This article was originally published in November 2019. We are republishing it to mark the launch of HBO Max, the platform on which Studio Ghibli films are now broadcast for the first time in the US. uu.
In 1985, two friends and longtime collaborators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, fresh off the success of their recent Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind project, founded a company that would change animation as we know it. Over the next three decades, Studio Ghibli produced some of the most critically acclaimed and financially successful films in its home country of Japan, many of them the highest-grossing films in the country during the years they were released. /p>
Its reach would extend far beyond Japan: Studio Ghibli influenced live-action animators and filmmakers around the world. miyazaki, takahata and their team’s work to blend fantasy and reality can be seen in the films of people as different as guillermo del toro, a vocal fan who blends fantasy and reality in his works, and wes anderson, who praised miyazaki when speaking of isle of dogs: “with miyazaki, you get nature and you get moments of peace, a kind of rhythm that is not so much in the tradition of american animation.”
There’s no arguing that Studio Ghibli’s commitment to artistry and empathetic storytelling has transformed modern cinema. makes films that appeal to a wide demographic by refusing to badmouth children and allowing adults to explore their own feelings in unexpected ways. In just under four decades, Studio Ghibli has made possibly a dozen films that could legitimately be called masterpieces.
So how do you even begin to compare some of the best movies ever made? How does princess kaguya’s lyricism compare to kiki’s delivery service fantasy world building castle in the sky? they are all wonderful. take the list below with the knowledge that almost all of them are worth your time and the differences in position are incredibly small. nobody makes movies like ghibli.
(a quick note: we’re counting nausicaa, which isn’t technically a ghibli movie but led to its founding and has been reclaimed as such over the years. we’re not counting cagliostro castle, made before that , even though it was directed by hayao miyazaki.)
22. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
Arguably the only real dud in Studio Ghibli’s catalog is this very loose adaptation of Ursula K’s beloved Earthsea book series. Le Guin tells the story that Hayao Miyazaki had been interested in adapting these stories since the early 1980s, but the author had been reluctant to have anyone adapt her books, and she changed her mind after the international success of Spirited Away. . The problem was that Hayao Miyazaki was away working on Howl’s Moving Castle, so the project passed to her son, Gorō Miyazaki, who directed it here for the first time. Gorō Miyazaki would go on to direct a much better Ghibli film, but this one eluded him, probably due to his lack of experience. it is almost incomprehensible at times and so narratively removed from the books that le guin was reportedly disappointed. Like all studio ghibli movies, it has some strong visuals, but it doesn’t hold your interest.
21. the cat returns (2002)
This list is already in the “pretty good” category with 20 movies to go. Compared to the rest of Ghibli’s catalogue, Hiroyuki Morita’s Whisper of the Heart spin-off/sequel feels a bit light and not just because it’s only 75 minutes long. Based on the manga of the same name, Return of the Cat gives the magical cat named Baron of Whisper another adventure when he meets Haru, a shy girl who has the ability to talk to cats. With echoes of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Haru ends up in a cat world, where she slowly begins to come into her own. themes of identity and acceptance, rather than repressing, our gifts are woven through an adventure that works relatively well but lacks some of the magic in design and character that defines top-tier ghibli. it’s a fun diversion, but slimmer than previous movies on this list.
20. my neighbors the yamadas (1999)
Nestled between two of the biggest hits in the company’s history, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, is this family comedy from the underrated Isao Takahata, the co-founder of Ghibli, who doesn’t get the attention lavished on his partner. long time commercial hayao miyazaki. Takahata often worked better in a more serious register (Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Kaguya), and his lacking visual style compared to Miyazaki makes for a comedy that feels a bit light. It doesn’t help that this is a very intentional episodic film, divided into vignettes about modern Japanese family life. While there are elements that keep him culturally distant to American audiences, and he doesn’t transcend the genre of him as the best Ghibli, Takahata’s deep empathy can still be seen in Studio Ghibli’s first all-digital film.
19. waves of the sea (1993)
This was technically a TV movie, but gkids released it in US theaters under the studio ghibli banner in 2016, so it counts for our purposes. Reportedly, Ocean Waves was a project for younger Ghibli staff members to work on and to do so cheaply, but the result hardly shows inexperience or lack of budget. Tomomi Mochizuki directed this unique entry in the Ghibli canon in that it contains no hint of fantasy or magical storytelling. is a relatively straightforward young adult drama about a love triangle in the city of kōchi when a new transfer student comes between two friends. there’s a finesse to the storytelling here that’s admirable and at times charming, and the entire piece is proof that young ghibli students were paying attention to the work of veterans.
