Studio Ghibli is the greatest animation studio in the world. It is certainly the most acclaimed. Founded in Japan in the mid-1980s by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, along with producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli remains one of the most influential and beloved anime studios. They have made films across many genres, from modern fairy tales to Japanese folkloric myths, from comedy sketches to wartime dramas. Their filmography is a diverse and highly respected group of films. All should be seen.
Studio Ghibli are best known for their fantasy films, like MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988) and SPIRITED AWAY (2001), the latter of which won the studio an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Worldwide Totoro is a recognisable and beloved character, as well as the logo for the company. Films by Studio Ghibli are available in almost every country and are beloved by generations of children and adults. For anybody, of any age, their films come recommended by the large numbers of people who adore their artistry and profoundly humanist sentiments.
With 20 complete feature films and 1 television film, there is no shortage of Studio Ghibli rankings, all with unique tastes and biases. Nevertheless, this list is another attempt to do the impossible: place a bunch of great films in some kind of order. For the sake of fairness, this list will only include proper Studio Ghibli films. There are no co-productions, like THE RED TURTLE (2016), or pre-Ghibli works by Miyazaki or Takahata, such as NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984) and HORUS, PRINCE OF THE SUN (1968). This is just the pure Ghibli canon. So let’s get this started.
21. TALES FROM EARTHSEA (2006)
Ghibli’s only failure is TALES FROM EARTHSEA. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao, his work infamously left his father unimpressed. Whilst TALES FROM EARTHSEA is not a bad film by any stretch, it comes across as a failed imitation of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. The source material by Ursula K. Le Guin is reduced to a series of fantasy clichés, rather than an expansion of the unique book series. It’s wholly uninspired and just somewhat okay. Which sadly means it is easily the worst film Ghibli ever made.
20. FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (2011)
Goro Miyazaki’s only other Ghibli film thus far released is FROM UP ON POPPY HILL. It’s a clear improvement from TALES FROM EARTHSEA and has a lot of heart to it. The story follows a group of teenagers attempting to save their school’s clubhouse from demolition. The script is slight and the stakes are relatively low, but FROM UP ON POPPY HILL is a very pleasant watch. It suffers from some convoluted twists and turns, but ultimately remains a solid and endearing film.
19. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)
Hayao Miyazaki’s weakest film is HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. While many people love this fantasy adventure and it remains a mainstay of Ghibli’s most cherished works, it is also a messy picture. The first major Ghibli work to be released after Ghibli reached western mass appeal, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is an essential part of a lot of childhoods. Yet ultimately it is all of Miyazaki’s fantasy tropes squeezed into a movie that has no breathing room whatsoever. It is fun and entertaining no doubt, but Miyazaki and Ghibli have delivered much more consistent and less rushed products.
18. THE CAT RETURNS (2002)
The lightest of Ghibli’s post-1990s work is THE CAT RETURNS. It is a children’s film through and through. Yet like any Ghibli work, one can be enchanted by it even as a grumpy adult. THE CAT RETURNS is simple and beautiful and childish. It has nothing that makes it stand out amidst so many animated masterworks, but it’s hard to knock it when it’s such a pleasant experience.
17. POM POKO (1994)
Isao Takahata was a very political director, evident even in his 1960s work. POM POKO is Takahata at his most activist heavy. It is an environmentalist film, which is relatively common in Ghibli’s output. It draws heavily upon Japanese folklore, which amusingly extends to including scrotums as an important recurring magical element. Takahata has made many films with more power and potency than POM POKO which, while very direct, doesn’t have the emotional bursts Takahata is best known for. So while POM POKO is a very commendable work, it is pretty far down in the Ghibli canon.
16. PONYO (2008)
Miyazaki’s PONYO was his return to films for really young children. As a Japanese retelling of The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki gets plenty of opportunity to use his imagination in service of the ocean. PONYO is a delightful little film and one of Ghibli’s most accessible works. Sadly it is limited, as the plot seems increasingly unimportant as events get larger. Nevertheless, PONYO should put a smile on everybody’s face.
15. MY NEIGHBOURS THE YAMADAS (1999)
Basically a series of short comedy sketches, MY NEIGHBOURS THE YAMADAS is a rather strange Ghibli product. It is not a fantasy work, nor necessarily a children’s film. Instead it is just a series of funny shorts presented with a minimalist animation style. There’s nothing particularly impressive about MY NEIGHBOURS THE YAMADAS, but it is a lot of fun and that’s very important.
14. ARRIETTY (2010)
ARRIETTY was the directorial debut of long-time Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Instantly Yonebayashi proved himself, with a very solid effort. ARRIETTY is literally a small-scale fantasy film with a lot of heart. It brings nothing particularly new to the Ghibli table, but it does entertain and it does have some real style to it.
