This article originally ran in November 2019. We are republishing it on the occasion of the launch of HBO Max, the platform upon which Studio Ghibli’s films are now streaming for the first time in the U.S.
In 1985, two friends and longtime collaborators — Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, fresh off the success of their recent project Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind — founded a company that would change animation as we know it. For the next three decades, Studio Ghibli went on to produce some of the most critically acclaimed and financially successful films in its home country of Japan, many of them the highest-grossing films in the country for the years they were released.
Their reach would extend far beyond Japan: Studio Ghibli influenced animators and live-action filmmakers around the world. The work by Miyazaki, Takahata, and their team to blend fantasy and reality can be seen in the films of people as different as Guillermo del Toro, a vocal fan who blends fantasy and reality in his works, and Wes Anderson, who praised Miyazaki when talking about Isle of Dogs: “With Miyazaki, you get nature and you get moments of peace, a kind of rhythm that is not in the American animation tradition so much.”
There’s no arguing that Studio Ghibli’s commitment to artistry and empathetic storytelling has transformed modern filmmaking. It makes films that appeal to a wide demographic by refusing to talk down to children and allowing adults to explore their own feelings in unexpected ways. In just under four decades, Studio Ghibli has made arguably a dozen films that could legitimately be called masterpieces.
So, how does one begin to compare some of the best films ever made? How does one compare the lyricism of Princess Kaguya with the whimsy of Kiki’s Delivery Service with the world-building of Castle in the Sky? They’re all wonderful. Take the list below with the awareness that nearly all of them are worth your time and differences in position are incredibly minute. No one makes movies like Ghibli.
(A quick note: We are counting Nausicaa, which is technically not a Ghibli film but led to its foundation and has been reclaimed as such over the years. We are not counting Castle of Cagliostro, made before that, even though it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki.)
22. Tales From Earthsea (2006)
Arguably the only true dud in the Studio Ghibli catalogue is this very loose adaptation of the beloved Earthsea series of books by Ursula K. Le Guin. The story goes that Hayao Miyazaki had been interested in adapting these stories since the early ’80s, but the author had been reticent about anyone adapting her books, changing her mind after the international success of Spirited Away. The problem was that Hayao Miyazaki was off working on Howl’s Moving Castle and so the project was handed off to his son, Gorō Miyazaki, directing here for the first time. Gorō Miyazaki would go on to direct a much better Ghibli film, but this one got away from him, probably owing to his lack of experience. At times it’s nearly incomprehensible and so narratively removed from the books that Le Guin was reportedly disappointed. Like all Studio Ghibli movies, it’s got some strong visuals, but it doesn’t hold your interest.
21. The Cat Returns (2002)
Already this list is in the “pretty good” category with 20 films to go. Compared to the rest of the Ghibli catalogue, Hiroyuki Morita’s spin-off/sequel to Whisper of the Heart feels a little slight and not just because it runs only 75 minutes. Based on the manga of the same name, The Cat Returns gives the magical cat named Baron from Whisper another adventure when he meets Haru, a shy girl who has the ability to talk to cats. With echoes of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Haru ends up in a world of cats, where she slowly starts to turn into herself. Themes of identity and embracing, rather than repressing, our gifts are woven through an adventure that works relatively well yet lacks some of the magic in design and character that defines top-tier Ghibli. It’s a fun diversion, but thinner than the films above it on this list.
20. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Nestled between two of the biggest hits in the history of the company — Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away — is this family comedy from the underrated Isao Takahata, the co-founder of Ghibli, who doesn’t get the attention lavished on his longtime business partner Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata often worked better in a more serious register (Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Kaguya), and his sparse visual style when compared to Miyazaki makes for a comedy that feels a little slight. It doesn’t help that this is a very purposefully episodic film, divided into vignettes about modern Japanese family life. While there are elements that keep this culturally distant for American audiences, and it doesn’t transcend its genre like the best Ghibli, one can still see Takahata’s deep empathy in Studio Ghibli’s first completely digital film.
