Can you believe that Princess Mononoke just turned 25! Studio Ghibli, the creative home of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, is often called the Japanese Disney, but the comparison isn’t really fair. Rather than adapting familiar Western fairytales, the Ghibli films draw on Japanese folklore, lesser-known works of fantasy literature, and the creators’ own imaginations.
The results are, more often than not, breathtaking.
But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, when two men ride a horse, one must ride behind. While many of the Studio Ghibli films are unparalleled classics, we’ve just got to rank them. Inevitably, one of them is gonna be last.
Author’s Note: This post is written from the perspective of an American who did not grow up with Studio Ghibli films.
Earwig and the Witch (2020)
I’m sorry, but Earwig and the Witch just isn’t very good. Led by Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, tried to do something with this computer-animated tale of a quirky orphan who is adopted by a witch. Not only is the film’s CG animation underwhelming, but it seems to recycle plot points from several other Ghibli movies.
My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
It’s actually kind of impressive that Studio Ghibli managed to make a movie worse than this one. My Neighbors the Yamadas was a box office disaster. In part, that’s because it looked nothing like the fantastical Miyazaki films that had made the studio famous around the world. Isao Takahata’s film lacks the universal appeal and distinctive art style of more popular Ghibli movies. Sorry, I just don’t like My Neighbors the Yamadas.
Ocean Waves (1993)
Thanks to its most successful titles, Studio Ghibli has a reputation for whimsy and wonder. That’s not what is on offer in Ocean Waves. Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, the film focuses on a love triangle in a Tokyo high school. If that sounds like your cup of tea—or if you’re just a Ghibli completist—then check this one out. Otherwise, you can safely skip it.
Tales from Earthsea (2006)
I really want to like Tales from Earthsea. Ursula K. le Guin had a hard time finding someone to adapt her groundbreaking fantasy series, but she’d hoped that Studio Ghibli would do it justice. Spoiler: it did not. Like the live-action adaptation miniseries, this version completely glosses over the fact that the main character is a POC. Not only that, but the movie strips everything that made the books interesting and delivered a generic hodgepodge of fantasy tropes.
Read More: The Best Fantasy Books Written by Women
Only Yesterday (1991)
As I was compiling this list, I realized that maybe I just don’t click with Isao Takahata’s films. Other than his first movie—which I’ll get to in due time—I just don’t enjoy his “slice of life” dramas as much as I do the studio’s more fantastical fare. I prefer the art style in Only Yesterday to My Neighbors the Yamadas, and the bittersweet, quiet story is far removed from what most Western audiences think of when they hear “cartoon.”
The Cat Returns (2002)
Hiroyuki Morita’s only Ghibli film is The Cat Returns, a sweet film about the Secret Kingdom of Cats and a girl who is invited to visit after she saves a cat’s life. Visually, the film is gorgeous. It’s also much, much better than Cats. Then again, a root canal with no anesthetic is better than Cats.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
You could view Whisper of the Heart as a prequel to The Cat Returns, as it features the origin of the titular cat. Yoshifumi Kondō directed this film from a script by Hayao Miyazaki. Kondō had previously worked as an animation director on multiple Ghibli films, and he was handpicked by Miyazaki and Takahata to take over the studio someday. Tragically, he would pass away just a few years after directing his first and only feature film.
Pom Poko (1994)
Your enjoyment of Pom Poko may depend on whether you have small children in the house. It’s 90% kid-friendly, but the other 10% involves “raccoon pouches,” per the English dub. You might have a hard time explaining that particular aspect of Japanese folklore, but it’s also possible that the kids won’t realize what’s up. Takahata’s film is populated by a clan of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) who can shapeshift. It’s goofy yet also firmly rooted in folklore, including tanuki, kitsune, and yōkai. You can see a fascinating breakdown of the mythology in this video.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Porco Rosso lands farther down my list than many Ghibli fans might like, but I make no apologies. The film is a little too odd for my taste, and a lot of the humor doesn’t quite land for me. The plot follows a cursed airplane pilot who has been transformed into a man-pig. As he hunts sky pirates in 1930s Italy, he falls in love with a lounge singer. It’s the kind of movie that, if you saw it as a kid, you might mistake for a very strange, half-remembered dream.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t really like Ponyo. While most of Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films can be equally enjoyed by both children and adults, Ponyo skews toward younger audiences. The movie has Miyazaki’s trademark magical thinking, but for me, it lacks the universal sense of wonder that his best films tap into. Plus, I don’t really like fish. Sorry, Ponyo fans!
