Characterised by a sense of whimsy, innocence and deep spirituality, a Studio Ghibli film is a unique experience. It is not just a prominent presence in the field of animation, but a cultural phenomenon of sorts. Founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli has made over twenty animated feature films, several short films and television productions.
In the early to mid-eighties, Miyazaki and Suzuki had already been working in the animation industry for a while. Following the release of Miyazaki’s film, The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki and Takahata expressed the desire to work together. After the massive success of their 1984 feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the three men went on to form a creative collaboration that has lasted nearly four decades. In that time, Hayao Miyazaki has retired a few times, but returned soon after. How Do You Live? slated for release in 2023, is reportedly his last film.
The studio has, over the years, gone on to produce many other films with success and acclaim. The works, which are permeated with a sense of deep nostalgia, innocence and hope have been critically acclaimed internationally, with many films such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away frequently hailed among the best films of the century. Their stories are all about love, hope and friendship, even if they take place in fantastical worlds like Howl’s Moving Castle. They’re also known for their incredible animation style which makes use of hand-drawn techniques rather than computer generated graphics.
The Ghibli catalogue undoubtedly has many gems to offer – some sombre, some wildly adventurous. Paired with high-concept storytelling and breathtaking animation, there’s something for everyone. We bring you a definitive list of all the Studio Ghibli movies ranked, from the very best to a few hits-and-misses.
23. Earwig and The Witch (2020)
The most recent Ghibli project, Earwig and The Witch is a distinct departure from the visual style that Ghibli fans are used to. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, the film tells the story of a young girl named Earwig who is adopted by a mysterious witch, Bella Yaga. The film met with mixed reactions from fans of the studio. Some have called it one of their weaker films, while others claim that it is a return to form for the studio. While the film does contain some classic themes like a search for identity, the animation style is rather jarring and falls flat. Die-hard admirers may still be able to find charm in this film, but it is a rare miss for the studio.
22. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
Studio Ghibli has long been known to adapt epic adventure narratives in a way that combines fantasy and worldbuilding while respecting the intelligence of the audience. Tales from Earthsea is one such example, adapted from the first four novels of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. The plot revolves around Prince Arren who discovers magical secrets when he meets the dragon Therru. While the worldbuilding and characterization of the film are absolutely magical, the plot is rather convoluted and may alienate some viewers. Le Guin herself was not pleased with the adaptation, remarking to Goro Miyazaki, the director:
“It is not my book. It is your movie.”
21. My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)
While Miyazaki may be known for directing fantastical stories with spiritual analogies, his creative collaborator Isao Takahata absolutely excels at depicting humble, real-world stories firmly rooted in the daily lives of people. My Neighbours the Yamadas revolves around the lives of the titular family. Utilising a comic strip style of animation, Takahata hilariously portrays the small joys and triumphs of their lives. It may be lacking the world-ending stakes or the fantasy of certain Ghibli features, but this slice of life film will leave you feeling grateful and optimistic.
20. Ocean Waves (1993)
Decidedly tame by anime, and especially Ghibli standards, Ocean Waves is a fairly straightforward story of young love and the pressures of teenage life. When a new girl transfers into their school, teenage boys Taku and Yukata find themselves falling in love with her. Soon, a love triangle develops between them. The film was supposedly a chance for the studio’s younger recruits to work on their skills, but the finished product hardly betrays any sign of inexperience. A sweet coming-of-story, it lags a little in the second act, but holds your interest nonetheless.
19. Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind (1984)
The film that started it all, Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind was a breakout success at the time of its release. One of the very best archival Ghibli features, this film is an early study of all the elements that make Studio Ghibli movies stand out. A strong female heroine, a magical world, wonderful scores and breathtaking visuals – you name it, Nausicaa’s got it. The film revolves around Nausicaa, Princess of the Valley of the Wind who becomes involved with a fellow kingdom over the use of an ancient weapon. Touted as one of the most progressive animated films of the era, the film has since been used as an inspiration for several video games.
18. The Cat Returns (2002)
A spin-off of Whisper of The Heart, The Cat Returns follows the escapades of Baron, a magical cat figurine and Haru, a young girl who can talk to cats. When she lands in a world of cats, it sets them both on a journey of self-discovery. Even though this film lacks the extensive backstory most Ghibli movies promise, it is an excellent example of saying more with less. With a runtime of barely seventy minutes, the film still provides a deep look at the rich inner lives of its characters. Fun, frothy and light-hearted, this one is a crowd-pleaser.
17. Pom Poko (1994)
Pom Poko is arguably not one of the most widely known Ghibli projects, but that does not make it any less important. In fact, it remains one of the earliest examples of stories in anime that displayed themes of environmentalism, natural conservation and activism. Through a story of racoons fighting to save their home, director Isao Takahata paints a picture of crumbling sustainability in the age of rapid modernisation and capitalism. Blending anthropomorphic storytelling with a grounded message and moral, Pom Poko is a thoughtful work that draws attention to the state of post-war suburban Japan.