19. Ocean Waves (1993)
Technically, this was a TV movie, but it was released in American theaters by GKIDS under the Studio Ghibli banner in 2016, so it counts for our purposes. Reportedly, Ocean Waves was a project for younger staff members at Ghibli to work on and to make cheaply, but the result barely shows any inexperience or lack of budget. Tomomi Mochizuki directed this unique entry in the Ghibli canon in that it contains nary a sign of fantasy or magical storytelling. It’s a relatively straightforward young adult drama about a love triangle in the city of Kōchi when a new transfer student comes between two friends. There’s a delicacy to the storytelling here that’s admirable and sometimes enchanting, and the entire piece is proof that the young students at Ghibli were paying attention to the work of the veterans.
18. Pom Poko (1994)
Themes of humanity’s relationship with nature, environmental incursion by technology, and a sense that we’ve lost touch with the natural world are woven through almost all Studio Ghibli films. They’re front and center in this comedy about tribes of raccoons fighting against the species of man that’s pushing them from their homes. Pom Poko digs deep into Japanese folklore regarding raccoons and their ability to transform themselves and hide in plain sight. Takahata employs different styles to tell his story, sometimes sketching realistic raccoons and sometimes anthropomorphic creatures. The story revolves around a suburban development threatening the natural world outside Tokyo and the limited resources human beings have a habit of devouring. Some of the comedy doesn’t translate perfectly, but there’s a joyous energy that Takahata uses to convey a message that clearly means a great deal to Ghibli: Destroying the natural world isn’t just damaging to the planet but to our own history and folklore.
17. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Gorō Miyazaki, this is one of Studio Ghibli’s more straightforward dramas, an adaptation of a popular manga originally published in 1980. It’s a Ghibli film that feels more directly aimed at a specific demographic — young adults — than some of their most transcendent work, but there is visual beauty here in the design of the mansion in which much of the film takes place and, well, the hill itself. The image of a flag flying high in the breeze, trying to communicate across the miles to sailors far away is haunting. While the story of the likable Umi and Shun works well enough as teen drama with a few interesting twists, what resonates is the concept of a young girl using the naval language of flags to, in the end, try to communicate with an entire lost generation of fathers killed in combat.
16. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Known as The Borrower Arrietty in Japan, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s feature-film debut contains many of the fantasy hallmarks of Studio Ghibli while lacking some of the magic of the work of its masters. It tells a variation on a tale that’s common across cultures, that of tiny people living alongside average human beings, in this case “borrowing” what they need and trying to stay undetected. A “borrower” named Arrietty becomes friends with a human named Shō after he goes to spend the summer in his mother’s childhood home. The adaptation of British writer Mary Norton’s The Borrowers feels a bit slight on a story level, but this is a case in which the production elevates the material. Yonebayashi and his team use perspective in a way that makes the ordinary seem extraordinary, giving the whole experience the sheen of a classic fairy tale. It is bursting with imaginative visuals, even if they sometimes seem to overwhelm the story and characters.
15. Porco Rosso (1992)
One of the few films in the Ghibli catalogue that could legitimately be called an action/adventure, this cult hit became somewhat famous in American circles thanks to Michael Keaton’s pitch-perfect voice work as the title character in the U.S. dub. Who better to voice a cynical, world-weary WWI pilot who just happens to have been turned into an anthropomorphic pig? Based on a manga by Miyazaki and directed by the master, this is the story of Marco Pagot, who was cursed and became a “Red Pig.” Porco Rosso is one of Ghibli’s most memorable characters, a classic adventure-movie archetype that could have been played by Humphrey Bogart back in the day. He’s loyal to those who are loyal to him and doesn’t abide by injustice. The scenes of Porco Rosso flying high above the sea are some of the most technically impressive from this era of Ghibli. In the end, this film has maintained such a loyal following that Miyazaki was talking about making a sequel earlier this decade, although the current in-flux state of Ghibli makes that seem unlikely.
