Studio Ghibli has been regarded as an animation powerhouse known the world-over for its unique stories, multi-faceted characters, and of course, stunning visuals. With that being said, it begs the question as to why I’ve only just started watching these films. It’s true; my window of childhood passed without any knowledge of what a “Totoro” was or how one can make a castle move, let alone in the sky. I was raised on good ol’ fashioned Disney classics and other western studio copycats, with little exposure to the world of anime. It wasn’t until recently that I decided it was time to expand my cinematic palette and dive into these critically-acclaimed films myself. In a way, I’m glad I waited until adulthood to fully immerse myself in Studio Ghibli because I would have missed all the little nuances and intricate themes found in each movie. That’s the beauty of Studio Ghibli: whether it’s the abundance of whimsical imagery or the relatable character-driven narratives, everyone can find some aspect to enjoy it regardless of age. And enjoy the movies I did (some a lot more than others), on a perilous quest to finish 22 feature films for the sake of ranking them from “well, that was underwhelming” to “I am now a changed person.”
This list was organized based on how effective I perceived the plot, entertainment value, and overall quality of each movie to be. You might be surprised to find that a lot of the more popular heirs to the Ghibli throne didn’t make the top spots, which means there are a few hidden treasures worthy of attention. Without further ado, I give you my quintessential ranking and humblest opinion.
22. Ocean Waves (1993)
Originally a television movie produced by the younger members of the Studio Ghibli animation team, Ocean Waves, or I Can Hear the Sea, usually flies under the radar when recalling the studio’s arsenal of films. It’s not without reason, however. Under the direction of Tomomi Mochizuki, the idea was to have the film completed in a timely and cost-efficient fashion, but ironically, Ocean Waves was completed over budget and behind schedule. The animation showcases these embarrassing details, paling in comparison to more grandiose creations helmed by Studio Ghibli head director Hayao Miyazaki. Ocean Waves follows high school student Taku Morisaki as he falls into a complicated but uninvolving love triangle between his best friend Yutaka and a new transfer student named Rikako. Tensions rise after Taku goes on a trip with Rikako to supervise her as she visits her father in Tokyo, and he must decide if this chance at romance is worth jeopardizing a friendship. It stupefies me how anyone in their right mind would find Rikako to be the ideal partner, as for the majority of the movie, she displays the personality of a soggy rice ball and insipidly insults Taku every chance they are together. There is absolutely no payoff, in the end, only questions remain; like how is to possible for an anime that is only 72 minutes to feel like it drags on for hours? The characters in Ocean Waves leave nothing to the imagination, as they are just as bland and unremarkable as they appear on the surface. It’s safe to say it only gets better from here on out.
21. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
As I mentioned earlier, Hayao Miyazaki is responsible for some of the highest grossing anime films in all of history. His mastery of the art form is exalted and sought after by many; but in this case, his eldest son Gorō, who directed this particular movie, did not mirror his father’s legacy. After releasing successful blockbusters like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle in the early 2000’s, Studio Ghibli hit a bit of a dry spell in 2006 with Tales from Earthsea. The movie is adapted from a book series of the same name by Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, and even she had her qualms about it. The premise of the film follows Prince Arren of Enlad as he joins forces with Archmage Sparrowhawk to defeat an evil presence that threatens to put them to an end. I like to call this flick Studio Ghibli’s equivalent of Disney’s The Black Cauldron. Minus the appreciative cult following. Not only are both selections set against a medieval backdrop, but they also lack the signature charm of their respective animation studios. Tales from Earthsea suffers from a convoluted plotline that viewers can get themselves easily lost in. Heck, even I struggled to explain it accurately enough for this blog. Part of the disharmony of the story probably has to do with Miyazaki meshing four different books in the series together to form the basis of the movie. On par with a puzzling narrative, the characters we embark on this journey with, remain as total strangers once the credits roll. No significant personal development ever manifests on screen, and they might as well be plastic playing pieces in a cheap knockoff game of "Dungeons & Dragons". To give credit where it is due, the animation is pretty decent. But decent is a far cry from Studio Ghibli’s best.