From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
This time, Goro Miyazaki directs one of his father’s scripts. The story takes place in the 1960s in Yokohama and focuses on the relationship between Umi and Shun. There’s nothing magical here, which may disappoint some Ghibli fans. However, I think it’s a lovely, poignant film with a whiff of Wong Kar Wai about it. Give From Up on Poppy Hill a chance if you’ve never seen it.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
Based on a British novel from the 1960s, When Marie Was There is visually stunning and melancholy. Directed and written by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, it features the familiar Ghibli themes of loneliness and childhood wonder. It’s also the movie that some fans feel is the closest thing to LGBTQ+ representation in the studio’s catalog. Anna certainly reads as queer, and it would be easy to map a coming-of-age and coming-out story onto When Marnie Was There. The twist in the final act will be a disappointment to any shippers, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this wistful film, which was rumored to be Studio Ghibli’s swansong.
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Based on The Borrowers—one of the many British novels that Studio Ghibli adapted—Arrietty is a charming coming-of-age story about a very tiny teenager who makes friends with a human boy. The UK dub features the voice talent of Saoirse Ronan and Tom Holland! While it lacks the punch of other Ghibli films, you should definitely watch it.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
For me, Takahata’s last film is also one of his best. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is based on a thousand-year-old folktale. It’s also the most expensive Japanese film ever made. Like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s a bittersweet and magical tale. The animation is like a sumi-e painting come to life. Be warned, however: it’s very sad.
The Wind Rises (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki intended The Wind Rises to be his final film, and this drama is as melancholy as it is beautiful. If you’ve only ever seen Studio Ghibli’s more magical movies, then this one might be a little bit of a letdown. However, if you approach it with the right mindset, you’ll appreciate the carefully crafted tale of a young man who dreams of designing airplanes in the early days of aviation. This is the grownup’s answer to Porco Rosso.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
From this point on, we’re talking about must-see Ghibli movies! It feels appropriate to have Miyazaki’s first movie ranked just above his intended final film. (He’s working on another one, but it is not yet out.) Nausicaä explores many of the same themes as Princess Mononoke, and it’s a breathtakingly creative film. Considering that it’s almost 40 years old, the animation has aged pretty well and the story is as strong as ever.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
With Kiki’s Delivery Service, countless cosplays were born. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors thanks to the almost entirely female cast of characters. It follows a young witch trying to make a living. After struggling with her self-confidence and losing her sense of purpose—and with it, her powers—Kiki eventually finds new meaning in her life and contentment with the path that she has chosen. Inspirational message, really stinkin’ cute animation–what more do you want?
This was also the first Ghibli film released in the US by Disney, but the studio’s popularity in the States wouldn’t really take off until almost ten years later with Princess Mononoke.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Ready for some whiplash? Grave of the Fireflies is about as far from the lighthearted cuteness of Kiki as you can get. Takahata’s first feature-length film is the story of a brother and sister trying to survive at the tail end of World War II. This movie is not light viewing, but it’s one of those films that every cinephile should see at least once.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, our man Miyazaki really likes airplanes. This steampunk adventure was only his second feature film. As such, it lacks some of the polish we see in his later movies, but it’s endlessly creative (and, as ever, pretty weird). The art of Castle in the Sky has been hugely influential on other creators, and it’s a beloved classic in Japan. If you’ve never seen this one, add it to your list immediately.
Howl’s Moving Castle
I’m very slightly biased against Howl’s Moving Castle because I love the Diana Wynne Jones book so much. The two increasingly diverge as the film goes on, and I think your preference will probably be based on whether you read the book or saw the movie first. Still, there’s a reason why this one is such a cult classic. Like all of the best Ghibli films, it’s beautiful and magical and funny, too.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Even if you’ve never watched My Neighbor Totoro, you’ve probably seen the adorable creature that became Studio Ghibli’s mascot. The most childlike of the top three films on my list, Totoro is an adorable film that will make you remember what it was like to be a child even if you grew up on the other side of the world from Japan.
Random fact: Troma Films, the studio best known for The Toxic Avenger, bought the rights to distribute an early English dub of this film in the United States. When those rights expired in 2004, Disney swooped in to capitalize on the newfound popularity of Ghibli movies in America.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke is like if Fern Gully grew up to be really into Japanese history. It’s an unforgettable movie that pits human progress against the ancient gods of the forest. Anyone who assumes that “cartoons are for kids” will be very surprised by this Miyazaki masterpiece, which is darker, more violent, and packed with more moral ambiguity than even Don Bluth at his most intense.
The American dub of this movie features a script by Neil Gaiman and the voice talents of Gillian Anderson and Claire Danes. Although it was popular in the US, Studio Ghibli wouldn’t become a household name until the final film on our list.
Spirited Away (2001)
Okay, yes, you can argue that it’s impossible to separate the top three films on this list. I loved Spirited Away from the very first frame of hand-drawn animation. The story shares its DNA with Alice in Wonderland, but there’s so much more to it than an adorable girl who finds herself in a magical world. It might be kind of basic to put Spirited Away first, but I stand by the decision.
Has this list inspired you to do a Studio Ghibli rewatch? Almost the entire list is available for streaming in the US on HBO Max!