From beginning to end, we’re taking a look at the vast and beautiful filmography of Studio Ghibli, ranked from worst to best.
From beginning to end, we’re taking a look at the vast and beautiful filmography of Studio Ghibli, ranked from worst to best. Founded on June 15, 1985, Studio Ghibli quickly became one of the defining companies in Japanese animation, as well as a household name worldwide akin to Disney.
Co-founded by the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, the company has a remarkable success rate, not only critically but commercially. Six of the ten highest-grossing anime movies of all time are Ghibli titles, and the company has multiple awards, including an Oscar, to its name. Their influence stretches far and wide across animation and entertainment in general, from video games to music to literature.
Studio Ghibli was allegedly going to close in 2014 after Miyazaki retired again (he likes to announce his retirement every few years or so), but he’s now working on a new movie! With How Do You Live set to be released sometime this year, now’s as good a time as any for us to look back at Ghibli’s work and rank the films from worst to best.
Tales From Earthsea
Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro never really intended to follow in his father’s animation footsteps, but he was brought on board for an ambitious adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s iconic sci-fi novels anyway. Sadly, the results speak for themselves, and Tales From Earthsea is easily the worst thing Ghibli ever made. On top of having almost nothing to do with its source material, the film is sorely lacking in that Ghibli magic that typically makes their films so unique, even when story or character moments are sorely lacking. It all feels too boring and generic to be truly Ghibli, and it does no favors to Le Guin’s stunning books. It’s all depressingly inert and uninteresting. Fortunately, Goro Miyazaki would be given an opportunity to redeem himself, but Tales From Earthsea remains arguably the only Ghibli title that can be skipped without any guilt.
Arguably the least-familiar Ghibli title to Western audiences, Tomomi Mochizuki’s Ocean Waves (also known by the title I Can Hear the Sea) was made for TV in 1993 and didn’t get an American release until early 2017. It’s a sweet enough story of a love triangle between two adolescent friends and the new girl who transfers to their high school, but Ghibli would do this story and themes far better with later films. The movie was an attempt by the studio to cultivate animation talent beyond its founders, but the end result isn’t especially memorable. Ocean Waves is for Ghibli completionists only.
The Cat Returns
A spin-off from Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns is too slight and inconsequential to leave a true impact on viewers. Running at a scant 75 minutes, Hiroyuki Morita’s fantasy film has some whimsy in its story of a schoolgirl who saves a cat’s life and ends up in a magical feline kingdom where she is betrothed to their prince. Younger children will certainly find much here to admire, but the entire film feels so throwaway in a manner that Ghibli seldom is. At least the cats are cute.
My Neighbors the Yamadas
Isao Takahata took the first major stylistic shift for Ghibli in 1998 with My Neighbors the Yamadas, an adaptation of a manga that is drawn to look like a daily newspaper comic strip. The eponymous Yamada family is shown through a series of vignettes that offer bite-sized stories of relatable aspects of life, from losing a child in a department store to the son getting his first girlfriend. The episodic nature has its charm but the entire film just doesn’t have enough gas to maintain its 104 minutes running time.
British viewers will be all too familiar with The Borrowers, Mary Norton’s popular children’s novel from the 1950s that formed a major part of many people’s childhoods. The book has had its fair share of adaptations and Arrietty is certainly one of the most visually stunning of the lot. Animation is the perfect medium for this story of miniature people who live in the walls of humans’ homes and borrow items to survive. Don’t expect a faithful adaptation, of course. There’s a dreamlike, almost lackadaisical feeling to this one, but the story feels half-baked and deprived of the expected Ghibli magic.
When Western audiences first saw Pom Poko, there was immense confusion over the central conceit: Are these raccoons with giant bouncy scrotums? Yes, they are, although the English dub insists they are only “pouches.” Pom Poko is another Ghibli film with a hearty focus on environmentalism. The plot is somewhat unfocused, but everything comes to life when the tanuki go wild and take on the humans who are trying to destroy their home. At two hours long it also tends to outstay its welcome, but you’ll certainly never forget the image of those scrotums in action.
