By Olivia Snyder, Co-Editor
Studio Ghibli is a globally recognized Japanese animation studio, known and loved for its many incredible works of animated movies. From heartbreaking stories about life during World War II to fantasy-filled magical worlds, Studio Ghibli has surely struck a poignant chord in every viewer—whether it be moving castles, talking tanuki, or the iconic fluffy giant Totoro, Studio Ghibli offers something to love for everyone. The first Ghibli film I watched as a child was My Neighbor Totoro, and since then I’ve never stopped loving Ghibli movies. Co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki’s creative visions are beautiful, inspiring, and breathtakingly impressive works of both animation and storytelling. Here is my own personal ranking of every feature film from the animation studio, ranked from worst to best.
*Spoiler Alert: The following ranking may include mild spoilers for some Ghibli films.*
23. Earwig and the Witch
Full disclosure: I actually haven’t seen this film yet, so feel free to disqualify it from my list if you so please. However, the reason I put it at the very bottom of my list is because the trailer for the film (which I have seen) tells me everything I need to know. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō, who has also directed Ghibli films Tales from Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill (more on those later), Earwig and the Witch deviates completely from the traditional and beautiful 2D animation that we are used to seeing from the studio. The 3D CG animation shown in the trailer looks waxy, fake, and lacks the depth of emotion that other Ghibli films contain. My judgement of the plot itself will have to wait until I actually see the film, but the animation alone is like the visual equivalent of hearing nails on a chalkboard.
22. Ocean Waves
This film is…. How should I put it? Forgettable? Unknown to most? The film follows two high school best friends in Shikoku, Japan as they fall into a love triangle with the new girl in school. I’ve only watched this film once, and I don’t really intend to watch it again. It’s simple but too boring as a result, and it lacks the charm that most slice-of-life films need in order to be entertaining. There’s a reason why even some of the most ardent Ghibli fans have never seen or heard of this film before.
21. When Marnie Was There
The plot of this film is honestly just really wack. The film follows Anna, a lonely and angsty girl who relocates to Hokkaido in order to stay with her relatives. Feeling isolated due to her lack of friends, Anna discovers an abandoned mansion near her house, where she meets Marnie, a curious girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. The two quickly become friends, although Marnie’s mysterious identity isn’t revealed until the end. Even though the animation and visuals are pleasant in this film, the plot makes it seem like the two girls have more of a romantic relationship, only to reveal in a twist that Marnie is the ghost(?) of Anna’s grandmother. Considering its weird incest-y vibes, I couldn’t really feel compelled to watch this film again.
20. Only Yesterday
This movie is cute, but much like Ocean Waves, it’s too simple and rather forgettable. The plot follows protagonist Taeko, switching back and forth between her childhood memories and her present life as a 27-year-old single woman living and working in Tokyo. The film explores themes of childhood dreams, nostalgia, and personal fulfillment, which all make for a pleasant and easily watchable movie. Unfortunately, the entertainment value that keeps you coming back just isn’t there.
19. Tales from Earthsea
This directorial debut from Gorō Miyazaki has received a lot of crap over the years, from critics and audiences alike. The only reason I didn’t rank it dead last is because the soundtrack is so good, and because the plot isn’t quite as boring as some of the films mentioned earlier on this list. Loosely based on the collection of short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, the film is a fantasy epic that follows troubled prince Arren and orphan Therru, as they take down the evil forces of a powerful warlock named Cob. While the visuals aren’t terrible, the plot is so disorganized and incoherent that you’ll almost feel like you’re high on shrooms while you’re watching. Very little makes sense during your first watch, and it’s not good enough of a film to get you to watch it multiple times. The highlight of the film is the hauntingly beautiful “Therru’s Song”, sung by the lovely Aoi Teshima.
18. My Neighbors the Yamadas
Much like Only Yesterday, this film is very cute, but also a major snoozer (I’ve fallen asleep almost every time I’ve tried to watch it). The film is a collection of short vignettes that follow the members of the Yamada family, and shows the many slice-of-life antics they get wrapped up in. It’s an honest and authentic portrayal of nuclear family life, and it definitely earns a few points for humor, but it’s not a film you watch more than twice.
17. From Up on Poppy Hill
I think anyone would agree that this is Gorō Miyazaki’s best work as a feature film director. The film follows Umi, a high school girl living in a boarding house by the sea. After befriending a classmate named Shun, the two band together to preserve their school’s clubhouse and its rich history after the chairman makes plans to demolish it. This film is sweet and simple without being boring, and the animation is quite good, particularly in the opening scene where Umi is cooking breakfast (gotta love Ghibli food). Unfortunately, after Umi and Shun start to fall for each other, there is a discovery that they may be half-siblings (a theory that is later debunked). Again, I’m not a huge fan of the whole incest thing in anime, so that docks a few points for me.
