What is the best Studio Ghibli movie? Since the ’80s, Studio Ghibli has been a mark of not just a quality anime movie, but a surefire classic that will likely become a personal favourite. Over the years, directors Hayao Mayazaki, Isao Takahata, and more have spellbound us with their talents and craftmanship.
Though the studio has generally stuck to whimsical stories of young anime characters discovering some aspect of magic in their lives, that’s certainly not the case for every Ghibli film. Occasionally there have been adult dramas, absurdist comedy movies, and offbeat, experimental collaborations. One of the most gut-wrenchingly sorrowful pictures based on WWII came straight from the halls of Ghibli HQ.
In saying this, we’ve decided to rank the Studio Ghibli movies, to tell you definitely what the greatest entry in its filmography is. Every feature-length project to bare that distinctive Totoro insignia is counted, including TV movies and precursors to the founding of the studio itself. Nothing is left out, for good and ill – now then, let’s get to it.
The Studio Ghibli movies ranked from worst to best are:
- Tales from Earthsea
- Earwig and the Witch
- The Cat Returns
- Ocean Waves
- Pom Poko
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- When Marnie Was There
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- The Red Turtle
- Porco Rosso
- Only Yesterday
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Princess Mononoke
- The Wind Rises
- Whisper of the Heart
- Grave of the Fireflies
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Spirited Away
Tales from Earthsea
Immediately following Howl’s Moving Castle gave Tales From Earthsea some difficult standards to live up to. Even then, director Goro Miyazaki’s attempt at a fantasy epic is distinctly middling, lacking any real awe or charm.
Based on Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels, bits and bobs from the series are mashed together and remixed to the point a discernable narrative is almost lost entirely. Elegant visuals save it from being bland, but it comes dangerously close.
Earwig and the Witch
A fully CG-animated Studio Ghibli production directed by Goro Miyazaki is something of a monkey’s paw scenario. Earwig and the Witch has a lot going for it as an ornate fairy-tale about an orphan that discovers she’s been adopted by a witch, pushing her into a world of magic and alternative music, that’s near-totally squandered by a lifeless aesthetic and muddled story.
Ghibli’s typical style is robbed of its charm and grace by an attempted one-to-one translation to 3D that leaves characters and environments with a lifeless, plastic sheen. You can still see all the little corners of detail, but they simply don’t invite the eye as usual. There’s no warmth.
The Cat Returns
You can tell this Whisper of the Heart spin-off started life as a short, what with the bizarre twists feeling more and more like padding as the film goes on. Still, the notion of your cat speaking to you, then guiding you to a feline kingdom to live forever is almost certainly wish fulfillment for some.
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The sole directorial feature from anime veteran Hiroyuki Morita, who worked on Akira and Perfect Blue in addition to his Ghibli credits, is an oddball with a narrower appeal than most from the production house. At just over an hour, it’s still pleasantly watchable regardless of your affinity for cats.
As a demonstration of Ghibli’s talents beyond Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Ocean Waves makes it clear that the younger staff in the ’90s had plenty to offer. Taku and Yutaka, childhood friends, find their bond challenged when they each develop feelings for Rikako, who’s recently moved.
A stereotypical teenage love-triangle becomes surprisingly affecting when delivered in such shimmering colours. Tomomi Mochizuki was production ringleader, and while he failed to demonstrate Ghibli could adhere to the cost and scheduling limitations of TV, he did cultivate an unassuming gem.
Lectures on the environment don’t generally involve this much raccoon testicles, but then again, if such messaging was this much fun, maybe more would take heed. Pomo Poko is a curio from Isao Takahata that concerns a clan of tanuki – raccoon-dogs from Japanese folklore – defending their home against human construction workers.
Tanuki nether-regions can be shaped into all manner of tools and weapons, and chances are a good half of the images that just popped into your head are in the film. Sadly, this is not a celebration, a blunt tonal shift towards the end making the reality of the situation clear.
From Up on Poppy Hill
There’s some wisdom to be gleamed from Goro Miyazaki’s finest Ghibli offering to date being his most basic and concise. In ’60s Fukuhara, three high school friends campaign against the planned demolition of an old neighbourhood building. Two of them, Umi and Shun, learn they might be related in the process.
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Well-laid backstories keep us empathetic to their cause as well as finding out the truth. Simplistic, yes, but sticking to the fundamentals is a sure way to make something that works, and works well.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
After Lupin III film The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki decided to do something original, adapting his own post-apocalyptic manga about a young princess who has to stop a forest of giant insects from being nuked. Pretty as it is anyway, what’s most impressive is the sheer scope of Nausicaa, full of cute creatures inhabiting a wondrous kingdom.