18. pom poko (1994)
Themes of humanity’s relationship with nature, the environmental incursion of technology, and the feeling that we have lost touch with the natural world are woven into almost every studio ghibli film. are front and center in this comedy about tribes of raccoons battling the human species that is driving them from their homes. pom poko delves into Japanese folklore about raccoons and their ability to transform and hide in plain sight. Takahata employs different styles to tell his story, sometimes sketching realistic raccoons and sometimes anthropomorphic creatures. The story revolves around a suburban development that threatens the natural world outside of Tokyo and the limited resources that humans are in the habit of devouring. Some of the comedy doesn’t translate perfectly, but there’s a lighthearted energy Takahata uses to convey a message that clearly means a lot to Ghibli: destroying the natural world is not only harmful to the planet, but also to our own history and folklore. .
17. from the top of the hill of poppies (2011)
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Gorō Miyazaki, this is one of Studio Ghibli’s more straightforward dramas, an adaptation of a popular manga originally published in 1980. It’s a Ghibli film that feels more directly aimed at a specific demographic: young adults, which is some of his most consequential work, but there is visual beauty here in the design of the mansion in which much of the film takes place and, well, the hill itself. the image of a flag fluttering high in the breeze, trying to communicate across miles with distant sailors is unsettling. while the story of the cute umi and shun works pretty well as a teen drama with some interesting twists, what resonates is the concept of a young girl using the naval language of flags to ultimately try to communicate with an entire generation loss. of parents killed in combat.
16. the secret world of arrietty (2010)
Known as The Arrietty Borrower in Japan, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s feature film debut contains many of the fantastical features of Studio Ghibli, but lacks the magic of his masters’ work. tells a variation of a story that is common to all cultures, that of tiny people living alongside average human beings, in this case “borrowing” what they need and trying to go unnoticed. A “borrower” named Arrietty befriends a human named Shō after he spends the summer at his mother’s childhood home. British writer Mary Norton’s adaptation, The Borrowers feels a bit light on a story level, but this is one case where the production elevates the material. yonebayashi and his team use perspective in a way that makes the ordinary seem extraordinary, giving the entire experience the sparkle of a classic fairy tale. it’s packed with imaginative imagery, even if it sometimes seems to overwhelm the story and characters.
15. porco rosso (1992)
One of the few films in the Ghibli catalog that could legitimately be called an action/adventure, this cult hit became somewhat famous in American circles thanks to Michael Keaton’s flawless voice work as the title character in the US. uu. turn. Who better to voice a cynical, world-weary WWI pilot who turns out to have become an anthropomorphic pig? Based on a manga by Miyazaki and directed by the master, this is the story of Marco Pagot, who was cursed and turned into a “red pig”. Porco Rosso is one of Ghibli’s most memorable characters, a classic adventure movie archetype who could have been played by Humphrey Bogart in his day. he is loyal to those who are loyal to him and does not tolerate injustice. the scenes of porco rosso flying high over the sea are some of the most technically impressive of this era of ghibli. In the end, this movie has kept such a loyal audience that Miyazaki was talking about making a sequel earlier this decade, though the current state of ghibli’s flux makes that seem unlikely.
14. when marnie was there (2014)
technically, this is still studio ghibli’s last film, made just before a hiatus was announced and hayao miyazaki’s retirement (which has since been reversed, as he’s reportedly working on a ghibli film). return call how do you live?). It’s a perfect elegy for Ghibli, reflecting the themes that have fascinated the company for 35 years. the film is essentially about embracing the tragedies of the past so that we can move on. Anna is a rare young adult heroine who is openly depressed and unhappy; she talks about how she hates herself in a way that fiction doesn’t usually allow, but everything changes when she is forced to move to a coastal community after suffering from asthma. attack. Lured into a mysterious mansion said to be haunted, she essentially befriends a ghost. or she? As the emotions of the final act mount, it’s hard to separate what one feels about these characters specifically and what generations of movie lovers have felt about Studio Ghibli in general.
13. whisper of the heart (1995)
Fans of this movie are probably singing “country roads” by now. Classical melody plays a major role in this 1995 coming-of-age tale that was actually the first Ghibli production not directed by Miyazaki or Takahata. Yoshifumi Kondō took on the duties of what would be his only film before his death in 1998. It’s a simpler story than the films Ghibli is most famous for, centering on a 14-year-old girl named Shizuku who becomes fascinated by her image. from a boy who happened to check out the same books she checked out of the library. Mixing fantasy with coming-of-age tropes, Whisper is a deeply empathetic film, a great example of how, even when it came to human nature, the people of Ghibli could find magic. It doesn’t speak ill of its audience, presenting Shizuku as a more complex young teenager than even other Ghibli films tend to do. he treats his subject matter with respect and grace, which is why he has developed such a loyal following over the years. one has to wonder how kondō would have shaped the animation had she not suffered an aneurysm at such a young age.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
many of miyazaki’s favorite themes, from fighting violence to female empowerment and sacrifice, are integrated into one of her most detailed visual works. The design of the titular castle is impressive, a remarkable creation in Ghibli’s history, and every image seems almost full of visual flourishes. There are stills in this movie packed with detail, almost crammed, but Miyazaki brings his fairy tale vision to what people love about Ghibli while he maintains one of the most strident messages of it. Miyazaki reportedly opposed the war in Iraq and made this film in response: a story of how violence shapes the landscape and can destroy the human soul. Some of these themes are handled with more nuance in Miyazaki’s better films, but there’s no denying the visual prowess on display here.
