When it comes to anime, Studio Ghibli is an institution. With twenty-three films out and more in the works, the studio has been creating memorable films since 1984, almost (but not quite) releasing one movie a year. If you’ve yet to experience the phenomenon that is Ghibli but have no idea where to start, we’ve ranked the best Ghibli films here for you.
And don’t get upset if one of your favorites ranks low in the list. Most of these films are excellent, it’s simply a matter of degree (though feel free to complain if you feel a Ghibli movie not in the list ought to be in it!).
- 16. Only Yesterday
- 15. The Wind Rises
- 14. The Red Turtle
- 13. Whisper Of The Heart
- 12. Pom Poko
- 11. My Neighbour Totoro
- 10. Porco Rosso
- 9. The Cat Returns
- 8. Castle in the Sky
- 7. Grave of the Fireflies
- 6. Kiki’s Delivery Service
- 5. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- 4. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
- 3. Howl’s Moving Castle
- 2. Spirited Away
- 1. Princess Mononoke
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16. Only Yesterday
We all have those nostalgic moments when we long to return to childhood innocence, when we harbored an unshakable faith in dreams we later abandoned. Written and directed by Isao Takahata, this 1991 offering is follows a woman’s reflections on her rather mundane early years. There’s little to engage us in terms of action, intrigue, or adventure.
The story is saved by some very poignant observations on gender in Japanese society as well as social class, urbanization, and being true to yourself. It offers a powerful narrative and great visuals.
15. The Wind Rises
This 2013 epic was meant to be the elder Miyazaki’s last movie before he retired, and it includes a lot of his indulgences as a result, particularly where planes are concerned.
This time he tells the tale of a WWII airplane designer Jiro, who designed the lethal fighter planes called ‘zeroes.’ The juxtaposition between a love of airplanes (Jiro’s ‘beautiful dreams’) used to make war and a pacifist nature is beautifully told. It’s a glorious look at the emotional toll of being forced to face reality and abandon your ideals for the greater good, and a visual treat to boot.
14. The Red Turtle
Written by Michaël Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran, and directed by the former, 2016’s The Red Turtle is beautifully animated and complex. The story appears to be a simple tale of a shipwrecked man stranded on an island where he meets and befriends a giant red turtle, but despite the apparent simplicity, the narrative is deeply layered and highly stylized.
The lack of dialogue won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s oddly poetic.
13. Whisper Of The Heart
Another sublime tale penned by Hayao Miyazaki, 1995’s Whisper of the Heart was directed by Yoshifumi Kondō. Tragically, it was the only one he would get to make as he died shortly after its release. The heart-rending tale follows teenager Shizuki on her journey to self-actualization.
While set in the real world the narrative is interspersed with fantastical trips through the story Shizuki is desperately trying to write. It’s a beautiful tale of the creative struggle and war that wages within every writer as they battle self-doubt. It’s the closest Ghibli ever comes to a genuine romance too, and as Shizuki loves a boy for the first time she also learns to love herself. A compelling and empowering journey.
12. Pom Poko
One of the more surreal Ghibli films, 1994’s Pom Poko was written and directed by Isao Takahata. Following a clan of magical tanuki (raccoons) who measure their prowess by the size of their scrotums and shapeshift to cause endless mischief, this film is quite literally balls-to-the-wall crazy from start to finish.
Despite the ridiculous concept, the film carries a very serious message about nature fighting back against urbanization. It’s perhaps the least child-friendly of all the Ghibli films: violent, sexualized, featuring cold-blooded murder and dark humor.
A great (if very peculiar) film.
11. My Neighbour Totoro
Written, directed, and produced by Hayao Miyazaki, 1988’s My Neighbour Totoro is the origin of Ghibli’s mascot; a giant, roaring rabbit. Following two girls struggling to come to terms with their mother’s long-term illness, this is a beautifully told tale of what it’s like to balance on the cusp of adulthood far too early. As the girls move to an old house with their father, so they’re nearer the hospital, they encounter Totoro, the magical bunny that lends the film its name. He appears in various sizes and guises, sometimes accompanied by a giant cat bus (best not to overthink that one), and helps the girls keep their minds off the horrible reality they must face.
Both girls are young and thoroughly unprepared for what is happening to their mother. That they take refuge in a magical world of fluffy characters and reliable friendships is a beautiful reminder that there are none so innocent as the young. It’s also a stark warning about the dangers of allowing real-life tragedy to rob our children of their innocence.
10. Porco Rosso
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this seemingly normal narrative has one bizarre twist: an otherwise serious real-world look at post-WWI struggles is juxtaposed with the magical transformation of the main character into a pig, (magnificently voiced by Michael Keaton). It’s a straight-up adventure packed with action and a little romance against the backdrop of 1930s Italy.
Porco hunts down air pirates plaguing the Adriatic Sea while offering commentary on the dangers of fascism, perfectly summarized with his line, “Better a pig than a fascist.”
9. The Cat Returns
Another of the more fantastically ridiculous films in the Ghibli lineup, 2002’s outing was written by Reiko Yoshida and directed by Hiroyuki Morita. A young girl rescues a cat and earns the gratitude of the cat king, who decrees she is to be married to his son.
A mysterious voice leads her to the Cat Bureau and the care of the enigmatic Baren Humbert von Gikkingen – the character created by Shizuki in Whisper Of The Heart. Alas, the Baron is unable to prevent her from being whisked (or *ahem* whiskered) away to the cat kingdom where she begins to transform into a cat. He must rescue her before the change is permanent.