Whisper of the Heart
Yoshifumi Kondō was styled as Miyazaki’s protege and heir to the Ghibli throne thanks to his animation on films like Only Yesterday and Princess Mononoke, but sadly, 1998’s Whisper of the Heart was the only feature he directed before his tragic death at the age of 47. With a screenplay written by Miyazaki himself, this gorgeous romantic drama demonstrates exactly what made Kondō one to watch. Shizuku, an introverted teenager, dreams of being a writer but finds herself crawling back into her shell whenever she’s around her bossy older sister. When she meets Senji, a charming but irritating boy her own age, and his grandfather, a kindly antique store owner in possession of a curious cat statue, her life changes forever. Ghibli has always loved a good coming-of-age story and Whisper of the Heart is no exception.
From Up on Poppy Hill
Goro Miyazaki returned to Ghibli with a vengeance with From Up on Poppy Hill, and while it’s still nowhere near the stratospheric heights of his father’s work, it’s a refreshing step up from his debut that shows the immense potential he has as a director of feature animation. The drama takes place in Yokohama during the early 1960s, following a young girl living in a boarding house who joins up with a classmate to save their school’s clubhouse from demolition. It’s slight and predictable, but it’s also emotionally honest and committed to its warmth and sentimentality. Goro Miyazaki’s eye for period detail is what elevates this one well above Tales From Earthsea. For anyone familiar with Japan in the ’60s, the nostalgic yearning will show in full force while watching From Up on Poppy Hill! If the director continues this upward trajectory then he very well may make a true masterpiece in the future.
When Marnie Was There
Originally intended to be the last ever Studio Ghibli film before Miyazaki decided to un-retire for the third or fourth time, When Marnie Was There would have been a low-key but suitably melancholy note for the animation titans to go out on. Adapted from a novel by the British writer Joan G. Robinson, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s drama is another fine addition to the studio’s slice-of-life real-world tales. The movie almost feels like the opening of a new door to a “post-Ghibli” world of Japanese animation, one of controlled storytelling intended for the sophisticated adult audiences who grew up with Totoro and company. It would have been a quieter conclusion for Ghibli, but not an unworthy one.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Following up the worldwide Oscar-winning smash hit of Spirited Away was never going to be easy for Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli, and adapting the beloved children’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones was an equally difficult task. The end result is one of the studio’s messier films, with seriously low lows but incredible peaks. Visually, it’s unreal, with the castle of the title a staggering piece of animation that’s easily some of Miyazaki’s best work. The problems arise from the deeply confused story, which has little to do with the book but isn’t fully formed enough independent of the source material to stand alone. It remains endlessly watchable but works best when you don’t think too much about the muddled narrative.
The Wind Rises
Miyazaki did not shy away from controversy when he chose to make The Wind Rises, a World War 2 era drama featuring the real-life engineer Jiro Horikoshi as the main character. Horikoshi was the chief engineer of many Japanese fighter designs during the war. It’s clearly a film and a topic that elicits complicated feelings in many, but you can’t deny the ambition and deeply thought-provoking nature of the overall project. The Wind Rises feels like the kind of movie that only Miyazaki could make: A deeply humane and prickly but ultimately beautiful story of loss, regret, and ambition.
There are few films in the Ghibli canon as unabashedly joyous as Ponyo, Miyazaki’s loose reimagining of The Little Mermaid featuring a little goldfish who becomes human so she can live on the land with her new friend and enjoy the pleasures of ramen with ham. Ponyo is a simple story but one full of magic that will overwhelm and delight children – and adults – of all ages. It’s hard not to be won over by something this wholly charming!
Castle in the Sky
The first official Studio Ghibli film is an oft-overlooked delight that most certainly deserves critical reconsideration. Castle in the Sky’s influence can be seen all across pop culture, from Final Fantasy to Atlantis: The Lost Empire to WALL-E – and with good reason. The movie was essentially the studio’s calling card, proving what they had to offer and how they could do it better than anyone else in the business. Even today, 34 years on from its premiere, the climactic scenes of the floating city of Laputa “self-destructing” is one of the absolute pinnacles of modern animation.
Ironically for a movie featuring a bounty hunter and former World War I pilot who has been transformed into an anthropomorphic pig, Porco Rosso is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most historically and geographically grounded films! Set in Italy during the 1930s as fascism takes root across Europe and sky pirates terrorize cruise ships, our hero is gruff, moving towards middle-age, and dealing with a long-time rival. He teams up with a spunky young female mechanic to take on his greatest enemy. Porco Rosso pays homage to many Hollywood-era action movies with a hefty sprinkling of A Matter of Life and Death. It also has one of the great morals of any Ghibli film – Better to be a pig than a fascist!