**From here on, the films mentioned do not really have any negative points, so I have ordered them based on my own personal preferences, their rewatchability level, and any qualities that would enhance a film to be better than another.**
16. The Cat Returns
Clocking in at a very short 75 minute runtime, this film is cute, charming, and perfect for any cat person. Protagonist Haru is whisked away to a magical world of talking cats after she unknowingly rescues the Cat Prince from being hit by a car, and on top of that, she even turns into a cat! The Baron from Whisper of the Heart makes a cameo appearance as well. Although the plot may be simple, this is an easygoing film that is enjoyable to watch.
15. Pom Poko
This film is a great example of the man vs. nature motif, but from the perspective of a clan of wild tanukis (raccoon dogs). When forest after forest is destroyed in order to make room for human urban development, a group of brave tanukis decide they’ve had enough and band together to fight back. Inspired by traditional Japanese folklore surrounding tanukis, this film is fun and humorous, with a heavy touch of weirdness (you have to watch it to understand). I find the personalities of the tanuki characters charming, but there is still real pain about environmental damage included in the overall sentiment of the film.
14. Kiki’s Delivery Service
This classic story about a young witch setting out to figure out her life and career path has cemented itself as a classic among Ghibli fans. Directed toward children but with themes that are still meaningful for adults, this film is very cute and makes for a very wholesome movie night. While it may not be as exciting or dramatic as the films further down on this list, it’s a sweet tale about the woes of growing up and figuring out who you are. Jiji the black cat has also become an iconic Ghibli character in his own way.
13. Castle in the Sky
This film captures what Ghibli does best: mixing humour and childish antics with very serious themes. Two young kids, Sheeta and Pazu, embark on the adventure of a lifetime when they search for a legendary castle that floats in the sky. There’s air pirates, war robots, floating islands, and greedy villains… What more could you ask for? This film is a cult favorite, but admittedly I don’t watch it on repeat like some other Ghibli films.
12. Nausicaӓ of the Valley of the Wind
As one of Miyazaki’s earliest feature film works, Nausicaӓ may be old, but it has continued to remain a strong film over the years. It takes on a much more serious tone regarding the destruction of nature, human war and evil, and a post-apocalyptic world. While the animation may not be as crisp as Miyazaki’s later films, Nausicaӓ is still an impressive sight to see. The titular heroine must battle human greed and devastation in order to protect the mutant nature and creatures around her that she resonates with most.
The attention to detail in Arrietty is one of the best out of any of the Ghibli films. Based on the book The Borrowers, the film follows a tiny family of miniature people who secretly live in the household of much larger human beings. From their teeny pots and pans to the crafty methods they use to survive, the detail in this film is sure to excite anyone who’s ever been really into the Tiny Kitchen series. The plot has a lot of heart, the music is great, and the animation style is elegantly done.
10. Grave of the Fireflies
If you ever feel like crying, then this should be your go-to film. This movie will rip your heart out like no other, and should not be taken lightly. Set in World War II-era Japan, the plot follows siblings Seita and Setsuko as they struggle to survive following the death of their mother after their city is bombed. Left with nothing, the two do their best to live in a hellish world. The film is a brilliant portrayal of childhood innocence, the beauty and fragility of life, and the horrors of war. Definitely one of the greatest war films ever made, but man, is it upsetting.
9. Porco Rosso
This may be one of the more goofy films on the Ghibli lineup, but I’ve always loved it for its charm, sarcastic humor, and honesty. The titular Porco is a man who has been cursed to look like a pig, and he works as a bounty hunter/fighter ace who chases down air pirates in the Adriatic Sea. With strong female characters Fio and Gina by his side, he battles a cocky American ace using his wits and pilot skills. While the film is full of funny jokes and banter, it still takes the time to include an emotional look into war and loss.
