In the late ‘70s, Isao Takahata was tapped to lead the TV adaptation of the 1908 Canadian novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Like his other hit, Heidi of the Alps, it was released as part of an ongoing project by the Japanese animation industry to adapt novels from around the world into series — a project eventually named World Masterpiece Theater (aka Meigeki).
The novel, a prototypical example of the young adult genre, chronicles the coming of age of orphan Anne Shirley in the fictional town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada, following her from ages 11-16. Takahata, director and adapter, opted for an extremely faithful adaptation spread out across 50 episodes released in 1979. The show was an early collaboration between future Ghibli co-founders Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, who designed Anne of Green Gables’ breathtaking scene backgrounds and layouts.
I haven’t seen the entirety of the TV show, but everything I’ve seen is an absolute masterpiece. The show is a lovely pastoral of the rural Canadian landscape, with rich multi-plane animation that supports an immersive sense of depth and space. Characters move elegantly and minimally so that each expression and movement counts.
Just as charming as the incredible visual profile of the show is its enveloping storytelling. The script is unhurried and delicate, letting scenarios and character dynamics unfold organically. Some 25-minute episodes contain little more structure than a conversation during a carriage ride. But this is not the product of filler or water-treading (a la the infamous 5-episode battles of Dragon Ball Z), but of a nuanced and deliberate pace of worldbuilding and character development. The characters of Anne of Green Gables have rich inner lives, none moreso than the title character, and they live a slow-paced life on Prince Edward Island. The patient way the show explores this builds empathy and immersion.
In 1989, ten years after the successful run of the show, Takahata edited together a feature-length cut of the first six episodes of the show titled “Road to Green Gables,” which tells a self-contained story of Anne’s arrival at Green Gables and meeting with siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who had intended to adopt a boy but were sent a girl. The feature-length edit was finally released in 2010.
The narrative feels a bit glacial compared to most movies — it is, after all, a couple of chapters of a novel stretched out to 100 minutes. But that’s one of the things I love about it. Watching it slows your heart rate down. The childlike wonder of Anne absorbing the beauty of trees and sunrises and brooks is absolutely infectious. The film’s patience at exploring Anne’s inner monologue across an emotionally fraught couple of days is really touching. And I’m especially fond of Matthew’s quick affection for Anne, and the semi-repressed way he tries to express this to the severe and practical Marilla, who of course also eventually grows fond of the girl.
There is something diminished in getting just the story’s introduction and knowing there’s a whole saga left to unfold. It holds together so well as a standalone piece, but the promise of more to come is so tantalizing. Watching it makes me immediately want to click play on Episode 7 and hop back into the sleepy town of Avonlea.