse-shaped body - which finds a perfect match in Kumakura's slow, warm line deliveries. And as this design is put into motion, the animators are very careful to use squash and stretch techniques that take enough time and labor that they don't always show up in lower-budget animation (particularly in the '70) to make sure we keep a persistent sense of the pandas' mass. It's even used to underscore how much smaller and lighter Pan-chan is than the heavy, cozy Papa, with Miyazaki's layout contributing by moving the cub across spaces with a zippiness that outpaces the gentle ambling of the adult.

There's a bouncy energy to this, and to Mimiko's movement, which involves a lot of cartwheeling back and forth on the Z-axis, often accompanied by snapping into poses doing handstands (which are themselves accompanied by an irritating electronic sproing on the soundtrack). This effort to include three dimensional space pays off splendidly in giving the film that much more of a feeling of boundlessness, amplifying the sense of kids running around in a playful, messy sprawl, going every which way their energy levels take them.

As admirable as it is that the creative team should make Panda! Go, Panda! so much more technically elaborate than it has to be, it doesn't change the fact that, bless its heart, it's pretty damn insubstantial. The story is a jerry-rigged pack of contrivances that make sense as pure childish fancy but nothing else, and the shift into a vaguely conflict-oriented final third is listlessly tacked on. The good news, then, is that The Rainy-Day Circus replicates all of the first movie's strengths, while also matching them to a much sturdier screenplay. It's soon enough after the first movie that Mimiko's grandmother still hasn't come back, and as the girl writes her daily letter, she and the pandas grow suspicious that there are burglars about, in a sequence that draws on the Goldilocks story without directly adapting it, which is already enough to give this opening scene more rugged structure than anything in the first movie. It turns out, in fact, that there are multiple intruders: two humans from the local circus, and Tora-chan (Ohta Yoshiko), the tiger cub they've been looking for. And in Tora-chan, with his Mickey Mouse-esque head, the series gets a third unreasonably adorable character.

The Rainy-Day Circus is the same length as the first Panda! Go, Panda!, but it's so much snugger that it goes by much quicker, and it earns its adventurous third act far more organically. Mimiko and the pandas reunite Tora-chan with his mother, and are then dazzled to wander around the circus for a bit. That night, there's so much rain that the entire region floods, leaving the town center an island, and the circus animals trapped in a sinking train. And Mimiko and the panda go to rescue them with great relish. It's still as flighty and fanciful as the original, based in the childish dream of a roaring, rainy night as a kind of everyday apocalypse, and the loose appropriation of Goldilocks in the opening similarly keeps it within the logic of of childhood storytelling. But the clearer focus, and the strict causal chain, makes the whole thing much more satisfying on its own terms as a story and a frivolous anecdote both.

The success of the first film meant that the studio was ready to throw some more money at the sequel (it was, indeed, made at Toho's request, though Takahata and Miyazaki still fought to preserve their own vision, once they were put in a position to have one), which mostly manifests in the form of more elaborate effects animation; the flooded world, with the layers above and below the surface presented in clear detail is probably the biggest difference between the two films, aesthetically. But there is a sense of the artists stretching themselves in interesting ways. The first sight of Tora-chan's mother is a particularly dramatic example, with the tiger painted as part of the background to create a sense of predatory stillness, and a stark line of shadow covering most of her in darkness: when she opens her eyes, they appear as two bright almond shapes against the blackness, giving the whole moment a brief jolt of suspenseful atmosphere before Tora-chan bounds in to reassure use that everything is fun.

The Rainy-Day Circus is, ultimately, still just a little snippet of fun that leads up to the team's increasingly ambitious TV series from the second half of the '70s, and other than some narrative elements and visual touches that Miyazaki picked up in his later films, you'd be hard-pressed to say how this anticipates either his or Takahata's later career specifically. But it is, like its predecessor, a great example ofo craftsmen with substantial talent taking the time to get things right even in the absence of any financial pressure to do so. The results are two films that are bright and kinetic and filled with a vigorous sense of fun; they are, indeed, the two most fun pieces of children's anime that I can name from the whole of the '70s.