All anime fans jumped with joy when Netflix made the landmark announcement of bringing 21 Studio Ghibli movies on the popular streaming platform. This was announced on January 20th, 2020. Until then, only one Studio Ghibli movie was available on Netflix to stream, the iconic Grave of the Fireflies, one of the saddest movies ever made. The anime classic from the 80s was available from December 1st, 2019. The other movies were not all released on January 20th at once. They were released in waves instead. Seven films on February 1, seven others on March 1 and the last ones on April 1. This was a great opportunity for new fans to start exploring the world of Studio Ghibli and for old fans to relive the great moments from some of their favourite anime movies of all time. Netflix featured masterpieces like Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke etc., or his friend Isao Takahata’s Pompoko. In this post, we will take at the best Studio Ghibli movies that you can (and should) watch today. We will include movies from all the eras in the list. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Here Are The Best Studio Ghibli Movies Ever
Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata (1988)
Someone around you has probably warned you: Grave of the Fireflies is one of the saddest films ever. That’s about all you need to know before you get started: you’re going to cry.
Isao Takahata’s masterpiece is one of Studio Ghibli’s most legendary creations. We follow the tragic story of a sister and a brother, left to fend for themselves during the summer of 1945, when Japan was bombarded by American forces. A film about the loss of innocence, open wounds and mourning, in addition to being a great historical and poetic work. This is one of the favourite movies of Angela Gossow, former frontwoman of the Swedish metal band, Arch Enemy. The band even has a song dedicated to this movie, In This Shallow Grave.
When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2014)
This is one of the newer works from Studio Ghibli, released in 2014. When Marnie Was There is adapted from a novel of the same name and follows a young teenager in depression during her vacation in the countryside. This one will befriend Marnie, a girl stuck in an old and big villa, which we don’t really know if she really exists or not.
The film is very beautiful and emotionally charged, but its confusing and overly complex plot makes When Marnie Was There a far less enchanting experience than other Ghibli initiatory tales, such as Spirited Away.
Ocean Waves, Tomomi Mochizuki (1993)
Ocean Waves is actually a TV movie – although the movie was available theatrically when it comes out in the United States. This is a project carried out by the less experienced members of the studio, with a small budget.
The final result suffers very little from this lack of means or technical skills but does not come close to other studio productions. We end up with a sentimental drama that is very talkative, fairly banal and not very daring. Fortunately, it lasts less than an hour and a half.
Tales from the Earthsea, Goro Miyazaki (2006)
Tales from Earthsea had everything to be one of the great films of Studio Ghibli. The first directed by Goro Miyazaki, the film loosely adapts Ursula K. Le Guin’s saga of the same name.
In Earthsea, Prince Arren kills his father and leaves his castle, before embarking on an epic quest. If the story opens with parricide, the son of Hayao Miyazaki struggles to make us forget the talent of his mentor.
Tales from Earthsea only skims over the material it intended to adapt: influenced by the great works of fantasy (The Lord of the Rings, to name a few), the feature film gets lost in subaltern arcs and ready to its protagonists lukewarm and already seen ambitions. We note, all the same, a striking art direction and some shots that could easily compete with the films at the top of this list.
The Secret World of Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2010)
Here, Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes up a myth that has already been exploited several times in the world of literature and children’s cinema: that of little people. The pilferers live within the walls of our houses and, when evening comes, borrow food: a cube of sugar there, a handful of salt here. This movie plays brilliantly with the proportions of a tiny world, the extreme dependence on the visuals encroaches on the narration, which is somewhat disappointing.
From Up On Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki (2011)
The second film by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, From Up On Poppy Hill, returns to Japan on the eve of the 1964 Olympic Games. A handful of students unite to preserve an old building, which must be destroyed to create new infrastructure.
While interesting for its historical context, the film loses itself in easy teenage melodrama with low narrative stakes.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata (2013)
Like My Neighbors the Yamadas made a few years earlier, Isao Takahata decides here to break with Ghibli’s own animation for a more refined and poetic design.
A format that fits rather well with the sweet Tale of Princess Kaguya, a superb presentation of a Japanese folk legend. The end may tear you to tears, although the film (2h15) would have benefited from being shorter.
Whisper Of The Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo (1995)
Whisper Of The Heart is Yoshifumi Kondō’s first and only film. The director, who was expected to succeed Miyazaki, died three years after his release from a ruptured aneurysm.
This rather pleasant animation, on the quest for the identity of a young teenager passionate about literature, is not Ghibli’s most fascinating work. Nevertheless, it presents a complex and tangible heroine and analyzes with precision the sentimental and psychological wanderings of adolescence.