For all of their fantastical tales of castles in the sky and flying pigs, Ghibli also excels at telling stories of true life that detail the mundanities of everyday existence without ever being boring themselves. Only Yesterday is the perfect example of that. This wistful drama is an especially sharp exploration of a young Japanese woman’s life, her nostalgia for her youth, and her eagerness to find her role in society. There are few films that convey how the sadness of one’s past impact our future as effectively as Only Yesterday. The languid pacing of this one may put some viewers off but it’s worth your attention.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Based on a children’s novel by Eiko Kadano, Kiki’s Delivery Service offers a beautiful slice-of-life story that continues to resonate with viewers over 30 years after its initial release. The eponymous Kiki is a witch who moves to a new town and begins delivering goods across town for work. For Miyazaki, the film was an opportunity to explore “the gulf between independence and reliance in teenage Japanese girls”: Kiki works hard and has a lot of people counting on her, but her commitment to work over all else in her life soon leaves her exhausted and sapped of her ability to do it well. YouTuber Patrick Willems savvily called the movie one of the best explorations of the gig economy ever made, so it’s no wonder many millennials relate so hard to it today! Outside of its thematic resonance, Kiki’s Delivery Service also offers a comforting gaze at a seemingly utopian world, the kind that we would all love to live in, free of our troubles.
My Neighbor Totoro
The movie that helped to cement the burgeoning Studio Ghibli’s reputation as one to watch – and the source of upwards of a billion dollars’ worth of merchandise sales – My Neighbor Totoro is one of the true greats of animation, particularly for young children. It’s a wholly warm-hearted film with laughter, sadness, and the gentleness of life beautifully personified. There are no big conflicts here or evil threats to be overcome; this is a happily simple story about sisters and the creatures they befriend. Joe Hisaishi, a regular collaborator with Ghibli, also does some of his most beautiful work for the soundtrack.
Grave of the Fireflies
Isao Takahata’s most famous film was originally released as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro, which must have made for the most intense emotional U-turn in cinematic history! Its reputation precedes it for a reason: Grave of the Fireflies may be one of the most emotionally devastating movies ever made. Set in Kobe, Japan, during the final months of the Second World War, the story follows a young boy and his sister as they try to survive while bombs are dropped around them and food becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. While Takahata stridently denied that the movie was anti-war in its themes, it’s hard not to take that message from its graphic and intense portrayal of the personal cost of war and how it particularly impacts the innocent children whom society fails to protect as the carnage unfolds. It may be tough to watch it a second time, but Grave of the Fireflies resolutely demands at least one viewing.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The final directorial effort of the late Isao Takahata, 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is in a league of its own. Based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest pieces of Japanese prose in existence, this achingly beautiful and delicate film takes its visual cues from traditional artwork and watercolors to create something deceptively seductive. The surprisingly simple tale evokes all the tears and carries the weight of a truly emotional narrative centered on the tiny eponymous princess and her journey to define herself in a world that won’t let her be. Every frame of this movie, every stroke of the pen and brush of color, feels adoringly created – even by Ghibli’s impeccable standards of attention to detail.
In the 1990s, there seemed to be a lot of animated movies taking on themes of environmentalism and protecting the wonders of nature, from Fern Gully to Pocahontas, but of course, Hayao Miyazaki did it best. Princess Mononoke is much more mature than those aforementioned titles and its message is stronger, but it also carries greater thematic and ethical layers than we typically see with mainstream American animated features intended for family audiences. It’s also a whole lot more violent! This is an unapologetically philosophical film with no easy answers and a refusal to divide its characters into the stark camps of good versus evil that defined animation of the era for Americans. For many Westerners, it was Princess Mononoke that showed them how seriously animation could and deserved to be considered.
For many Western viewers, Spirited Away was the movie that opened them up not only to Studio Ghibli but the entire world of Japanese animation. The first hand-drawn film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature – and still the only one not in the English language – isn’t just Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli’s masterpiece: it’s one of the greatest films ever made. The staggering attention to detail alone is worth your undying attention. As always, it’s not just about the aesthetic beauty with Ghibli. Spirited Away is a deeply mature and empathetic story of a young girl growing up and finding her own way in an impossible world. Miyazaki refuses to speak down to his young audience, knowing that they are perfectly capable of keeping up with his tale. The film moves between anxious frenzy and contemplative peacefulness with such ease. For some animation lovers, it’s never gotten any better than this. Spirited Away is as close to cinematic perfection as we may ever get.