All of the Studio Ghibli movies, ranked
Studio Ghibli, ranked from least perfect to most sublime
Studio Ghibli films are finally available to stream! The cinematic oeuvre of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and their creative collaborators became available for digital purchase and rental back in December of 2019, but with the launch of HBO Max they are available on an American streaming service for the first time. We here at EW decided to celebrate the dawn of a new era with a rundown of all the studio's films — both for new viewers who want to know the essentials, and longtime fans who want to debate favorites.
23. When Marnie Was There (2014)
One Studio Ghibli’s most recent films is unfortunately its weakest. This time-traveling ghost story is a mish-mash of tones that never quite coheres, ranging from morbidly depressing (one character literally apologizes: “it’s such a sad story”) to cheerfully dull. —Christian Holub
22. Earwig and the Witch (2020)
At long last, Studio Ghibli turned away from the hand-drawn animation that made it famous and tried making a film with 3D CGI animation and the results are not great. Based on a novel by Diane Wynne Jones (the same author as Howl’s Moving Castle), Earwig and the Witch possesses some of the Ghibli hallmarks we all know and love. The protagonist, for example, is an adventurous young girl who doesn’t take crap from anybody; there’s also a playful magical familiar and a demonic figure who actually isn’t as scary as he looks. But in Earwig and the Witch, these familiar tropes feel like they’re suffocating under a plastic-looking sheen that doesn’t allow for much personality or expression. As fun as it is to hear Kacey Musgraves singing in a Ghibli movie, Earwig and the Witch just lacks magic. —C.H.
21. Tales From Earthsea (2006)
If anyone was capable of adapting Ursula K. Le Guin’s one-of-a-kind fantasy series for the screen, it was probably Hayao Miyazaki... which makes it a slight bummer that the legendary animator passed this project off to his son Gorō Miyazaki instead. Named after the fifth Earthsea book but based on plot elements and character moments from the first, third, and fourth novels, Tales From Earthsea gets a little too tripped up mixing and matching disparate references to tell a completely coherent story. To its credit, it does nail the most important themes of the Earthsea series (namely, that mankind should use its power in concert with the natural order rather than try to oppress it, and that death is what makes life beautiful in the first place) and there are some delightful mash-ups of Le Guin’s style with Ghibli’s aesthetic.
Still, it’s a shame that aside from a brief opening scene, an Earthsea movie spends so little time on the ocean. These days, fans of Ged and Arren’s sea journey in The Farthest Shore will find a more satisfying adaptation in Moana. —C.H.
20. Ocean Waves (1993)
A one-off in Studio Ghibli’s filmography, Ocean Waves was an experiment in letting younger staff members at the studio make their own movie. Though it wasn’t successful enough to sustain the experiment, Ocean Waves is still an interesting portrait of adolescent alienation and the strange sensation of not fully understanding certain personal encounters until years afterward. It never even got an English dub, making it a diamond-in-the-rough for American viewers. —C.H.
19. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Goro Miyazaki’s second directorial effort is a more cohesive story than his first, and the jaunty score by Satoshi Takebe gives From Up on Poppy Hill a delightful energy that matches its early-’60s period setting. But making the central romantic challenge a case of possible incest just strikes a discordant note. —C.H.
18. The Cat Returns (2002)
Possibly the Ghibli film least tethered to reality, The Cat Returns takes the elegant cat statue character from Whisper of the Heart and really runs with it, sending protagonist Haru on an Alice in Wonderland-like journey through a magical cat kingdom. The English voice dub has some delightfully odd casting choices, such as Peter Boyle as Haru’s fat white cat guide and Elliott Gould as a raven named Toto. If you’re a cat person, it’s a colorful imagining of what a cat society could look like. If you’re not a cat person, it’s a lot to take. —C.H.
17. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata had wanted to adapt Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book The Borrowers (about sprite-sized people who borrow objects from everyday human life in order to survive) for decades. The final result, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is pretty to look at and inventive in its worldbuilding (to a Borrower like Arrietty, a pin is a heroic sword and a sugar cube is a feast) but ultimately feels a little hollow. —C.H.
16. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
The great “what-if” from Studio Ghibli’s history, Whisper of the Heart was the only feature directed by Yoshifumi Kondo before his untimely death in 1998. It’s hard not to think about what else could have been, but Whisper of the Heart is still a wonderful piece about young love in and of itself. Falling for a talented young violin maker inspires Shizuku to explore her own creative talents as a writer. Her first attempt at a novel, inspired by an intriguing cat statue called the Baron owned by her crush’s grandfather, makes for a balanced blend between fantasy and reality (whereas the film’s eventual spin-off, The Cat Returns, dives headfirst into absurd fantasy territory). The fact that translating and reinterpreting John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is at the center of the movie adds an extra resonance to American viewers watching translated versions of these Japanese films. —C.H.
15. Pom Poko (1994)
The earlier machinations of Studio Ghibli would lay the groundwork for the animation house’s defining elements: Unveiling a hidden world, man’s relationship with nature, a confidence in the resilience and imagination of children. Pom Poko is one of those early attempts. In the Tama Hills beyond the borders of Tokyo are the tanuki, Japanese raccoon dogs. At first glance, they seem like normal wild animals. Then they change and, with them, the audience. At times, viewers see them as more cartoonish anthropomorphic raccoons strutting around in clothing. In other moments, they tap into their shape-shifting abilities to take human forms (because, as they say, anyone can learn shape-shifting.) That’s how the film lures in its audience: the jovial concept gives way to the more serious topic of man’s colonization of nature. A suburban development lays waste to the tanuki’s forest, pitting these creatures against humans in a war to save their home. —Nick Romano
14. Ponyo (2008)
Miyazaki’s most minor work is a fusion of The Little Mermaid and Pinocchio, focusing on the titular goldfish girl who decides she wants to be human after encountering a boy named Sōsuke. Though Ponyo is decidedly aimed at a younger audience, the tsunami that Ponyo’s father sends to retrieve her makes for one joyfully inventive sequence. —C.H.
13. Only Yesterday (1991)
There are no flying pigs or playful forest sprites in Only Yesterday, but Isao Takahata’s understated drama has a magic all the same. Its simple plot seems more akin to a Sundance coming-of-age indie than an animated tale, following a 27-year-old city dweller as she journeys to the countryside by train and reflects on her childhood. For years, the film was hard to find, and although it debuted in Japan in 1991, it didn’t get a U.S. release until 2016 (presumably because its intimate look at female life and frank talk about menstruation didn’t exactly mesh with your standard American kids’ movies). But although Only Yesterday may not be one of Ghibli’s marquee titles, it has a quiet, contemplative brilliance, mixing memory and reality to craft a poignant story of what it means to grow up. —Devan Coggan
12. The Wind Rises (2013)
It’s nice to know that Hayao Miyazaki is planning to direct at least one more film, because this biopic of Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi always felt somewhat muted for a final statement. It’s easy to see why Miyazaki related to Horikoshi, given their shared love of flying machines and the creative similarities between artists and engineers, but it would’ve been interesting to see more direct contemplation of how “beautiful dreams” become weapons of war as art is twisted out of its creators’ hands. Instead, The Wind Rises focuses more on the doomed romance between Jiro and his consumptive crush Naoko in an effort to show that just because you know how a journey will ultimately end doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing. If the wind is rising, then we must try to live. —C.H.
11. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is also the tale of Isao Takahata, one of the three co-founders of Studio Ghibli who passed away in 2018. Takahata believed animation could reach certain depths of reality that live-action could not. “I don’t think audiences really ‘watch’ live-action features carefully,” he once said. “However, they’d be forced to for an anime feature because anime captures things we do and reflects more solid reality than how they actually are.” This was his goal for what became his final film and speaks to the legacy he left behind at Studio Ghibli. Kaguya is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a book he read as a child about a bamboo cutter who discovers a miniature girl within a stalk of bamboo who grows to become a woman of great beauty. Takahata didn’t want audiences to be distracted by a more realistic art style. He wanted them to empathize with the princess, which is something he couldn’t get from the book on first reading. So, he embraced a watercolor aesthetic, one that he hoped would allow viewers to “vividly imagine or recall the reality deep within the drawings.” The results are a dreamy, evocative saga of a young heroine experiencing the world. —N.R.
10. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
The movie that made Studio Ghibli was technically produced before its founding, but since Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind inspired almost everything that came after, it is usually included in this body of work. Nausicaä herself is practically the primal Ghibli protagonist, a young woman whose kindness, curiosity, and joie de vivre bring light to her valley — one of the last refuges of humanity in a post-apocalyptic future. She also loves flying, as you probably could have guessed.
For a movie released in 1984, Nausicaä has a lot to say to the world of 2020. Most notably, the characters are often wearing COVID-ready face masks to protect themselves from the poison atmosphere of the so-called “toxic jungle” that has been spreading across the world ever since a long-ago armageddon known as the Seven Days of Fire (glimpsed briefly and horrifically in the opening credits). While some militaristic factions seek to resurrect an ancient superweapon in order to reinforce mankind’s dominance over the planet, Nausicaä is desperate to convince her enemies, friends, and viewers of a different idea: It still might not be too late for humans to learn how to live with nature rather than against it. —C.H.
9. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Although the title invokes Totoro, My Neighbors the Yamadas eschews fairy-tale creatures in favor of hilarious and heartbreaking vignettes from everyday family life. That’s not the only way it differs from typical Ghibli fare. This Isao Takahata film is animated in a unique style more reminiscent of newspaper comic strips than the fantasy epics that populate the rest of this list. My Neighbors the Yamadas was perhaps a little too unique for Japanese viewers, who rejected it at the box office, but its stylistic experiments have stood the test of time. —C.H.
8. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Though not as well-known in the U.S. as its successors, the first official Studio Ghibli film made a seismic cultural impact in Japan that endures to this day. Final Fantasy and related video game franchises are nearly unimaginable without Castle in the Sky, which had a foundational influence on the steampunk genre as a whole. But for all that iconography, the story of a girl named Sheeta who falls from the sky and inspires a boy named Pazu to pursue his father’s dream still contains elemental magic. One of the most fascinating things about the floating civilization of Laputa is its relationship to the struggle between nature and man-made technology that dominates so much of Ghibli’s work. By the time Pazu and Sheeta finally reach it, they find the castle’s automatons already overgrown with plants. Not even the imaginary zenith of human civilization can overpower nature forever. —C.H.
7. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
With this 1989 coming-of-age classic, Miyazaki introduced one of Ghibli’s richest and most lovable protagonists. From the moment we meet Kiki, a wide-eyed witch trying to find her place in the world, she’s eager and ambitious, but also grounded by self-doubt. She leaves home and sets out for the big city, with nothing but a broom and a black cat for company, and the result is a tender, sympathetic portrait of a girl’s first forays into independence — and all the awkward fumbles that can come along the way. Kiki’s journey is a reminder that strength and vulnerability can fly hand in hand, and sometimes, all you need is a little bravery to take to the sky. —D.C.
6. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
When the topic of Studio Ghibli comes up, Howl’s Moving Castle tends to be a polarizing topic. The 2004 film, about a young woman cursed with old age who finds herself keeping house for a wizard in a roaming fortress, got a lot of love at the time, but then there are those who find it doesn’t quite match up with the other work from Miyazaki. Nevertheless, it remains one of the filmmaker’s most enthralling, inventive pieces. The movie is based on the kids book by Diana Wynne Jones, but when you think of Howl’s Moving Castle, you think of Miyazaki. That’s because he made it his own. It’s his now. Howl’s imagines a fully realized world of magic, demons, and whimsy, but also the horrors of violence and war. It’s about change and growth for Sophie as she journeys to find her own beauty and love, but also Howl, the lonely wizard thrown into a human war he never asked to be a part of. Miyazaki brings a vibrant palette with enough creative reimagining to dazzle and evoke childlike awe even in adult audiences. —N.R.
5. Porco Rosso (1992)
For a film set in such a specific time and place, Porco Rosso has aged remarkably well. This tale of an Italian flying ace hunting Mediterranean sea pirates between the World Wars could pass as historical fiction but for the fact that the protagonist is, well, a pig-man. He was transformed for reasons that are never fully explained — only hinted at in a beautiful sequence that makes one consider death, eternity, and the incalculable human loss of war (little wonder Miyazaki recently returned to it with a direct nod in The Wind Rises). Perhaps Ghibli’s most successful tonal blend, Porco Rosso is adventurous and comical, full of romance and longing, with a political rallying cry that feels as powerful today as it would have in 1920s Italy: “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.” —C.H.
4. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Isao Takahata’s legendary tear-jerker stands a bit apart from the rest of Studio Ghibli’s work. This is partly a result of the film’s slightly different licensing, which makes Grave of the Fireflies available to stream on Hulu while the rest are together on HBO Max. But on top of that, the film is also a heartbreaking inversion of the typical Ghibli formula.
Like so many other movies on this list, Grave of the Fireflies centers on young children who think they’re going on a magical adventure — but they are unfortunately traveling in the real world, without any helpful spirits to protect them. Several Ghibli stories take place in a vague "postwar" setting, but while Japan makes its World War II surrender shortly into the runtime here, the fires of war are still burning hot enough to consume life, love, and family. Protagonist Jiro Horikoshi is far from the only person who saw his beautiful dreams perish in that inferno of conflict that American viewers are so used to thinking of as a righteous victory. —C.H.
3. Spirited Away (2004)
Let’s be honest: If you’re reading this ranking, then surely you already love this movie (and if you haven’t had the pleasure, it makes a great introduction). Perhaps the signature Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away is the ultimate spiritual odyssey-as-coming-of-age experience. Though many Ghibli heroines are literal princesses, it’s precisely the relatable everyday humanity of Chihiro that allows her to navigate the magical wonders and terrors of Yubaba’s bathhouse. Her normalcy also highlights the unique nature of the characters she encounters in the spirit world, who count among Ghibli’s most memorable creations. Miyazaki’s dual obsessions with the wonder of flight and the power of young love are combined in the form of the dragon spirit Haku, and has there ever been a more relatable spirit than the insatiable No-Face? Spirited Away is a perfect balance of all the things Studio Ghibli does well, but there are a couple films that drill down even more sharply on specific elements. —C.H.
2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
It’s fascinating to consider that My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies were originally presented in theaters as a double feature, because it’s hard to imagine two more starkly opposite takes on similar material. While Grave of the Fireflies takes a morbid delight in using the terrors of the adult world to smash the illusions of childhood, My Neighbor Totoro treasures and protects that innocence. This film barely has a plot, much less a villain, but how many kids imagine dastardly foes when daydreaming in the backyard?
Young Satsuki and Mei move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their ailing mother, but unlike the many other Ghibli films with a similar premise, they do not react to this circumstance with depression or alienation. Instead, Satsuki and Mei delight in their new rural surroundings, especially after they meet Totoro. The titular cuddly creature might be a forest spirit, or a unique breed of animal, or just an imaginary friend. Who needs to know the specifics? In any case, Totoro embodies the friendliness of nature and the magic of childhood. He’s become a global icon and the symbol of Studio Ghibli for a reason. More than 20 years after its release, My Neighbor Totoro can still imbue viewers with wonder at the world we find ourselves in. —C.H.
1. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Well, here we are. By this point, you’ve read about many wonderful films that revel in the magic of childhood imaginations. By contrast, the greatest Studio Ghibli film is not as concerned with inner beauty as it is with the wonder around us that humans are constantly in the process of destroying. Princess Mononoke burns with red-hot anger at humanity’s desecration of the natural world, the way we trample over balanced ecosystems in pursuit of profit, but this film’s refusal to indulge in easy answers is what makes it Miyazaki’s masterpiece. It’s easy to see evil in Lady Eboshi’s destructive pursuit of the Great Forest Spirit, but much more difficult to moralize about the residents of Iron Town. The community Eboshi built to process the iron ore she steals from the domains of the great animal spirits has nevertheless given purpose and fulfillment to the most outcast members of society. Who is wrong, and who is right? It’s hard to say. The heroic Ashitaka tries his best to act morally; for his trouble he is personally cursed, and still fails to prevent cataclysm.
The point is that change is the nature of life. Just as the Forest Spirit transforms into the Nightwalker at sunset, so too can humans change our ways. After all, growing up is not just a matter of discovering things about oneself, but also coming to understand one’s place in the larger world. Everything is connected, and there’s no such thing as free iron. If humans want to be masters of the world, if we want to kill God and dominate nature, then we have to take responsibility for that world. If we don’t, if we allow hatred to fester in the wounds of our conquests, then we shouldn’t be surprised when demonic forces materialize, hungry for vengeance. —C.H.