Anime often brings to mind the multitude of series produced every year, including some series with episodes numbering in the hundreds. But one of the most well-known anime production studios is prolific in the field of anime films: Studio Ghibli, co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
With 20 feature films made over the course of almost 30 years, it can be hard to know where to start with Studio Ghibli’s works. Below, I’ve ranked all the Studio Ghibli movies starting with my least recommended, to help you decide where to begin — or, for the more seasoned fans, to see what Ghibli works you’ve missed.
20. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
While ranking Ghibli films can be a tricky task, it’s easy to see which film should be firmly at the bottom: 2006’s Tales from Earthsea, directed by Gorō Miyazaki and adapted from the first four books in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series.
Miyazaki had long wanted to adapt Le Guin's unique fantasy epic, but it wasn't until Le Guin saw My Neighbor Totoro and realized that Ghibli far surpassed the "Disney-type animation" she was familiar with that she granted the studio the rights. At the time, Miyazaki himself was busy with production on Howl's Moving Castle, so at the advice of one of the studio's co-founders, Miyazaki's inexperienced son Gorō Miyazaki took on the long-anticipated project. The final result, although visually gorgeous, is marred by strange pacing and doesn't do the source material justice.
19. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1996)
This 1999 release written and directed by Isao Takahata is a bit of a misfit among other Studio Ghibli films. Unlike other films from the studio, My Neighbors the Yamadas is drawn with a comic strip aesthetic in mind, instead of the studio’s traditional anime style. The story is told through vignettes rather than a cohesive single plot, following the Yamada family through a series of everyday adventures and conflicts.
The Yamadas are made up of Takashi and Matsuko, the father and mother of the family, Matsuko’s mother Shige, a thirteen-year-old son named Noboru, a five-year-old daughter named Nonoko, and their dog Pochi. Each episode focuses on a different issue that typical families and teens constantly face, which are all presented through a humorous lens. Whether it’s Takashi trying to help Noboru score his first girlfriend, or Shige offering encouraging advice to all of the family members in the home, the episodes in this series are pretty relatable. Despite their differences, one thing is certain about the Yamadas: they all love each other very much.
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18. Pom Poko (1994)
A community of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) struggles against the humans who plan to turn their forest home into a suburban development. Written and directed by Isao Takahata, the environmentalism themes come across as more heavy-handed in Pom Poko than other Studio Ghibli films, but the tanuki themselves are an absolute delight.
In Japanese folklore, tanuki are mischievous creatures who are capable of shapeshifting. Despite their fascinating abilities, they tend to be a little too dense for their own good. The same rules apply to the tanuki in Pom Poko, but when they stand united against the encroaching humans, they come up with all sorts of wacky and interesting methods to protect their habitat.
17. The Cat Returns (2002)
Hiroyuki Morita directed this fantasy film about Haru, a girl who can speak to cats. After she saves a cat from being hit by a truck, she learns that the feline is named Lune, and he’s actually the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. Other cats in the area begin bringing her gifts and offerings of mice and catnip as gratitude for saving the prince, and Lune even proposes to Haru. Haru inadvertently agrees to marry the prince of the Cat Kingdom, but life in the Cat Kingdom isn’t all what it’s cut out to be. Haru spends much of the film in the Cat Kingdom itself and, over the course of the story, learns to believe in herself.
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16. Arrietty (2010)
Based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Arrietty was Hiromasa Yonebashi’s directorial feature film debut and follows a boy named Shō who befriends a young Borrower named Arrietty. In the movie, Borrowers are tiny people who borrow random objects from humans in order to ensure their survival. They are supposed to remain hidden from human eyes, but despite these rules, Shō and Arrietty share a special bond that is guaranteed to move viewers.
15. Ponyo (2008)
This film about a goldfish who wishes to become a human was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who took inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. The titular character winds up on the shore after she wanders away from her wizard father during their daily swim. When she is picked up and placed in a jar by Sōsuke, the two immediately bond and Ponyo craves to become a human. Using her magic, Ponyo begins to transform herself, but it comes at a high cost that threatens Sōsuke’s coastal town.
14. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Gorō Miyazaki’s second film for Studio Ghibli is a historical drama about a group of students trying to prevent the building that houses their school’s clubs from being demolished. While much more of a drama than an adventure, its beautifully-rendered historical details make the film gorgeous and nostalgic to watch.
13. When Marnie Was There (2014)
The last Studio Ghibli release before the studio went on hiatus was this animated drama directed by Hiromasa Yonebashi. It follows Anna, a girl placed in foster care who meets a local girl named Marnie. Exploring themes of identity and belonging, When Marnie Was There doesn’t have quite the same magic as Ghibli’s other films, but it’s a gorgeous and moving film nonetheless.
12. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
This romantic film about a girl who falls in love with a boy studying to become a violin-maker was the only Ghibli film directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, who passed away in 1998. The film contains some gorgeous fantasy scenes and is the introduction of the character The Baron, who appears in The Cat Returns (2002).