My Neighbors the Yamada, Isao Takahata (1999)
Both in form and substance, My Neighbors the Yamadas is Studio Ghibli’s most distinct feature film. Isao Takahata adapts the eponymous manga by Hisaichi Ishii, published between 1991 and 1993 in the daily Asahi Shinbun.
The film is a series of small comic vignettes about a family, in a deliberately much simpler style than the rest of the Ghibli films. If the proposal may surprise at first sight, My Neighbors the Yamada dissects with precision and sincerity the daily life of a household, alternating humor and poetry.
It’s a touching, human story about what it means to be a family. We only regret its format: an animated series would undoubtedly have made viewing more pleasant than a long film.
Kingdom of Cats, Hiroyuki Morita (2002)
Hiroyuki Morita’s first production within the studio, The Cat Returns is a somewhat bizarre adventure about the arranged marriage between a cat prince and a human teenager.
Full of good intentions, the work is, unfortunately, a little short and therefore littered with scriptwriting facilities. It’s still one of the most accessible and tender films in the Ghibli catalog.
However, it is difficult not to imagine what Miyazaki or Takahata could have done with this rich universe – the famous kingdom of cats – over two hours.
Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991)
Far from being the most accessible of the Ghiblis, Only Yesterday is a film full of emotions about the transition to adulthood, introspection and childhood nostalgia. The feature film wanders between the life of Taeko Okajima in 1982, when she is about to spend some time in the countryside, and in 1966, the year of her 10th birthday.
There’s nothing fantastic or wondrous about Takahata’s film: it’s just a nice testament to childhood – first crushes, whims, rejections, first periods – and what you have to leave behind. us to move forward. It is enough to look at it one evening when one feels melancholy to let oneself be carried away by this astonishing proposition.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki (1989)
Even more than My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service is Studio Ghibli’s iconic children’s film. Much less loaded with allegories and subliminal messages, it simply relates to the emancipation of Kiki, a young 13-year-old witch.
Visually, it’s not the most beautiful film, but Kiki’s Delivery Service is bathed in a soft and benevolent atmosphere. The fairly low narrative stakes, however, make the latter part a bit laborious for adults.
The Castle in the Sky, Hayao Miyazaki (1986)
The first real production from Studio Ghibli, The Castle in the Sky was only released in the West in 2003, seventeen years after its release in Japan, thanks in particular to the success of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
A young girl is pursued by sky pirates and a mysterious clan: all want to get their hands on the “flying stone” that she keeps around her neck. According to legend, this pendant would guide anyone to Laputa, an island floating in the sky.
The Castle in the Sky is one of Miyazaki’s most ambitious creations, in which he bathes his many obsessions – the cohabitation between nature and human beings, the danger of technology in the wrong hands, aerial exploration.
Unlike the rest of his achievements, this somewhat long film suffers from poorly developed characters and a somewhat dated aesthetic. However, It still remains one of the great works of the studio, magical and dreamy.
The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyaza
“The wind is rising, we must try to live.” Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (to date, since he is the type to change his mind every year) is also his most intimate. Forget the Great Magical Epics: The Wind Rises, which takes its title from a verse by Paul Valery, is a biopic loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aeronautical engineer during World War II.
This theme allows Hayao Miyazaki to fully satisfy his passion for aviation – which already infuses most of his films – while painting a nuanced picture of Japan in wartime. The feature film is deprived of the wonder that accompanies most Miyazaki, but it draws its strength from its humanity.
Pom Poko, Isao Takahata (1994)
We couldn’t find stranger than Pompoko, a sort of animated fictional documentary about raccoons in the upper Tama Valley, near Tokyo. In reality, they are tanuki which, like the kitsune, have an important place in Japanese mythology.
In the film, these animals decide to join forces to prevent the destruction of the woods they occupy. To do this, they learn again to transform themselves into objects or human beings, in order to frighten the workers on the construction site. Here again, we touch on the green fiber of Ghibli studios, whose master thinkers have always advocated a return to nature or the countryside.
What we hadn’t expected, on the other hand, is to see so many genitals transform into carpets or parachutes over the course of the feature film – strange and pop, like a Wes Anderson flick. We also wonder if Pompoko did not inspire him with Fantastic Mr. Fox, since the American director has often mentioned the influence of the studio on his work.
The parade scene, where the tanuki descend on the town, is one of the most phenomenal sequences of the films in this ranking. The only downside, the quasi-documentary format, although fresh and new for Ghibli, limits the empathy and the characterization of the protagonists.
My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki (1988)
Nothing really happens in My Neighbor Totoro: two sisters and their father move to the countryside to be closer to the hospitalized mother. Near their new home, the girls discover Totoro, the magical spirit of the nearby forest.
The plot ends there, if not for a vague fugue from the youngest at the end, and yet, My Neighbor Totoro is one of Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films. No doubt because under its childish appearance hides a moving and nostalgic account of the fears and traumas of childhood.