He set himself a high bar that he’s continued to raise ever since. The success on which Studio Ghibli was founded, making it an integral part of the catalogue.
Almost wholesome to a fault, Ponyo is absolutely delightful. Returning to environmentalism as a theme, Hayao channels his anxiety around our oceans into a fable akin to The Little Mermaid about a goldfish that wants to be human.
Hayao’s depiction of the ocean depths is truly dazzling, pleasantly soundtracked by longtime composer Joe Hisaishi. Heartstrings are tugged remorselessly and shamelessly for a reliable dose of the feelgoods.
My Neighbors the Yamadas
Told in elaborate vignettes that look like comic strips brought to life, My Neighbors the Yamadas is one of the stranger Studio Ghibli movies. Such was a hallmark of Isao Takahata’s career, pushing towards experimental aesthetics and such.
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Humour and sincerity live hand-in-hand for the six family-members we follow. Their daily lives are full of absurdity and mundanity, each playing a part in bringing them together. Isao was never showy for the sake of it, and this is a prime example.
When Marnie Was There
At time of release, this was Studio Ghibli’s last feature film. Though it might seem an understated swansong, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s adaptation of Joan G Robinson’s novel captures the innocence and gentle whimsy of the studio.
Anna, a young, reclusive fosterchild, is sent to a secluded seaside village for the summer to help her asthma. Convinced she’s unloved, her perspective gradually changes upon meeting the mysterious Marnie in an old mansion. Their friendship is the bedrock that keeps the gentle drama about finding your family steady.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky
The first film officially made under the Studio Ghibli banner establishes many archetypes. You’ve got young heroes chased by sky pirates on a mythical quest, ancient robots, a floating city, all wrapped up in a realm that’s a wondrous fusion of fantasy and sci-fi.
Likewise, Hayao Mayazaki imbues Pazu and Sheeta’s high-falutin adventure with bare-faced commentary on the intersections of capitalism and the military. It doesn’t all blend together like his later work, but the steady tempo still makes it a thrill.
Ghibli’s penchant for showing us the wonder in everyday life is no clearer than in this retelling of The Borrowers. Backyard greenery becomes a profusely coloured forest that’s at one with the adjoining house, filled with tiny trails and passageways the naked eye can easily miss.
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Within the foliage, Sho, a boy visiting his aunt, spots Arrietty, a miniature human whose family lives off gathering the household’s cast-offs. They become pals, naturally, and the rest is as you’d expect, but done with gleeful aplomb.
The Red Turtle
It mightn’t look like something by Ghibli, a co-production with several European studios that opts away from anime trappings, but once it gets going The Red Turtle has that familiar allure. Entirely without dialogue, we follow a man stranded on a deserted island who becomes friendly with the eponymous reptile.
Ethereal sequences transform a straightforward survival story into a poetic reflection on life and love that ends right back where it started. Should this be a one-and-done collaboration, Michaël Dudok de Wit has created something miraculous.
Making a pig not just fly, but be one of the greatest fighter pilots in WWI seems like a congenially self-aware joke by Hayao Mayazaki on the escapism of filmmaking. Couple that with the same porky flyer proudly exclaiming he’d rather be cursed with a pig’s face as he is than fascist, and you’ve one of the quietly funniest features from the celebrated director.
Skybound acrobatics make Porco Rosso an exhilarating affair, Hayao roundly embracing his aeronautical daydreams. Heady romance with hotel manager Gina and moonlighting cabaret singer Curtis give it all an air of old Hollywood – pulpy, heroic, and cinematic.
Isao Takahata broke away from witches and forest guardians to make a quiet drama that’s about little more than the melancholia of aging. Taeko, a young woman living in Tokyo, takes a trip out of city, while in parallel we view her memories of growing up.
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Her life hasn’t worked out like she’d hoped, and she undergoes a revelation about what she really wants, absent any kind of strange anomaly. Only Yesterday mightn’t be as immediate, but the humanism at its core is just as vital.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
If you’re ever nervous about a house move, this is the film to watch. Kiki is a rambunctious young magic user who, upon arriving in Koriko, gets to work as a delivery-person using her broom to soar high overhead.
The story’s light beyond that, but such is life: sometimes it’s all about the vibe and feeling the moment before it dissipates. There’s a true joy at the heart of this that makes it absolutely timeless.
Perhaps Hayao’s grandest tale, set in an alternate 13th century Japan full of animal spirits and other oddities who’re threatened by expanding iron mines. Akin to taking a long walk through uncharted wildlife, the deer and boars gods are enough to entrance onlookers.
