Having seen all the Studio Ghibli films (until the new one that will be released in 2020), I figured I’d write down my thoughts and rank all the films. This is one of the hardest rankings to do, which is probably why it’s taken so long for me to write. So here are my rankings from 22 to 1 (technically there are only 21 films because 1 released prior to the studio being formed but it’s generally considered a Studio Ghibli film):
22) Pom Poko
This film ranks at number 21 more so the fact that I like all the other movies better. In and of itself it’s not a bad movie…just different. It is very much a Japanese movies when it comes to culture. Released in Japan in 1994, the film centers around a group of “takunis” (a kind of magical creature in Japan that was kinda the basis for the Takooni suit in the Mario games, they also look like raccoons) who are having to deal with the humans encroaching into their living space. It’s an interesting film but if I’m giving someone a Ghibli film to start out with, I’m probably skipping Pom Poko in recommending first.
21) My Neighbors the Yamadas
This film, released in 1999 in Japan, centered around the Yamada family and their everyday lives. The animation style is more comic strip style than traditional animation and it is presented in more like a series of vignettes. It is interesting enough the first Studio Ghibli film to be completely digital. It is also the only Studio Ghibli film (that I’m aware) that has not been released on blu-ray in North America. But as a whole I’m less inclined to have it higher on the list.
20) The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Yes this film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature. However the last film directed by co-founder Isao Takahata isn’t higher because there are other films that I’d much rather watch more often. The film, released in Japan in 2013, is a take on the classic Japanese folk tale about a princess found by a bamboo cutter and who raised the girl as her child. Like My Neighbors the Yamadas (another film that Takahata directed) the animation style is very different from other animated films.
19) Tales from Earthsea
This film, directed by Goro Miyazaki (Hayao Miyazaki’s son) is a decent film. It is based off of the literary works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Initially Hayao Miyazaki was going to direct the film but because of his efforts in another film, it was decided that Goro would make his directorial debut with this film. If you go by Rotten Tomatoes ratings, this is the lowest rated film from Studio Ghibli. I think it’s a decent film and Goro would go on to direct another film for Studio Ghibli that is higher in my rankings.
If you are wondering what the lowest ranked Hayao Miyazaki film is, it is Ponyo. Released in Japan in 2008, Ponyo is a take on the classic fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”. Ponyo is a goldfish who befriends a little boy named Sosuke and then wants to become a human. I would say this is probably the most “kid friendly” film as it is geared more towards younger audiences but the story itself is pretty good. In the end, there are other films I would much rather watch and recommend first (unless you have little kids you want to introduce to Studio Ghibli…then again I have another film higher up that I’d probably point to first).
17) The Cat Returns
This film is interestingly enough the only “sequel” that Studio Ghibli made. I put “sequel” in quotations because it is not a direct sequel but a character from a previous film has a larger role in this film. Released in 2002, The Cat Returns centers around a young girl named Haru who gets caught up in a magical world of cat people. Haru is helped out by one magical cat named the Baron (who fans of Studio Ghibli films would remember). This film was initially planned as a short film before later extended into a feature film. This is one of the few films that was directed by someone not named Miyazaki or Takahata (the director was Hiroyuki Morita). This is a decent film but it finds itself behind a lot of other films (it has the distinction of also releasing in between two pretty big Ghibli films)
16) Kiki’s Delivery Service
This film, released in 1989 in Japan, tells the story of a young witch named Kiki who goes off into the world to find herself and become more independent. It was based on a novel by the same name that was written in 1985. It’s a fun whimsical film. It also was the first film that the Walt Disney Company distributed as part of their deal with Studio Ghibli. It would go on to be a huge partnership that saw many of the Studio Ghibli films released in North America through Walt Disney (the ones that weren’t were distributed through GKIDS). The English dub is also known for being the last performance by comedian Phil Hartman who passed away shortly after recording.
15) Castle in the Sky
The first film made under the Studio Ghibli name, Castle in the Sky was released in 1986. It tells the story of a girl named Sheeta who has a connection to Laputa, the last flying city. Because of this, she is sought out by a lot of people who want to use her to get to the treasures there. It has seen two English dubs (several of the older Ghibli films have this distinction) but Disney’s version is the one that’s readily available now.