14. When Marnie Was There (2014)
Technically, this remains the final film of Studio Ghibli, made just before a hiatus was announced and the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki (which has since been reversed, as he’s reportedly working on a comeback film called How Do You Live?). It’s a perfect elegy for Ghibli, reflecting the themes that have fascinated the company over 35 years; the film is essentially about embracing tragedies of the past so that we can move forward. Anna is a rare young-adult hero in that she is overtly depressed and unhappy — she talks about how she hates herself in ways that YA fiction doesn’t often allow — but everything changes when she’s forced to move to a seaside community after an asthma attack. Drawn to a mysterious mansion that’s said to be haunted, she essentially befriends a ghost. Or does she? As the emotions of the final act swell, it’s hard to separate how one feels about these characters specifically and how generations of movie lovers have felt about Studio Ghibli more broadly.
13. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Fans of this movie are probably singing “Country Roads” about now. The classic tune plays a major role in this 1995 coming-of-age tale that was actually the first Ghibli production not helmed by Miyazaki or Takahata. Yoshifumi Kondō took duties for what would be his only film before his death in 1998. It’s a more straightforward story than the movies for which Ghibli is most famous, centering on a 14-year-old named Shizuku who becomes fascinated with her image of a boy who happened to check out the same books she did from the library. Blending fantasy with coming-of-age tropes, Whisper is a deeply empathetic film, a great example of how even when they were dealing in human nature, the people at Ghibli could find magic. It doesn’t talk down to its audience, presenting Shizuku as a more complex young teenager than even some other Ghibli movies tend to do. It treats its subject respectfully and gracefully, which is why it’s developed such a loyal following over the years. One has to wonder how Kondō would have shaped animation if he hadn’t been taken by an aneurysm at such a young age.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
A lot of Miyazaki’s favorite themes, from anti-violence to female empowerment to sacrifice, are embedded in one of his most highly detailed visual works. The design of the titular castle is stunning, a remarkable creation in Ghibli history, and every image seems to be nearly bursting with visual flourishes. There are frames in this film filled with detail, almost to a cluttering degree, but Miyazaki brings his fairy-tale vision back to what people love about Ghibli while maintaining one of his most strident messages. Miyazaki reportedly opposed the war in Iraq and made this film in response — a story of how violence shapes the landscape and can destroy the human soul. Some of these themes are handled with more nuance in better Miyazaki films, but one can’t deny the visual prowess on display here.
11. Ponyo (2008)
Miyazaki’s eighth Ghibli film came at an interesting time for the company: The studio became as internationally famous as it would ever be after the Oscar success of Spirited Away and the Disney dubs of its catalogue in the aughts. Ghibli was suddenly a household name outside Japan, with a lot of its hits of this era resonating with an older, fantasy-driven audience (Howl, Mononoke, Spirited). So it was interesting to see Miyazaki make what is arguably Ghibli’s kiddiest film to date in this variation on the The Little Mermaid, starring a goldfish named Ponyo who wishes to become a human girl after he meets a boy named Sōsuke. This is a wonderful entry point into the world of Studio Ghibli for very young viewers, with enough bright colors to keep toddlers entertained and a heartwarming-enough story to make their parents smile too. This is also a time in Ghibli’s history when it was moving back to hand-drawn animation, and it’s easy to see the human touch here. Miyazaki has been said to have enjoyed drawing the sea and waves, and you can feel his heart beating in a lot of this lovely film.