It is a universal film, with which everyone can find a particular resonance, so cult that the studio has made its creature its emblem. All Studio Ghibli movies have a soul, this one is just that.
Porco Rosso, Hayao Miyazaki (1992)
Every great filmmaker has one. Porco Rosso, released in 1992 in Japan, is Hayao Miyazaki’s underrated film. It is far from being as grandiloquent as some of his fables, or as symbolic as others, but this airy vaudeville has everything of a success.
Seemingly light, Porco Rosso recounts the adventures of a pig, a famous airplane pilot, in Italy between the wars, allowing Miyazaki to show off all his love –and his knowledge of aviation. In reality, the log film denounces both the horrors of the past war, notably with the help of a marvelous dreamlike scene and the rise of fascism in Italy and elsewhere.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki (1984)
If you want to understand the values of Studio Ghibli, and more specifically those that drive Hayao Miyazaki, you have to watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
Released a year before the official creation of Ghibli, it is an ode to nature which, in the same way, that Princess Mononoke will do years later, advocates for cohabitation between fauna, flora, and our civilization, all with an independent and fearless heroine – a magic recipe that the studios will try to recreate many times.
If it weren’t for the slight aging this film has taken, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind could almost climb to the top of this ranking.
Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki (2008)
We don’t really know why – its sublime 2D animation, its endearing characters or its sweet love story between a 5-year-old child and a fish – but Ponyo is one of the greatest successes of Studio Ghibli.
Ponyo is a magic fish, who when she runs away from her father (a sordid wizard) meets a little boy named Sosuke. Thus begins a romance that defies the laws of nature and risks annihilating humanity – just that.
Despite this sinister stake, Ponyo on the cliff remains a small nugget of animation for children, or for adults who need a bit of sweetness in their lives.
The coastal village in the grip of a storm is one of the most beautiful scenes ever produced by the studio, and the marine life, as well as the magical characters, seem straight out of a dream from which we hope never to wake up. Enough to overshadow The Little Mermaid.
Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki (2001)
Chihiro, 10, is on her way to a new life: her parents have decided to move and are looking for the fastest way to get to their house. A slight detour through the spirit realm, and here is the couple transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba. The little girl is forced to work for her in her public baths to try to find her parents.
Miyazaki’s work could almost be split in two: on the one hand epic tales like Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa, and on the other works aimed at a younger audience. Spirited Away falls into this second category.
Before getting down to directing the film, Hayao Miyazaki spent most of his summer vacation in a chalet with his family and friends, where five girls were present. Although at the time he had already made feature films for children (My Neighbor Totoro then Kiki’s Delivery Service ), the cartoonist regrets not having created one specifically for pre-adolescent girls.
Spirited Away is nonetheless a rich work, with a dense and captivating imagination. It is perhaps, after Howl’s Moving Castle, one of the studio’s most magical feature films, and for many children born in the 1990s the gateway to the world of Ghibli.
Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki (2004)
An adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, Howl’s Moving Castle recounts the curse of a young girl named Sophie, who is suddenly transformed into an old lady by the witch of the Landes. She goes to find the sorcerer Hauru and becomes his housekeeper, in the hope of one day breaking the spell of which she is the victim.
From the castle mentioned in the title, to the many spells and other transformations, we can say that this is undoubtedly the most fantastic of the Ghibli films.
Miyazaki, as usual, excels in mixing genres, infusing a touch of magic in a world yet close to ours. A sublime adventure, a great love story, but also a film haunted by the ravages of war and the traumas of Japan.
Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki (1997)
The first place in the ranking of Ghibli movies is eminently subjective. For people who discovered them early, it could be attributed to My Neighbor Totoro. Others will prefer to crown Spirited Away, which met with unprecedented success for a Japanese film on its release: 274 million dollars in worldwide receipts, an Oscar for the best animated film and the Golden Bear for best film.
But there’s something about Princess Mononoke that has never been matched by other Ghibli and Miyazaki masterpieces. All the themes so dear to the designer are present: the dichotomy between humanity and animality, between the civilized world and nature; the environmental crisis; the greed of human beings… It is thanks to its limitless history and its incredible mythology that Princess Mononoke manages to take our breath away.
The film takes place during the Muromachi era (in the 15th century) and traces the story of Ashitaka, prince of the Emishi tribe, who finds himself cursed after having fought a demon. He must then leave his village in order to understand the cause of nature’s anger and meet the spirits of the forest.
Although far from being Miyazaki’s most intimate – and intimate – work, Princess Mononoke is a hybrid tale, a wonderful epic and a great war film. As always with the director, there is neither good nor evil: simply two parties who would benefit from cooperating but fail to do so. It is definitely one of the best movies to come from Studio Ghibli.