14) The Secret World of Arrietty
Based on the children’s book series The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty tells the story of a young boy named Sho (Shawn in the English dub) who visit’s his mother’s childhood home one summer with his great aunt and maid. In this home is a family of Borrowers that includes Arrietty. The film shows the life the Borrowers live as well as their interaction with the world around them. Hayao Miyazaki helped write the script for this film but directing duties went to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who was an animator at Studio Ghibli and worked his way up to director. He went on to direct another film that’s higher up in the rankings.
13) Porco Rosso
Set in the time between World War I and World War II in Italy, Porco Rosso tells the story of a WWI fighter pilot named Porco Rosso. After the war, he became a freelance bounty hunter and pilot. Along with this, he is also turned into a pig. Having to deal with pirates, secret police and the oncoming Fascist government in Italy, Porco continues to do what’s right while also trying to keep his plane in the air. The film initially was to be a short film made for Japan Airlines but grew into a feature film. Miyazaki loved airplanes and flying so this film carries a lot of those themes that he loves as well as having strong female characters (Madame Gina, Flo Piccolo).
12) Grave of the Fireflies
Released on the same day as My Neighbor Totoro in Japan as a double feature (April 16, 1988), Grave of the Fireflies was the first film directed by co-founder Isao Takahata with Studio Ghibli. It is based on a semi autobiographical story of the same name and set during the end of World War II in Japan. It is more on the reality based side of films for Studio Ghibli. It tells the story of brother and sister Setsuko and Seita as they are living through the ending of World War II. It was less successful than Totoro at the box office but is still considered one of the best animated films of all time. It even led to two live action versions released in Japan. It is just outside my top 10 but it’s still a really good film.
11) Ocean Waves
Originally released as a television movie in Japan in 1993, Ocean Waves is based on a novel of the same name and tells the story of three teenagers. Two of them are two boys who are best friends living in the city of Kochi and the third is a young girl who transfers to their school from Tokyo. The story is told both in the present as well as in flashback and how their lives are impacted both in the present and in the past. It had just recently came to the states (and is the only release to not get an English dub) but the story is still compelling. It’s just outside the top 10 for me like Grave of the Fireflies but no fault of it’s own. The top 10 to me are well deserving of their spots.
10) Spirited Away
One of the most well known Studio Ghibli films, Spirited Away is also one of the most awarded. Released in Japan in 2001, it tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl whose family gets lost on the way to their new home and gets caught up in a magical spirit world. Chihiro has to help find her way out of this spirit world as well as return her parents to normal after they had been turned into pigs. Spirited Away went on to become the highest grossing film in Japanese cinema and so far the only anime, non-English-speaking and traditionally animated winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
9) Whisper of the Heart
Whisper of the Heart has the distinction of being the first Studio Ghibli film to not be directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata (although Miyazaki did write the screenplay for the film). It was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo who was to be the heir apparent director for Studio Ghibli. Tragically, he died only a few years after the release of this film. The film tells the story of a young junior high girl named Shizuku Tsukishima. She is preparing for graduation and looking ahead to the future. She wants to pursue writing and is inspired by a doll at a store she encounters named “The Baron” (which would get his own film The Cat Returns) Whisper of the Heart released in 1995 and was the highest grossing film in Japan that year.
8) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaa was the first film that Hayao Miyazaki directed on his own. The film actually preceded Studio Ghibli’s formation but is considered by most to also be a “Studio Ghibli film”. Set in a post apocalyptic world in the future, the film tells the story of Nausicaa. She is known as the “Princess of the Valley of the Wind”. She seeks to protect both humans and the creatures of the world including large insect like creatures called Ohm. However there are humans from the kingdom of Tolmekia that want to conquer and rule over the earth at all costs. Nausicaa must try and stop the Tolmekians from destroying the jungles which provide clean air to breath as well as protect the Ohm. It is still considered one of Miyazaki’s best films and does stand the test of time.