20. Ponyo (2008)
Oh, Ponyo, Ponyo, Ponyo. It was a nice time we had together, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. This literal fish-out-of-water tale is about a semi-anthropomorphic goldfish that finds her way to the surface and longs to fully immerse herself in the human world. Disney did a lot of marketing and advertising for this one, due to the childlike appeal of a radiant myriad of undersea colors and having the title character being voiced by Miley Cyrus’s little sister in the English dub (not a good thing). The story is charming enough, but I feel as though it is just a lesser reiteration of similar plots Studio Ghibli has put out before, such as My Neighbor Totoro, which I’ll get into more detail about later. There’s no denying that Ponyo has heart, however, and there is always a stimulating amount of animated eye candy present on the screen. One interesting factoid is that Hayao Miyazaki had wanted to make a sequel to Ponyo, but the former president of Studio Ghibli Toshio Suzuki pushed him to do The Wind Rises instead. Smart move.
19. Porco Rosso (1992)
As one of the two Ghibli films centered on aviation history, Porco Rosso is the weaker contender but still has merit. The movie takes place in 1930’s Italy as sky pilots pilfer the local cruise lines and the only one who can stop them is a former WW1 pilot who mysteriously turned into a pig named Porco Rosso. Infused with homages to old Hollywood and engaging characters, this film captivates viewers with moments of genuine humor and intrigue. The funny thing is, the plot of Porco Rosso would not necessarily be affected if the protagonist wasn’t a pig. There isn’t even an explanation given about how he turned into a pig in the first place, but you accept it for what it is because of the lighthearted fairytale feel of the plot. The abundance of aerial action sequences also heightens the drama and demonstrates the respect the Ghibli animation team has for vintage aircraft dating back to the First World War. Overall, an enjoyable piece of cinema that makes you want to don a fedora and trench coat as you fly into the clouds. Here’s looking at you, pig.
18. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
After the discombobulated mess that was Tales from Earthsea, Gorō Miyazaki seeks redemption with the romance drama From Up on Poppy Hill. The movie follows high school student Umi Matsuzaki who helps run a boarding house on Port of Yokohama in Japan. Through her involvement with helping prevent the demolishment of an old school building, she meets Shun Kazama and the two develop a friendship that threatens to end because of unprecedented events of the past. The storyline coasts as smoothly as sailboats on the ocean and the seaside backgrounds are so picturesque, it’s as if you’re staring at a postcard. The weakest point of From Up on Poppy Hill is that there’s not a whole lot of substance to go along with the beauty of the animation. The hints of loss and nostalgia sprinkled in the plot are the only elements that differentiate the film from being just another pretty anime with no personality. Still, the story throws you for a curve towards the end and the resolution given is enough to satisfy the hopeful viewer who has their heart set on a happy ending.
17. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
One of the most uniquely animated Studio Ghibli films on this list has to be My Neighbors the Yamadas. Presented as a stylized comic strip with light watercolor backdrops, the movie is a slice of life comedy that details the everyday exploits of the Yamada family: the father, Takashi; the mother, Matsuko; the big brother, Noboru; the little sister, Nonoko; and the grandmother, Shige. Rather than having a single, linear plot, My Neighbors the Yamadas plays, in short, situational vignettes to give better insight on their life, whether it be getting ready for school/work in the morning or getting your first girlfriend. The characters’ personalities shine through and you truly relate to them as a family; they are by no means perfect—more like a dysfunctional harmony—but the love that the Yamadas have for one another is constantly present. My favorite character from the bunch has to be Shige because even as an elderly woman, she is the snarky backbone to her dimwitted kin and often takes charge. And who doesn’t like a sassy grandma not afraid to tell you how it is? Sometimes the comedy doesn’t translate well to a western culture, but there are still laughs to be had at the expense of the Yamadas.
16. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Technically, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not considered a Studio Ghibli production, as the company was founded right after the release of the film. Regardless, it is often bundled in DVD compilations of Studio Ghibli’s other works and paved the way for director Hayao Miyazaki’s notoriety as a master storyteller. The groundbreaking anime takes place in an apocalyptic world where Princess Nausicaä must save a toxic forest from the hands of a malevolent ruler. Rife with themes about the value of life and environmental stability, the film is undoubtedly an epic fantasy adventure that is the first of its kind. Its genre-bending narrative is nothing short of dazzling and it is as though you are watching an ancient folktale scribbled on cave walls come to life right before your eyes. A significant amount of creativity was also involved in bringing the world of Nausicaä to fruition, with innovative glider technology you wish actually existed and a hodgepodge of exotic creatures (gotta love those giant mutant rollie pollies). The only reason this film isn’t ranked higher on the list is that I didn’t establish a personal connection with any of the characters, as the grand scheme of the plot overshadows their inner workings. Even so, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is definitely worthy of all the praise it's acquired.
15. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
It can be daunting adapting a story from a different author and tweaking it to fit an animation studio’s aesthetic, but Studio Ghibli successfully managed to take Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and mold it into the dainty teacup serving that is The Secret World of Arrietty. Evidently, Miyazaki had been wanting to adapt the children’s novel forty years prior to its release and it was well worth the wait. The film follows a family of small people as they try to remain undetected in their home under the floorboards. Complications arise when the daughter of the family, Arrietty, befriends a human boy, risking having their cover blown by people who want to capture them. This movie is enough to spark a glimmer of childlike imagination in anyone who watches, daring them to peek among the rose bushes to see what hides underneath the foliage. The story may be simple, but with it comes an endearing gentleness that promotes the idea of a friendship that can last. Arrietty showcases the same yearning for independence and freedom that many young adults can relate to, wanting to branch out and explore promising new territory despite the dangers that lurk in every corner. The movie also touches on themes of conquering your fears and to embrace all you are capable of, even if you are no bigger than a sewing needle.
14. When Marnie Was There (2014)
When Marnie Was There is the most recent Studio Ghibli production, released just after their announced hiatus following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki. The story follows shy Anna Sasaki who spends the summer with relatives while she heals from her asthma attacks. As she explores an abandoned seaside mansion, she meets a mysterious girl named Marnie and discovers secrets that will change her life forever. The film does a superb job at employing an elegant sense of intrigue, just as the fog rises over the decrepit beachfront property Marnie calls home. I cannot reveal too much without giving away important elements of the plot, but When Marnie Was There mirrors the traditional gothic themes, i.e. troubled past haunting the heroine and psychological uncertainties imprisoned inside a mansion. It’s a nice change of pace from what Studio Ghibli typically puts out, and the soundtrack featuring singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn fits the somber atmosphere of the movie perfectly.
13. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Considered by most to be the magnum opus of Studio Ghibli, Princess Mononoke is no stranger to praise. Even though I did not place it as high as expected on this list, I still cannot deny the impressiveness of the picture. The movie chronicles Emishi warrior Ashitaka's involvement in a war between forest gods and humans who deplete their resources. From the groundbreaking cinematography to the innovative implementation of computer graphics, Princess Mononoke was ahead of its time. The mythological narrative is profound in its message of evil among the natural order of chaos, and audiences can’t help but become enthralled by the various Japanese cultural references. It is, after all, a tale of valor and a perilous battle, so the blood and gore is at its highest but never detracts from the story. Composer Joe Hisaishi did an excellent job of capturing the essence of fantasy and power in the iconic score as well. To give even more reason to watch, the English dub features a star-studded cast among the likes of Jada Pinkett Smith, Billy Bob Thornton, and Gillian Anderson. You know you want to see Agent Scully as a giant wolf goddess.
12. Spirited Away (2001)
Another Studio Ghibli darling included on countless “100 Films to See Before You Die” lists and the only one to receive the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture at the 75th Academy Awards. I, too, will sing the praises of Spirited Away, but I do not regret putting it only at the 12th slot. The film follows young Chihiro as her family stumbles across an abandoned theme park that houses supernatural beings. With the help of a boy named Haku, Chihiro must work at the spirit bathhouse to find a way for her and her parents to escape. Spirited Away reminds me very much of a Japanese-style Alice in Wonderland, with a colorful and slightly creepy ensemble of ghostly characters and a young girl that falls into a realm of nonsensical order and chaos. The audience lives vicariously through Chihiro as she navigates through the twisted spirit world and, in turn, discovers a part of herself she never knew she possessed: a determination spurred by courage, honor, and love. Gifted with memorable scenes and visuals, Spirited Away is a beautiful tribute to traditional Japanese culture sure to bridge the gap between a lost past and an evolving future.
11. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro is kind of a big deal for Studio Ghibli. I mean, the titular character is on their official production logo and makes cameo appearances in several of their movies. Totoro is like the Ghibli equivalent of Mickey Mouse to Disney, so that’s how you know you’ve made it big. The movie follows sisters Satsuki and Mei as they move to the countryside with their professor father. They encounter a bevy of magical forest creatures, including a certain tall and round wood spirit. My Neighbor Totoro spews the very essence of childhood wonder and imagination. The plot is so sweet in its approach in capturing the endless possibilities presented before the characters. There is no impending threat or danger ahead, just smooth sailing and the perfect opportunity to explore the world around them. The 2005 English dub has top-notch performances by Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei, respectively, with their natural chemistry practically emanating off the screen. Also, there’s a Catbus; as in, a giant living, breathing cat shaped like a bus. Who wouldn’t want to ride inside that?
10. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
In the same vein as My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya diverges from the traditional anime style and radiantly dazzles with a pastel watercolor format. It is probably the most aesthetically pleasing film on the entire list and doubles as a somber fairy tale memorializing the pursuit of happiness. The movie spins the tale of a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot. He and his wife decide to raise her as royalty and teach her how to properly carry herself to be the princess they believe she is destined to become. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a testament to the art form of fine animation, as the template ranges from brisk brushstrokes to the most delicate curves of color—all conveying poignant emotion through the simplest of means. As the plot is based on the actual Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, it gives off an air of sacredness in the message of the story. It is guaranteed that you will cry. Water will spill from your eyes as either a result of happiness, shock, wonder, or anguish. Either way, it will happen.
9. The Cat Returns (2002)
All you reclusive, cat-loving people fed up with your everyday lives, this one is for you. While not the most elaborate or well-known Studio Ghibli film, The Cat Returns is certainly one of the most entertaining. Centered on a high school girl named Haru, the movie follows her encounter with Prince Lune of the Cat Kingdom after saving him from a busy intersection. She is later whisked away by a horde of cats, with her only chance of escape resting on a mysterious feline called the Baron. Pure fantasy and whimsy from beginning to end, you’re bound to fall in love with the characters and wish that you too could transport yourself to a magical wonderland of cats. Haru, the film’s unassuming heroine, is relatable and helps provide a humorous rapport with the ensemble of zany animals. The Cat Returns is actually a spin-off from another Studio Ghibli production, Whisper of the Heart, which features the Baron in a very minor role. Donning a dapper suit accessorized with a cane and top hat, the Baron is the very definition of suave sophistication and the kind of friend you’d want to have whenever you find yourself in a difficult fix. Warning: watching this movie may result in the increased desire to talk to stray cats.
8. Only Yesterday (1991)
Sometimes being sentimental means returning to your roots so that you can learn to blossom in the future. Only Yesterday is a quietly poignant story that establishes itself in two different timelines, alternating between the childhood occurrences of a woman named Taeko and her vacation to the countryside in the present day. The movie chronicles Taeko’s internal recollections of significant events in her life, and how they may have contributed to the person she is today. As a single career woman in her late 20’s, she longs for more out of life and continually searches for what she’s been living without a sense of satisfaction in the choices she’s made. The juxtaposition between the bubbly animation style and the psychologically-heavy subject matter is an innovative technique that serves the plot well and softens the drama of some of the heavier scenes. A shining example of Studio Ghibli’s versatile appeal between age groups, Only Yesterday has enough gratifying appreciation for teary-eyed nostalgia that adults can enjoy and jubilant moments of triumph for youth as well.
7. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Adapted from the late Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle is nothing short of a spectacle. It relishes in the magic of the plot and mystifies with romantic nuances of the fantasy genre. The film follows an 18-year-old hat maker named Sophie who encounters the handsome wizard Howl and quickly grows enamored by him. Out of jealousy, a witch turns Sophie into an elderly woman, with her only hope being that Howl can see through the spell and accept her for who she is. Howl’s Moving Castle takes visual cues from other fairytales like Beauty and the Beast, employing an unusual charm and stylish textured palette to the backdrop of foreground scenes. The tour de force of the movie is the titular castle, which possesses a personality of its own seen through the computer-generated bells and whistles of the hulking structure. Voice acting performed by Christian Bale as the wizard Howl and Billy Crystal as the sarcastic fire demon Calcifer are highlights of the cast list. And let’s face it, ladies—who wouldn’t want to get swept off their feet by a Christian Bale with wings?
6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Haunting, foreboding, devastating, tragic—just some of the words one would use to describe Grave of the Fireflies. This film is not for the faint of heart but is definitely one of the most powerful features that Studio Ghibli has produced. The movie tells the story of brother and sister Seita and Setsuko as they struggle to survive during the final months of the Second World War in Kobe, Japan. What’s ironic is that Grave of the Fireflies was originally released as a double feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro, which falls on the completely opposite side of the movie spectrum. This war drama has the emotional intensity of a train coming at you at full force. The gripping journey that the audience takes with the two main characters maintains a high level of suspense, leaving you breathless until a resolution can be reached.