The ‘twist’ is that Haru has to find the strength to believe in herself in order to be saved. It’s surprisingly deep for a light-hearted romp, and laugh-out-loud funny throughout.
8. Castle in the Sky
The original official Ghibli film, released in 1984 and directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki. It served as the template for future successes. Many of its tropes – nature vs the destruction of humanity, kids running into each other and teaming up to save the day, flying machines, the works – become Ghibli motifs for years to come.
A young boy, Patzu, happens upon a mysterious girl, Sheeta, who falls from the sky. She’s being pursued by pirates and the government, both of whom want her magical crystal. Patzu is obsessed with the legend of Laputa, a castle in the sky, and since this is apparently the origin of Sheeta’s mysterious crystal the pair set about finding the magical flying city.
The villain of the piece, Muska, is the most out-and-out evil character to appear in any of the studio’s films. The genuine menace of Muska, the sweet friendship between Sheeta and Patzu, and an extensive cast of engaging secondary characters make this a great watch.
7. Grave of the Fireflies
A genuine tear-jerker, 1988’s epic, directed and written by Isao Takahata, is not one to watch with the kids. A powerful tale of two siblings struggling through the end of the second world war, the narrative forces us to witness the horrors they endure following their mother’s death.
Rife with the ever-present airplanes and anti-war message carried by so many of Ghibli’s films, there is nothing whimsical about this one at all. Despite the real-world setting it’s a genuinely engaging and very touching story. There are some truly beautiful moments, which only highlight the severity of the war. Emotional, powerful, and beautifully animated.
6. Kiki’s Delivery Service
A 1989 adventure written, directed, and produced by Hayao Miyazaki, this one follows the titular Kiki – a young witch living in an otherwise normal world where witches just happened to be accepted. It’s a coming-of-age story that sees her embark on a rite of passage undergone by all witches when they turn thirteen.
Kiki is a particularly lively and relatable personality, albeit tempered by a darker malady that overcomes her. She’s highly driven to prove herself, yet her powers are slow to develop and she begins to doubt herself, slipping into depression. In the end, it is through the power of friendships on her journey that she begins to find salvation.
This is a surprisingly action-packed film with some truly amazing scenes of Kiki careening around the city on her broomstick. The animation is sublime, and at times it’s a laugh-out-loud riot.
5. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Perhaps the most overt of Ghibli’s tales revolving around the battle between nature and technology, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä is set in a time when industry has poisoned the Earth, leaving a toxic jungle spreading across the land.
Pockets of humanity still exist in habitable areas, and the tale follows Nausicaä, princess of the Valley of the Wind, as she struggles to defend her people against invasion, the death of her father the king, and the oncoming threat of the toxic jungle.
This movie is incredibly underrated, perhaps because it was originally released before Studio Ghibli was formed. It’s success is arguably the reason the studio came to be, yet it was only brought under the Ghibli banner later when it was re-released. It has suffered from a lack of the same level of promotion and hype surrounding later films.
4. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
An adaptation of one of the oldest Japanese folktales, 2013’s Princess Kaguya was written by Isao Takahata & Riko Sakaguchi, and directed by Isao Takahata. A relatively simple narrative that beautifully captures several core Ghibli themes including the restrictions of women, feminism, the responsibilities of parenting, and finding beauty in spite of sorrow. The film follows a magical girl discovered in a bamboo stalk.
Rapidly growing up, she’s trapped by the expectations of the society in which she finds herself, and struggles under the crushing weight of defying established mores.
It’s an astonishingly emotional and insightful tale that is so beautifully drawn it’s truly a work of art.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle
Based on the Dianna Wynne Jones book of the same name, this 2004 film was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
The film surpasses the book in many ways. Tweaking the story to include yet-more airships and yet-another-anti-war-narrative, Miyazaki presents a spectacular anti-hero in the form of Howl. He’s a wizard who made a bargain with a falling star when he was a young boy and is now in danger of being consumed by the curse it left on him.
The tale interweaves his journey of redemption with a young girl’s journey of self-discovery. Sophie meets Howl, seemingly by coincidence, and inadvertently makes an enemy of the Witch of the Waste, who curses her to look like an old granny.
2. Spirited Away
Perhaps the most mainstream of the Ghibli films, 2001’s Spirited Away was also written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. This is an all-out Japanese magic show, resplendent with various colorful mystical creatures, witch siblings caught in an odd rivalry, and the tale of a young girl who finds herself lost in a magical world due to her parents’ gluttony.
With her mother and father transformed into pigs, Chihiro must work at a bathhouse in order to earn their freedom. Stripped of her name, she befriends Haku, a young boy who also happens to be a dragon. Through hard work, cleverness, and a great deal of courage, Sin – as Chihiro eventually comes to be known – strives to free herself, her parents, and many of those she encounters in the magical world.
1. Princess Mononoke
1997’s Princess Mononoke was writer and director Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest masterpiece. A powerful tale of the struggle between nature and industry, we follow Ashitaka, a young boy cursed by a demon as he defends his village. Because of the curse, Ashitaka is banished and must leave his home.
Forging his own way he embarks on a journey to track the source of the demon that ruined his life. Along the way, he encounters Lady Eboshi, the feminist leader of Iron Town, and Princess Mononoke, a young girl raised by a wolf god alongside her wolf cubs. Between them they must find a way to restore balance and save the forest.
A bittersweet ending and an incredibly beautiful message of friendship and respect, coupled with some of the best mystical animation Ghibli has ever done make this the standout movie from the studio.
Looking for more anime to watch? Check out the best anime found on Netflix.
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