7) When Marnie Was There
As of this post, When Marnie Was There was the last film released by Studio Ghibli. Released in Japan in 2014, it is based on the novel of the same name. The film tells the story of a young girl named Anna who is visiting family of Anna’s foster parents in a rural seaside town for the summer. While there, Anna encounters a girl named Marne and through her interactions with Marnie learns a lot about herself and where she comes from. The films was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (who also directed The Secret World of Arietty). It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (but lost out to Inside Out).
6) Only Yesterday
Released in Japan in 1991, this was director Isao Takahata followup film to Grave of the Fireflies. The film tells the story of Takeo Okajima, a 27 year old unmarried girl living in Tokyo. She decides to take a trip to the countryside to spend time with family of her brother in law. Along the journey and while there, she remembers her time as a middle school student. The film goes back and forth between young Takeo and present day. This was very much a grounded real life film. It is also the film that for the longest time did not get released in North America. Aside from a subtitled version airing on Turner Classic Movies in 2006, it had never been on home video or gotten a theatrical release until 2016 when it received both a theatrical/home video release as well as an English dub.
5) Howl’s Moving Castle
Based on the novel by the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of Sophie, a young lady who is cursed by an evil witch with old age and encounters a wizard name Howl. Howl has of course a moving castle as well as a collection of people in the castle that Sophie befriends. In the midst of all this, there is a war going on between two countries that are trying to recruit wizards and witches to help them win. The film was released in Japan in 2004 and was Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after Spirited Away. It ended up getting an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature Film (losing to Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit).
4) My Neighbor Totoro
Famous for giving us the logo that defines Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro is probably the first well known Studio Ghibli. Released at the same time (in fact it was a double feature with) Grave of the Fireflies in Japan in 1988, the story tells the story of the Kusakabe family who live in Japan in the 1950s. The father, Tatsuo, is a university professor. The mother, Yasuko, is recovering from an illness that had her in the hospital. The two daughters, Satsuki and Mei (along with her dad) move to be closer to their mother. At the old house they move into, Satsuki and Mei come across some spirits, one large one Mei calls Totoro. It’s a very heartwarming film and one that I would probably recommend if someone was first getting into Miyazaki films.
3) Princess Mononoke
This was the first Studio Ghibli film I ever saw and I saw it in college with the recommendation of one of my friends and roommates. Released in 1997 in Japan, Princess Mononoke is set during the Muromachi period in Japan but includes elements of fantasy. A young Emishi prince, Ashitaka is cursed by a demon he slayed protecting his village. Now to hopefully release the curse, he must travel west and at the same time essentially go into exile. Along the way he encounters various characters including a Buddist monk, a town of outcasts led by Lady Eboshi, the wolf godess Moro and a human girl adopted by the wolves, San.
2) From Up on Poppy Hill
This is the highest rated non Hayao Miyazaki film on the list (though he did co-write the screenplay). His son Goro directed the film (based on a comic of the same name) which released in Japan in 2011. Set in 1963 Yokohama, Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill centers around Umi Matsuzaki, a high school girl who helps run a boarding house while her mother is off studying medicine in America and her father was killed during the Korean War. She raises signal flags each morning for the boats that sail through the port of Yokohama which catches the eye of fellow student Shun which leads to their journey together at and outside of school. I love the story and the music in this film is top notch.
1) The Wind Rises
This film was initially to be the swan song for Hayao Miyazaki back in 2013 (but that changed when news came out about his unretirement and new film in 2020). The Wind Rises is a biopic of sorts. It’s a fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi. Jiro is most famous for designing Mitsubishi A5M fighter plane and it’s more well known successor the A6M Zero which was used by Japan during World War II. The film goes from his time as a child dreaming of flying to his time in school studying to be a designer to his time as an adult working on designing warships. It also shows Jiro falling in love with a girl named Naoko which also impacts Jiro’s life tremendously. Overall, this film is one of the most beautifully made films I’ve ever seen. It was nominated for an Academy Award (though it did not win). But at the very least it is number 1 in my rankings.