10. The Wind Rises (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki has reportedly been working on a new film, but this was conceived and designed as his last before retirement, and it’s undeniably the work of a master looking back at his career. After all, it is about a perfectionist, a World War II airplane designer, who seeks what was once considered impossible: soaring above the clouds on what one character calls “beautiful dreams.” Setting his story in the years before World War II adds weight to Miyazaki’s melancholy vision. After all, we know that these dreams will lead to nightmares, and Miyazaki took some flak for one of the few times in his career for not making this film sufficiently antiwar. So much of Ghibli’s catalogue has been so clearly anti-violence that this is a somewhat myopic reading of this film, and it dismisses the ambition of its story and beauty of its visuals. Miyazaki’s final film contains some of his most striking compositions, alternately realistic and fantastical. It is about a dreamer who is forced to be a realist. In other words, it’s about its creator too.
9. Only Yesterday (1991)
Made in 1991 but not released Stateside until 2016, Only Yesterday is a delicate gem, a moving piece of dramatic work by Takahata that lacks some of the fantasy elements that often define Ghibli for casual viewers but is one of the best examples in the catalogue of the studio’s deep, unfailing humanism. Takahata’s films convey moving human emotion in quietly devastating ways, and it’s his compassion for his characters that allow the emotion of this story to sneak up on you. At its core, it’s a simple tale: A woman living in Tokyo goes to visit the countryside and remembers her childhood on the train journey. Takahata’s gift with character allows the memories of his protagonist to break through stereotype and feel organic and true. Taeko questions how much of the child version remains in her and if she’s fulfilled or betrayed that kid’s dreams. In the end, his film serves as a reminder of how we are formed by the events of our life and how our past can sometimes feel like it wasn’t that long ago. Maybe it was only yesterday.
8. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Children’s films have a habit of either leaning too hard into vulnerability or individuality. Their kids either need saving or need to stand on their own. Few films are better at blending the two than one of Ghibli’s biggest early hits, the story of a young witch finding her way in the world. As Kiki makes friends along her journey, Miyazaki and his team deftly capture that in-between time in which a young person is carving out an identity but reliant on adults at the same time. This is a movie that understands that empowerment doesn’t have to extinguish vulnerability, a message that’s hard to convey in any form of fiction, especially a genre of fantasy kids’ movies that usually traffics in simple ideas. Studio Ghibli doesn’t go for simple ideas, imbuing even what appears to be a straightforward children’s story like this one with a complexity rarely seen in fantasy fiction.
7. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Representing Studio Ghibli at its angriest, this entry is almost definitely not for the littlest kids in the family (in fact, it’s the only one rated PG-13 in the U.S.) and was one of the major international breakthroughs for the company. At first, Mononoke feels like a fantasy-adventure film, but it’s embedded in a story of man’s relation to the natural world, recalling themes that recur throughout the history of Studio Ghibli. How does humankind coexist with the world that’s been here long before it? The movie opens with a disturbing scene in which a boarlike creature has been infected by a bullet. The invention of man has disturbed the natural balance of things. But this only hints at the depth of storytelling and visual wonder in Mononoke, arguably Ghibli’s most complex work narratively. It is Miyazaki in a deeply philosophical mode, not making a didactic message movie about taking care of the Earth as much as asking questions about agency, human nature, and moral complexity. The fact that there’s anything above it on this list only speaks to the strength of the catalogue at hand.
6. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Technically, this is the film that led to the founding of Studio Ghibli, and so some may argue it doesn’t “count.” However, so much of the team behind it would be folded into Ghibli that it has been rebranded on rerelease with its logo, and, most of all, it is so clearly of a piece with the rest of Ghibli’s output. In fact, watching Nausicaa will give young viewers or those new to this world such a perfect introduction to what’s to come. Here, we have the theme of destruction of the natural world, how we relate to those different than ourselves, and even some of the visual motifs that would recur for the next three decades. Some of Nausicaa looks a little clunky now — one can only imagine how the Ghibli of the ’10s would remake it — but that’s part of its charm. It is an old-fashioned adventure tale, and it set the foundation for masterpieces to come.
5. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
“Please! Let me stay a little longer! Just a little longer, to feel the joy of living in this place!” No other film in the catalogue vibrates with the same deep emotion as Isao Takahata’s final film, arguably his masterpiece. A clear culmination of themes he had explored throughout his career, this is a film that feels simple at first: an old-fashioned fairy tale about a magical girl who grows up quickly. It’s only two hours later, when you’ve experienced its emotions in their totality, that you can really appreciate what Takahata accomplishes here. With sparse, watercolor visuals that are nearly free of the visual flourish of the company’s prior works, Takahata focuses his audience on his themes instead of just his art. It is like a lovely musical composition for a single instrument — you can hear every heartbreaking note. In the end, it’s a story about nothing less than the transitive nature of human existence: We are all only here for a short time, and we should all feel the joy of living in this place.
4. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Isao Takahata’s adaptation of the short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka may be the most “not exactly for the little ones” films in the entire Ghibli catalogue, and yet its antiwar message is something to be considered by all demographics. As bleak as animation gets, this is the moving story of Seita and Setsuko, two siblings in Kobe, Japan, during the final months of World War II. They lose their mother early in the film after a bombing and face hunger, disease, and worse as the world around them almost crumbles to dust. It opens with Seita dying of starvation and then flashes back to show us how we got there; you won’t find talking cats or moving castles in this one. You will find two of the most unforgettable animated characters in history. Takahata does something that filmmakers have done for generations now in detailing the human cost of war, but he does so in a way that live-action film can’t. Animation trains the viewer to expect magic, but none comes for Setsuko and Seita, making their tragic end all the more haunting.
3. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Years later, it’s fun to watch what is technically the first Studio Ghibli title and see it as a sort of cinematic overture of what would come. There are so many elements of this film that would be echoed in subsequent works, from the moving castle to the character design to even elements of Joe Hisaishi’s stunning score. The story is simple enough — a boy and girl try to find a magic crystal and a castle in the sky — but it’s merely the skeleton for visual compositions that would be stunning even if they were released today. Not only is it easy to pick out how much this film influenced what Studio Ghibli would create, but you can see its DNA in everything from The Iron Giant to Pixar too. Many animated films are called magical, but this one truly lives up to that word.
2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Every parent should pick a day and make their young kids watch My Neighbor Totoro. They won’t ever be the same. The gateway drug for an addiction to Studio Ghibli, this is quite simply one of the most delightful and enjoyable children’s films ever made. It’s a movie that can be watched over and over again, losing none of its power to inspire wonder. At its core, it’s a simple story of an imaginary creature discovered by two girls dealing with the emotional stress of a sick mother and a relocation. How we use fantasy to deal with reality has always been a theme of children’s entertainment, but Miyazaki and Ghibli don’t see that fantasy purely as escapism. They see it as something essential to human life, something beyond our control yet more essential than mere imagination. And Totoro remains one of the most iconic characters of modern animation. He has taken on a life much bigger than just one film, appearing on Ghibli merchandise for decades now. After you fall in love with this movie, you’ll understand why.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
In the two decades since its release, Studio Ghibli’s best film has become more than just an animated hit. Spirited Away, the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro’s journey to her own spirit-filled Wonderland after moving to a new village, has become a modern classic. People hold it up with beloved Disney animated movies in a way that makes it feel more a part of cultural history than anything released this millennium. Why? It distills everything we love about Studio Ghibli into one experience. First, it doesn’t talk down to its audience, allowing young viewers to be legitimately scarred by some of its haunting visions. Second, it presents a willful yet vulnerable female protagonist. No animated studio comes close in the department of empowering stories for young women. Third, it embraces fantasy in a way that makes it feel as essential as breathing, not merely escapism. Finally, it contains artistry on a visual level that rivals any animated film. You can take frames from Spirited Away and hang them on your wall, and yet it is never merely an exercise in style. It contains everything we love about Ghibli, from its deep empathy for human fragility to its empowering message of our need for imaginative, inspirational journeys.