8. Whisper of the Heart
For being yet another film about two high school students, this movie is surprisingly good. Shizuku is an aspiring writer and headstrong student who must figure out what exactly she wants to do with her life, and Seiji is a young boy with a dream to make violins and become a master luthier. With the same soul-searching element as Kiki and a well-crafted love story, Whisper of the Heart may not be as exciting as some other Ghibli adventure films, but it’s still got a lot of spirit and appeal. If anything, watch it for the catchy Japanese rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Some may be surprised that I put Ponyo so high on my list, but this film has been special to me ever since my grandmother took me to the movie theater to see it as a kid. This masterpiece is Miyazaki’s own version of the classic “Little Mermaid” story: Ponyo, an adorably chubby goldfish with magical powers, is rescued by a little boy named Sōsuke. After she turns herself into a human, the two embark on an adventure together after Ponyo’s unhinged powers submerge the entire seaside town underwater. This film is extremely cute, and with a catchy theme song in tow, it will keep you coming back for another watch, no matter how old you may be.
6. My Neighbor Totoro
Every Japanese kid grew up watching Totoro, and I think it’s safe to assume that we are still obsessed with it 20 years later. Totoro is a large, fluffy, and adorable bear-like creature who serves as a guardian spirit of the forest. When two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, move to a new home in the rural countryside, they befriend their new neighbor and go on adventures together. Totoro is so iconic that he serves as the globally-known symbol and mascot for Studio Ghibli, a figure of childhood joy and magic. Like many Ghibli films, Totoro expertly blends joyous and childlike elements with more serious ones, such as the girls’ mother’s battle with tuberculosis and the disappearance of Mei. But with Totoro and the Cat Bus, anything is possible!
5. The Wind Rises
Damn, this film makes me cry every time I watch it. Based on a real historical figure, the film follows the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an airplane architect and designer whose brilliance and talents are used for war instead of innovation. Following a more serious tone than Miyazaki’s other films, the setting of World War II-era Japan once again serves as a heartbreaking background for a beautiful story about the joy of love and living life to its fullest. This film is truly one of Miyazaki’s finest works; it strikes a perfect balance between moments of happiness and achingly sad ones, all while illustrating Miyazaki’s fascination with the beauty of aviation and the horrors of war. This film is absolutely a must-see, and one of my favorite films of all time.
4. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Watching this gorgeous film, arguably the best one made by director Isao Takahata, feels like you are wrapped up inside of a beautiful painting. Featuring a paintbrush-like animation style that has never been seen before from Studio Ghibli, the film tells the story of the classic folklore of Princess Kaguya, a little girl who was sent down from the Moon Kingdom and born from inside of a bamboo shoot. The animation and art is absolutely stunning, the story and the character development are heartfelt and authentic, and the music… Joe Hisaishi, the composer for almost every Ghibli film, truly outdid himself with this film. The movie is the perfect homage to the classic Japanese fable.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle
We’ve finally arrived at my personal favorite film of all time, a film that I have watched over and over and over again. I didn’t put it in first place because I feel like the argument could be made that the top two on this list are better films, and I wanted to be as fair as possible in my judgement. That being said, Howl’s Moving Castle will always hold a special place in my heart. After Sophie, a young hatter, is turned into an old crone by a witch, she moves into a moving castle with the handsome young wizard Howl. While they both have their own flaws and problems to work through, the development of their love story and personal growth never fails to bring a smile to my face while watching. Also accompanied by a brilliant Hisaishi original soundtrack, this film is an essential watch for any animation fan.
2. Princess Mononoke
Picking the top two was really tough, but this is the decision I have reached. Princess Mononoke, despite being made in 1997, is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen. The story of a fierce battle between man and nature unfolds in a perfectly crafted plot, featuring an incredible cast of characters that all play an important role in the story. Ashitaka is a young man searching for a way to heal his curse, and San is a young woman raised by wolves who will fiercely protect her forest, no matter what the cost. The battle between animals and humans is raw, violent, and terrifying, but Miyazaki masterfully crafts a narrative of peace and growth into it as well. Although this film is a drastic turn away from the fun and innocent childishness of films like Ponyo or Totoro, it is worth calling it one of the greatest films of all time (animated or not).
- Spirited Away
And finally, we’ve arrived at #1. Spirited Away is the only Ghibli film to have won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, although quite a few others have been nominated. The film follows Chihiro, a 10 year old girl who gets whisked away to a magical world full of kami, or spirits from Japanese religious folklore. After her parents are turned into pigs, she is forced to work at a bathhouse, where she meets Haku, a young boy and sorcerer who can turn into a dragon. Together, they overcome their own obstacles, and gain wisdom and maturity as their adventure progresses. The film addresses themes of perseverance, love, empathy, and much more. Honestly, there’s really no other film quite like this. From the incredible worldbuilding of a mystical universe full of gods, to the poignant and heartfelt character development, this film is a work of art in the purest way. It’s beautifully animated, and the dialogue and music will make your heart sing. There is no doubt in my mind that this film will continue to inspire audiences for generations to come.