5. Pom Poko (1994)
There are other Studio Ghibli films that interweave the theme of environmental conservation into their stories, like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke, but neither of those emphasizes this aspect with as much playful tenacity like Pom Poko. The plot follows a group of tanuki (or mythological shapeshifting raccoon dogs) that concoct a plan to prevent humans from demolishing their forest home. It’s a battle of the wits that will only be successful if the tanuki can convince the land developers that the surrounding territory is haunted. The inspiration behind the mischievous critters is based on Japanese folklore of creatures with similar transforming abilities. The tanuki appear in many different forms throughout the movie, whether going incognito as human beings, appearing as realistic-looking raccoon dogs, or in a cartoonish anthropomorphic disguise when romping around the woods causing mayhem. One of the more bizarre factors of Pom Poko is that the source of their shapeshifting abilities comes from their unmentionables. The English dub refers to them as “raccoon pouches,” but it is very clear (and visible) where the magic really lies. Don’t let this turn you away from watching the film, however, because the story is rife with hilarious antics and an entertaining cast of noble heroes seeking to make a change.
4. Castle in the Sky (1986)
At last, the movie that started it all, putting Studio Ghibli on the map of highly regarded animation companies and earning them their first distinct accolades. Castle in the Sky follows the perilous adventures of a young girl named Sheeta in possession of a magic amulet and a working class boy named Pazu. After many close calls with air pirates and running from government agents bent on harnessing the power of Sheeta’s amulet, the two start a journey that leads them to a legendary castle in the sky called Laputa. This was the ideal story for Studio Ghibli to put out as their first major motion picture release because it spans a variety of different genres while retaining the signature charm and essence of their brand. Romance, adventure, drama, and nonstop action makes this a fundamental anime film to see if you are just familiarizing yourself with the medium. The unique steampunk influences also make Castle in the Sky an innovative artistic feat, by crafting an elaborate universe to transport its viewers to a place where nothing is as it seems.
3. The Wind Rises (2013)
Earlier in the list, I mentioned that Porco Rosso is the lesser of two Studio Ghibli films focusing on aviation. The Wind Rises is the superior of the two not just in artistic form, but also story-wise and more character-driven in what it accomplishes in the narrative. Acting as a historical fantasy, the movie centers on aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi and how through pivotal events in his life, ends up creating the A-6M World War II fighter plane. The film sounds rather simple when put like that, but the surrealist elements sprinkled throughout the plot prevent The Wind Rises from being just another biographic documentary. Jiro fantasizes about conversing with his idol, Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, often bestowing upon him sagelike advice when the occasion calls for it to motivate him to further his career goals. Bursting with gorgeous visuals that are as ethereal and flittering as the wind itself, the movie is a radiant spectacle that stays grounded on human drama and quiet sentiments of truth. The Wind Rises was Hayao Miyazaki’s last animated feature before his retirement, and it is without a doubt, a worthy note to encapsulate his phenomenal legacy. Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt needs to do more voice work because his acting is top-notch as Jiro.
2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Studio Ghibli is responsible for countless stories of adventure in faraway lands and even nonexistent realities, but it's films that focus on the purest form of self-discovery that take the top two spots on my list. There’s something authentically refreshing about seeing an epiphany realized by a character who is struggling to discover who they are at a young age, eventually having a glimmer of hope shine through them. Whisper of the Heart is a very underrated Studio Ghibli production that fits all of the qualifications for a great coming-of-age story. The film follows high school student and bookworm Shizuku Tsukishima as she notices someone has been checking out the same books as her at the library. She finds out that it is Seiji Amasawa, an aspiring musician who longs to travel to Italy to become a violin maker. Whisper of the Heart takes the budding petals of romance and scatters them in a mess on the floor, making the young protagonist question her decisions and suffer a teen-life crisis. And haven’t we all been there before? Music also plays a pivotal role in the film, particularly an obscurely placed country song that changes lyrics depending on who performs it. This is not without reason, however, as it acts as a sort of Greek chorus detailing Shizuku’s desire to break free of her insecurity and travel on her own path to success, whatever direction it may be.
1. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
At last, we have reached the conclusion to this ranked list, and by the process of elimination, you may have guessed that Kiki’s Delivery Service would take the top spot. Everything about this film is absolutely perfect. From the genuinely likable characters to the clever metaphors for growing up, and the serene slice of life storytelling, Studio Ghibli has crafted a humble masterpiece that isn’t flashy with its animation or pompous in the message it delivers to audiences. Kiki’s Delivery Service follows a young witch named Kiki who must go out into the world for a year as part of a tradition for witches in training. The film chronicles her time at a charming seaside town where she gets to know the locals and hone her magical abilities. I believe that every young adult venturing out into the great unknown for the first time should watch this movie, because the journey of independence that Kiki takes will mirror theirs, and sometimes, you need a little encouragement to fly on your own.