They’re far from the only spectacle, as the cursed prince Ashitaka works with San, a young woman raised by wolves, work to save their habitat. The need for a symbiotic relationship between humanity and its environs, one of Hayao’s most regular themes, is clear-cut and eloquently delivered. A redux of Nausicaä that expands and improves in every aspect.
The Wind Rises
Hayao Mayazaki’s one-time retirement project is among his most personal and alluring, turning the life of aeronautical enigeer Jiro Horikoshi into a dreamy biopic – with the occasional liberty. Jiro’s career designing planes is diligently recounted, soaked in childlike amazement at the mechanical glory of his creations and the prospect of flying.
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This becomes a nightmare later, as Jiro’s achievements are utilised in WWII. The Wind Rises meditates on a life spent obsessively honing your craft, letting it define every part of your psyche, then learning you’ve no control over what people do with what you’ve made.
Whisper of the Heart
The forebear to The Cat Returns is a breezy frolic with teenager Shizuku as protagonist and narrator. In the real world, she’s navigating a crush on a boy with the same taste in literature as her, while in her self-insert fiction, she’s helping an anthropomorphic cat save his partner.
Full of lovelorn enthusiasm, every scene in the romance anime is bursting with excitement and vitality, Shizuku’s fantasy a marvellous counterpoint to her suburban life. Director Yoshifumi Kondō was primed to join Isao and Hayao as one of Ghibli’s main filmmakers before his untimely death, making Whisper of the Heart altogether bittersweet.
Grave of the Fireflies
One of the greatest movies ever made that nobody wants to watch twice. Isao Takahata’s ground-level account of WWII focuses solely on the prolonged suffering and drawn-out devastation, as seen through the eyes of a pair of siblings who’re made homeless by air raids.
Their situation goes from bad to worse as rations and supplies dry up. Grave of the Fireflies is desolate, the landscape harsh and barren despite the bright colours. The younger sister’s innocence makes it all the more achingly sad, yet a feeling of remembrance holds that perhaps we can learn from these tragedies. An essential and thoroughly difficult film.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
One of Japan’s oldest folktales becomes a gorgeous visual poem etched in watercolour and charcoal by Isao Takahata. An absolute wonder, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is so enchanting you’d never notice the long runtime as you’re enveloped by the cherry blossoms.
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Drawing from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, we’re treated to a simple, elegant, spiritual modernisation that retains the essence of something that’s being passed on by word-of-mouth. It’s Isao’s last project, and an incredible accomplishment.
Howl’s Moving Castle
This film may be similar in stature to the titular vehicular residence, but it’s far more tactile, durable, and thought-out. Part-magical romance, part-wartime fable, Hayao Mayazaki balances the narrative threads through endearing lead characters: the charismatic magician Howl, and Sophie, a hat-maker who’s cursed to be elderly.
They’re joined bacon-loving fire demon Calcifer, an endlessly hopping yet stone silent scarecrow dubbed ‘Turnip Head’, and Markl, Howl’s apprentice. More joys, sentient and otherwise, are uncovered with each scene, a necessity with such ferocious battle sequences. The castle steals the show, proof Hayao knows a thing or two about wizardry.
My Neighbor Totoro
It’s easy to see why Hayao Mayazaki’s namesake critters became Studio Ghibli’s mascot – they’re an ideal representation of what the collective filmography inspires. The friendly monsters, hidden away in woodland, introduce sisters Satsuki and Mei to their local Catbus, and take on a ride over an extraordinarily large tree.
Absent any outright danger, My Neighbor Totoro merely uses the threat of the two young protagonists having their happiness interrupted as menace enough. It works, the ebullient sequences carrying you away in their splendour.
Hayao Mayazaki’s masterpiece, the best Studio Ghibli movie takes us by the hand and through the looking glass. It’s an engrossing, remarkable work that manages to couch the horrific and grotesque in spellbinding animation that glides through various artefacts of Japanese legend, merging them all into a modern coming-of-age fable.
Chihiro’s odyssey to find her parents, lost in a gateway to the spiritworld, is filled with memorable characters and backdrops. The bathhouse is a marvel, surrounded by the elegantly lit courtyard and glistening water.
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Haku and No-Face are each majestic in their own, distinct way, and nothing is as it seems in this land of make believe. Morality comes in shades of gray, disagreements are settled through empathy and conversation.
In the end, the experience seems all too brief, and suddenly we’re wanting to go back and see Haku soar over the moon once again. Being temporary is what makes art special, and Spirited Away invokes us to take the feelings it gives us and pay them forward. What could be more beautiful?
Will we get more Studio Ghibli in 2023? Well, you’ll have to check out our list of all the new movies coming next year.