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11. Porco Rosso (1992)
Based on Hayao Miyazaki’s manga Hikōtei Jidai, the film centers on a former World War I flying ace transformed into a pig. Much of the story follows his new job as an air pirate bounty hunter in the years after World War I. After a successful mission, Porco celebrates by going to a hotel owned by his friend Gina. Unbeknownst to him, Porco’s rival Curtis is also in the same building, plotting a way to take down the accomplished pilot, and get with Gina. The pair’s rivalry sets the stage for a thrilling adventure filled with action and suspense that will keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
10. The Wind Rises (2013)
This fictionalized biopic describes the life of the aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of several World War II-era Japanese fighter planes. The Wind Rises was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and it’s a film that ties together themes Miyazaki explores over the course of his career: the magic of flight and the destruction of war.
9. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Hayao Miyazaki has called Howl’s Moving Castle his favorite of the films he created. Based on the , the movie follows a young woman named Sophie who is transformed into an old woman by a witch who enters her shop. During a trip to her sister’s home, she encounters a wizard named Howl who is fighting a war for the king. She gets caught up in the conflict, and winds up playing a major role that will affect the outcome of the war.
8. My Neighbor Totoro (1998)
This may be Studio Ghibli’s most iconic film. My Neighbor Totoro is a cult classic, and anyone who’s even touched the anime fan community has probably seen the titular character, who’s extremely popular worldwide. Totoro has also made cameos in a number of other Ghibli films, and is part of the studio's logo.
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7. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
This coming-of-age film follows the young witch Kiki, who opens a flying broomstick delivery service after moving to a new town. It was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and the film is one of Miyazaki’s most well-known.
After leaving home to pursue this new life in a harbor city, Kiki runs into a few mishaps that test her patience and cunning. Although she starts off confident, the growing pains of adjusting to a new place and new responsibilities start to get to her. With the help of a few friends and her sarcastic and trusting cat familiar Jiji, Kiki learns what it means to grow up.
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6. Princess Mononoke (1997)
This film about the struggle between forest gods and human development and technology was a major critical and commercial success for Studio Ghibli and helped pave the way for future English-language releases from the studio in the United States. Princess Mononoke focuses on three characters: a forest prince named Ashitaka; Lady Eboshi, who specializes in industrial development; and San, a human girl who was raised by wolves.
All three characters represent a certain aspect of environmentalism and are rooted in ecocritical ideas about how humans should interact with nature. When all three ideologies clash, the story turns into a complex narrative that will resonate with viewers of all ages. Princess Mononoke really pushed the boundaries of what topics animated films could cover, and is one of the most violent Studio Ghibli movies.
5. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Written and directed by Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies follows a pair of siblings as they struggle to survive in the city of Kobe in the last six months or so of World War II. The film is one of the studio’s most highly-rated, and Roger Ebert called it “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” Despite its difficult and tragic subject matter, Grave of the Fireflies is an incredibly powerful movie and an absolute must-watch.
4. Castle in the Sky (1986)
The first film produced by Studio Ghibli was a fantasy about two teens trying to keep a crystal amulet away from those who seek to use it to activate a weapon of mass destruction housed within a flying castle. The film is an anime classic, and the most-Tweeted moment of all time occurred when fans tweeted “balse” during the moment the word is said during the film.
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3. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
The second Ghibli release of 2013 (after The Wind Rises) was The Tale of Princess Kaguya, written and directed by Isao Takahata and based on the Japanese folktale “The Bamboo Cutter.” It’s one of only two Studio Ghibli films to hold a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was Takahata’s final film for the studio.
2. Only Yesterday (1991)
Just one other Ghibli film holds a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes: the 1991 contemporary drama Only Yesterday, written and directed by Isao Takahata and based on a 1982 manga of the same name. The film wasn’t distributed outside Japan until 2006, and the U.S. 25th anniversary edition includes a dub with voices by Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s film about a girl drawn into the spirit world who must save her parents is one of the most successful movies in Japanese history. Spirited Away wasn’t the most highly-rated Studio Ghibli movie of all time, but it’s one of the studio’s most awarded: it won the Academy Award for best feature, making it the only hand-drawn animated film and the only non-English animated film to receive the award as of this date, and it appears frequently on lists of the best animated films of all time.
Honorable Mention: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä is often thought of as part of the Studio Ghibli canon, but it wasn’t actually produced by Ghibli, which was founded in 1985. It is a Hayao Miyazaki film, however, and shares many concepts and themes that permeate his other work–particularly environmentalism and flight. Like Spirited Away, Nausicaä is often ranked among the best animated films of all time, and while it’s not an official Studio Ghibli release, it’s still one of the most iconic Miyazaki movies.
Featured still from "Kiki's Delivery Service" via Studio Ghibli