16. Arrietty (2010)
In this Thumbelina-like tale of magical beings called borrowers co-existing with their human counterparts, Ghibli displays some of its most impressive animation sequences till date. The story of Arrietty is set into motion when the titular character befriends a human boy, while trying to remain undetected by other humans in the household. The film’s comprehensive understanding of scale and texture in animation make it a treat for the senses, while the story goes through all the classic tropes of a fairy tale. Watch this film for the visuals alone, we promise you won’t be disappointed.
15. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013)
A haunting tale that deals with the nature of memory, identity and mortality, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya could be considered an atypical Studio Ghibli film. The plot revolves around the life of a magical moon princess, Kaguya, who hopes to experience a normal life on Earth. Director Isao Takahata adapted the story from an old Japanese folktale called The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter. Melancholic and thoughtful, the film does not end on a hopeful note, as is the norm for most Ghibli features. However, it is no less beautiful for it. Come prepared with tissues if you plan on watching the film, it will most definitely move you to tears.
14. Porco Rosso (1992)
Ghibli films are noted for their anthropomorphic characters who express strong opinions about the balance of humanity, nature and civilization. The eponymous character in Porco Rosso is one such being. He is a World War I veteran who expresses his disgust for Japanese militarism. Oh, and he’s a talking pig. Full of classic Ghibli imagery such as innovative planes, stunning skyscapes and a wacky main character, the film is a high-flying adventure that is perfect for kids as well as adults. Underneath the escapades and comedy, there lies a complex message of antiwar policy and anti-imperialism that has remained relevant to this very day.
13. Castle in The Sky (1986)
I’ve always found Castle in The Sky emblematic of Ghibli’s potential for other styles of animation. It marks a departure for the idyllic, countryside landscapes of pre-war Japan and ventures into cyberpunk/ steampunk aesthetics. However, it retains some of its classic stylistic influences, resulting in a beautiful amalgamation of old and new in this piece of revisionist history. Set in a fictional 19th century, the story is a military style drama centered around the search for a castle. Fun fact: the film was alternately referred to as Laputa: Castle in the Sky, as it was inspired from the floating island of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels.
12. From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)
Much of Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre has to do with the repercussions of war and its consequences on the lives of common people. From Up On Poppy Hill captures that sense of nostalgia and loss through its protagonists. Two teenagers, Umi and Shun, connect over their mutual love of the school’s old clubs, and similar family histories. However, a secret between their fathers in the navy threatens to cull their burgeoning romance. With an interesting twist and a charming sense of teen romance, the film is a heartwarming watch that captures Ghibli’s storytelling abilities in tandem with its visual prowess.
11. The Wind Rises (2013)
Based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of the Mitsubishi fighter planes used by Japan during World War II, The Wind Rises is a lovely narrative about war, love and loss. Some critics have noted the film as not being antiwar enough. In my opinion, the story balances the circumstances of conflict and individual ambition in a very realistic way. It depicts how flawed people and ideas can be. Through Jiro’s love for his wife, Naoko, the film presents a deeply compassionate narrative about grief and moving on. Deeply moving, but never a melodrama, this one is one of the best Studio Ghibli movies on Netflix right now.
10. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
We break into the crème de la crème of Ghibli with the film that gave the studio its mascot, Totoro. Rife with the standard themes of compassion, animism and a deep connection to Japanese folklore, this is one of the best Studio Ghibli movies for family viewing. The story revolves around siblings Mei and Satsuke, who move to the countryside. When adorable nature spirits come into their lives, it teaches them the value of living in harmony with their surroundings. The film is a wonderful reminder to slow down and practice healing in a world that moves too fast. And it is as timely now as it was nearly twenty years ago.
9. Only Yesterday (1991)
Only Yesterday feels like a nostalgic fever dream that demands a return to childhood and the time of simpler pleasures. The film is narrated out of chronological order, interspersed with the protagonist’s memories of past and the present as she heads on a long-due summer vacation. Truth be told, I come back to this film time and again to live vicariously through its loving vision of growing up and coming-of-age. Its rich ambience and childlike innocence are a wonderful antidote to life in these troubling times. And for a brief moment, it will transport you to a world as vivid as the frames of the film.
8. Ponyo (2008)
A fantastic retelling of The Little Mermaid, Ponyo’s central theme is as old as time — loving unconditionally, and being loved in return. When a mischievous fish named Ponyo escapes her strict parents to live with her human friend, it triggers a tsunami that threatens to consume everything. Even though every aspect of the film is top-notch, the visuals take the cake. Mystical beings in the film are depicted with utmost attention to detail, and the animation further elevates the story. While nothing comes close to the lyrical rhythm of the dialogue in the film’s native Japanese, the English dubbing deserves praise as well, owing to a fantastic voice cast with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Liam Neeson.
7. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
I cannot help but think of Kiki’s Delivery Service as Studio Ghibli’s take on millennial woes. A witch, along with her cat familiar, moves away from her family to find her professional calling. While she struggles at first, she finds her place in the world, owing to a loving support system of friends and mentors. With a whimsical concept that treats magic in a very matter-of-fact manner, the film is deeply comforting, especially on days when one may feel stuck in a creative rut. In fact, the film addresses this very issue in a thought-provoking manner, reassuring viewers that it will all work out.
6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Viewers have come to expect nuanced takes on socio-cultural issues from Studio Ghibli’s projects, and The Grave of Fireflies certainly delivers. A war tragedy based on the short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, it deals with the bombing of Kobe during WWII and its aftermath. The central takeaway of the film is its focus on humanity, in good times as well as bad times. As one watches the protagonists struggle to live hand-to-mouth, it serves as a horrific reminder of the suffering war inflicts. Too often, us cinephiles are guilty of terming films as “must watch”, but this is one such film that deserves the recommendation universally and unabashedly.
5. When Marnie Was There (2014)
The focal point of When Marnie Was There is the realistic and grounded depiction of teenage depression and growing pains in a raw way that fiction rarely allows. When Anna is sent to the countryside to live with her adoptive relatives, she feels like a fish out of water. Upon meeting a mysterious girl, she begins to look for answers to their shared pasts. Hauntingly beautiful, the film encapsulates the feeling of loneliness and feeling like one doesn’t belong. A plaintive score by Takatsugu Muramatsu adds believable pathos to a story that is moving enough as it is.
4. Whisper of The Heart (1995)
Too often, love stories focus on the protagonist changing themselves to appeal to their object of affection. To that end, Whisper of The Heart poses this essential question: why not grow and learn with them instead? The story revolves around two teenagers Shizuku and Seiji, who find out that they have been checking out the same books from the library. There may be Ghibli movies with more complex narratives and metaphors, but the simplicity of the story and its execution is what makes it stand out. Ghibli films are known for their complex and healthy models of love and romance anyway, but this one (featuring one my favourite fictional meet-cutes) absolutely takes the cake. I highly recommend it as one of the best Ghibli movies to start with.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Adapted from Dianne Wynne Jones novel of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle breaks new ground in terms of its portrayal of strong, feminist characters. The film revolves around Sophie, who is cursed with a hex when she crosses paths with Howl and his nemesis, The Witch of The Waste. Miyazaki made the film as a response to the Iraq War, which he saw as deeply unnecessary. In addition to being visually stunning, the film contains a wonderful take on ageing, especially ageing women. Not only is Sophie an extraordinary young woman, she is emblematic of Ghibli heroines everywhere — enterprising, unafraid and true to herself.
2. Spirited Away (2001)
Frequently touted as one of the greatest films ever made, Spirited Away captures everything that is wrong with capitalist-driven economies and consumer culture. When Chihiro finds herself in a world of magic, monsters and spirits, she must find a way to retain her true self and find a way back home. On the way she meets a mysterious boy named Haku, who helps her free her parents. With a host of richly-drawn characters and a narrative that is both surreal and deeply realist, Spirited Away precedes its reputation as one of the finest animated films ever made. The film’s love and respect for Japanese culture is a loving homage to the era Miyazaki grew up in. And probably wishes he could return to.
1. Princess Mononoke (1997)
The only Ghibli film to receive a PG-13 rating in international cinemas, Princess Mononoke is arguably the most nuanced of all Ghibli works, and that in itself is a tall order. The plot revolves around Ashitaka, who must find a way to resolve the conflict between man and nature if he is to find a cure for his curse. Along the way he meets a fierce wolf princess, San. Deeply rooted in the complexities of war, the film devotes considerable attention to ecofeminist themes, hate, violence and greed. The narrative never villainizes or deifies the characters. It treats them as normal people reacting to the circumstances around them, the best they can.
This is truly a rarity when it comes to fiction and storytelling, and allows the film to remain true to its morals. Even though the film has a considerable amount of action and adventure, it remains a deeply spiritual meditation that moves you to think about the harm humanity inflicts on the natural world, and each other.
One finds it rather impossible to put together a definitive list of anything at all. Naturally, viewers will be predisposed towards certain films. Some may find our ranking completely contrarian to their preferences. The task is made even harder when it comes to a behemoth like Studio Ghibli. The studio consistently delivers great work with multiple facets for different kinds of audiences. The films have been so very influential in animation and storytelling that Studio Ghibli anime may well be a genre unto itself.
However, I think we can all agree that as wonderful as these films are, they leave the viewer wanting more. With no upcoming Studio Ghibli movies scheduled anytime soon, it’s time to turn to some old favorites and venture into watching some new ones. Which of these are you the most excited about? Tell us in the comments below.
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.