11. ponyo (2008)
miyazaki’s eighth ghibli film came at an interesting time for the company: the studio became as famous internationally as it ever would be after the success of spirited away at the oscars and the disney dubs of its catalog in the last years. Ghibli suddenly became a household name outside of Japan, with many of its hits from this era resonating with an older, fantasy-driven (howl, mononoke, energetic) audience. so it was interesting to see miyazaki do what is arguably ghibli’s most childish film to date in this variation on the little mermaid, starring a goldfish named ponyo who wishes to become a human girl after meeting a boy called sosuke. This is a wonderful entry point into the world of Studio Ghibli for very young viewers, with enough bright colors to keep young children entertained and a story poignant enough to make their parents smile, too. This is also a time in Ghibli’s history when it was returning to hand-drawn animation, and it’s easy to see the human touch here. Miyazaki is said to have enjoyed drawing the sea and waves, and you can feel his heartbeat throughout much of this beautiful film.
10. the wind rises (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki has reportedly been working on a new movie, but this one was conceived and designed as his last one before he retired, and is certainly the work of a master looking back on his career. He is, after all, about a perfectionist, a World War II aircraft designer, seeking what was once considered impossible: flying above the clouds in what one character calls “beautiful dreams.” Setting his story in the years before World War II adds weight to Miyazaki’s brooding vision. after all, we know these dreams will turn into nightmares, and miyazaki was criticized one of the few times in his career for not making this film anti-war enough. so much of ghibli’s catalog has been so blatantly anti-violence that this is a somewhat myopic reading of this film, and discounts the ambition of his story and the beauty of his imagery. Miyazaki’s latest film contains some of his most amazing compositions, alternately realistic and fantastical by him. it is about a dreamer who is forced to be realistic. in other words, it is also about the creator of it.
9. only yesterday (1991)
Made in 1991 but not released in the US until 2016, Only Yesterday is a delicate gem, a moving dramatic work from Takahata that lacks some of the fantasy elements that often define ghibli for casual viewers, but is one of the best examples in the catalog of the profound and unfailing humanism of the studio. Takahata’s films convey poignant human emotion in quietly devastating ways, and it is his compassion for his characters that allows the emotion of this story to grip you. At its core, it’s a simple story: a woman living in Tokyo goes to visit the countryside and reminisces about her childhood on the train ride. Takahata’s gift of character allows the protagonist’s memories of her to break stereotypes and feel organic and true. Taeko asks how much of the child version is left in her and if she has fulfilled or betrayed that child’s dreams. in the end, her film serves as a reminder of how we are shaped by the events of our lives and how our past can sometimes feel like it wasn’t that long ago. maybe it was yesterday.
8. kiki’s delivery service (1989)
children’s movies have a habit of leaning too heavily into vulnerability or individuality. their children need to be saved or they need to fend for themselves. Few movies blend the two better than one of Ghibli’s biggest early hits, the story of a young witch who finds her way in the world. As Kiki makes friends along her journey, Miyazaki and his team deftly capture that in-between time when a young person is forging an identity but at the same time reliant on adults. this is a film that understands that empowerment does not have to extinguish vulnerability, a message that is difficult to convey in any form of fiction, especially in a genre of children’s fantasy film that generally traffics in simple ideas. studio ghibli doesn’t go for simple ideas, imbuing even what appears to be a simple children’s story like this with a complexity rarely seen in fantasy fiction.
7. princess mononoke (1997)
Representing studio ghibli at its angriest, this entry is definitely not for the younger kids in the family (in fact it’s the only one rated pg-13 in the US) and was one of the top international advances for the company. . At first, Mononoke feels like a fantasy adventure film, but it is embedded in the story of man’s relationship with the natural world, recalling recurring themes throughout Studio Ghibli’s history. how does humanity coexist with the world that has been here long before? the film opens with a disturbing scene where a boar-like creature has been infected by a bullet. the invention of man has disturbed the natural balance of things. But this only hints at the depth of storytelling and visual wonder in Mononoke, arguably Ghibli’s most complex narrative work. it’s miyazaki in a deeply philosophical way, not making a didactic message film about caring for the earth but asking questions about agency, human nature, and moral complexity. the fact that there is something higher in this list only speaks to the strength of the catalog in question.
6. nausicaa of the valley of the wind (1984)
technically, this is the film that led to the founding of studio ghibli, so some may argue that it doesn’t “count”. however much of the team behind it would go on to be incorporated into ghibli which has been rebranded in the relaunch with their logo and above all it is so clearly a piece with the rest of ghibli’s output. in fact, watching nausicaa will give young viewers or those new to this world a perfect introduction to what is to come. here we have the theme of the destruction of the natural world, how we relate to those who are different from us, and even some of the visual motifs that would repeat themselves for the next three decades. Nausicaa’s part seems a bit clunky now, one can only imagine how 10’s ghibli would remake it, but that’s part of its charm. it’s an old-fashioned adventure tale, and it laid the groundwork for the masterpieces to come.
5. the tale of princess kaguya (2013)
“please! let me stay a little longer! a little more, to feel the joy of living in this place!” no other film in the catalog vibrates with the same deep emotion as isao takahata’s latest film, possibly his masterpiece. A clear culmination of themes she had explored throughout her career, this is a film that seems simple at first: an old-fashioned fairy tale about a magical girl who grows up quickly. Only two hours later, when you’ve fully experienced her emotions, will you truly appreciate what Takahata accomplishes here. With sparse watercolor imagery that is almost free from the visual flourish of the company’s earlier works, Takahata focuses his audience on his subjects rather than just his art. it’s like a beautiful musical composition for a single instrument: you can hear every tearing note. in the end, it is a story about nothing less than the transitive nature of human existence: we are all here only for a short time, and we should all feel the joy of living in this place.
4. grave of the fireflies (1988)
isao takahata’s adaptation of akiyuki nosaka’s short story of the same name may be the most “not exactly for little ones” film in the entire ghibli catalog, and yet its anti-war message is something to be considered by all demographic groups. As bleak as the animation gets, this is the heartwarming story of Seita and Setsuko, two brothers in Kobe, Japan, during the final months of World War II. they lose their mother early in the film after a bombing and face starvation, disease, and worse as the world around them nearly falls apart. it starts with seita starving and then loops back to show us how we got there; You won’t find talking cats or moving castles in this one. You will meet two of the most unforgettable animated characters in history. Takahata does something filmmakers have done for generations by detailing the human cost of war, but he does it in a way that live-action movies can’t. the animation trains the viewer to expect magic, but none comes for setsuko and seita, making their tragic end all the more disturbing.
3. castle in the sky (1986)
Years later, it’s fun to see what is technically the first studio ghibli title and see it as a kind of cinematic overture to things to come. There are so many elements of this film that would be repeated in later works, from the moving castle to the character design and even elements of Joe Hisaishi’s impressive score. the story is quite simple: a boy and a girl try to find a magic crystal and a castle in the sky, but it is just the skeleton of the visual compositions that would be impressive even if they were released today. Not only is it easy to tell how much this movie influenced what Studio Ghibli would go on to create, but you can see its DNA in everything from the Iron Giant to Pixar. A lot of animated movies call themselves magical, but this one really lives up to that word.
2. my neighbor totoro (1988)
every parent should pick a day and have their little kids watch my neighbor totoro. they will never be the same. The gateway drug for a Studio Ghibli addiction, this is quite simply one of the most charming and hilarious kids’ movies ever made. it’s a movie that can be watched over and over again, losing none of its power to inspire awe. At its core, it’s a simple story of an imaginary creature discovered by two girls dealing with the emotional stress of a sick mother and relocation. How we use fantasy to deal with reality has always been a topic of children’s entertainment, but Miyazaki and Ghibli don’t see such fantasy as mere escapism. they see it as essential to human life, something beyond our control but more essential than mere imagination. and totoro remains one of the most iconic characters in modern animation. He has taken on a life much larger than a single movie, appearing on Ghibli merchandise for decades. after you fall in love with this movie, you will understand why.
1. spirited away (2001)
In the two decades since its release, Studio Ghibli’s greatest film has become more than just an animated hit. Spirited Away, the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro’s journey to her own spirit-filled wonderland after moving to a new village, has become a modern classic. People hold it to beloved Disney animated films in a way that makes it feel more like a part of cultural history than anything released this millennium. why? distills everything we love about studio ghibli into a single experience. First, it doesn’t speak ill of its audience, allowing young viewers to legitimately feel scarred by some of its disturbing visions. second, it features a stubborn but vulnerable female lead. no animation studio comes close in the department of empowering stories for young women. third, it embraces fantasy in a way that makes it feel as essential as breathing, not simply escapism. finally, it contains art on a visual level that rivals any animated film. you can take spirited away frames and hang them on your wall, and yet it’s never simply an exercise in style. It contains everything we love about Ghibli, from its deep empathy for human frailty to its powerful message of our need for imaginative and inspiring travel.
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