13. OCEAN WAVES (1993)
Made as a TV movie, OCEAN WAVES was essentially put together by the Ghibli b-team as a way to practice their craft. Yet OCEAN WAVES has so much to offer. It is a very simple high school drama, but resonates due to the realism and importance placed on little events. There’s nothing flashy to OCEAN WAVES but the emotional arcs are very powerful. It’s a deeply profound human movie, even though it was made as just a side project. When Ghibli churn out this quality just as an aside, it shows how dedicated they are to their craft.
12. KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)
One might be tempted to call KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE the purest children’s film in existence, but unbelievably Ghibli have topped it so many times. Everything about KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE is likeable and enjoyable. For children, it is a whimsical film with a good heart. For adults, it is the most delightful of experiences, one that reduces us to our youth. All the struggles in the film are small and trivial, but the tiny fantasy world and beautiful design makes every moment seem important. This is a masterpiece of children’s cinema and it is a testament to Ghibli that this is so far down the list!
11. PORCO ROSSO (1992)
PORCO ROSSO may well be Ghibli’s strangest film. The bizarre premise follows an Italian pilot turned into a pig and fighting air pirates in a post-WW1 setting. It is filled with well-defined characters and draws strongly on anti-fascist sentiments and empowering flight sequences. Nothing is quite sane about PORCO ROSSO, but all the insanity is treated with respect and presented as normal. It’s a very odd film and yet one of Ghibli’s most intriguing and conceptual.
10. WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995)
WHISPER OF THE HEART was the first Studio Ghibli to be directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, who died sadly a few years later, WHISPER OF THE HEART finds a magical place between fantasy and the real. It is a truly emotional experience and one filled with dreams and aspirations, and encouragement that we should try to find our own. As it feels like neither the work of Miyazaki nor Takahata, it stands by itself. All of which leaves WHISPER OF THE HEART a one-off powerful event of a film.
9. CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)
Studio Ghibli’s very first film was CASTLE IN THE SKY. Instantly it set Ghibli up to be a place for talent to flourish. The film looks beautiful, the script is inspired and crisp, and the characters are all wonderfully conceived. While Ghibli would later perfect the fantasy formula present here, CASTLE IN THE SKY has a lot of raw power that allows it to smooth over any occasional clunky plotting. It is a real animated gem and a strong start for Studio Ghibli.
8. THE WIND RISES (2013)
Miyazaki’s most recent film is THE WIND RISES. Unusually for him, he chose not to create another fantasy film. Instead he went for a more personal tale of an aeroplane designer in the first half of the 20th century. While the story unfolds as a giant piece on Japan’s development and change across the decades, it also presents a story that Miyazaki might see as relevant to himself. The story of a man pondering his creations is something Miyazaki must have related to. THE WIND RISES is therefore a fantastic personal statement and an incredibly moving ode to beauty amidst despair.
7. MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988)
The quintessential Ghibli film, MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO is the film which Studio Ghibli made their name with. Like almost no other film ever made, MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO so completely embodies the child’s mind and view on the world. It is a story without antagonists or really even a plot. Very little actually happens. But through a story of great imagination, MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO shows children a way to confront the world and live life. The greatest achievement of Studio Ghibli is that they never patronise children and they ultimately better everyone who watches their films.
6. ONLY YESTERDAY (1991)
Isao Takahata’s ONLY YESTERDAY is one of the most meditative works in the Ghibli filmography. The story is told across two timeframes, as a woman looks back on her life. Every moment is precious in this film, as memory and time create the worlds we see. Takahata was always interested in change and Japanese culture, so this is his ode to a country changing and adapting. It is a tiny but profound piece of Ghibli cinema, often overlooked but moving in its trivialities.
5. WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (2014)
The most recently released Studio Ghibli feature is WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE is a fusion of Miyazaki-style fantasy and Takahata-style social realism. It is the most perfect fusion of everything Ghibli stands for. This is a film of great emotional power, about the inner turmoil young people have. Yet through a slight fantasy angle, the story shows us how people are able to better themselves. WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE is an emotional work that concludes Ghibli’s long run of films with something truly special.
4. THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)
Isao Takahata’s final work, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA is the most ambitious and uncommercial thing Studio Ghibli ever made. Clocking in way over two hours, animated with charcoal lines and almost no backgrounds, and based on a 10th-century Japanese tale without any attempt to modernise it, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA is a miraculous feat of artistry over everything else. The film remains quite possibly the most beautiful animated film ever created, both visually and in soul. It is a wonderful piece on what it means to live and love, told with the most modest of tools. It leaves you weeping and yet never has humanity seemed more miraculous.
3. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)
The most popular Ghibli film is also one of their best. SPIRITED AWAY is a classic for good reason. Every minute of this fantasy adventure is perfectly played and the skill displayed by Miyazaki makes his work stand unparalleled in the world of animation. As a film for children, SPIRITED AWAY is so pure in heart and well told that it works on every level. For adults, all those things still apply, yet the depth and breadth of the work only grow on repeat viewings. SPIRITED AWAY is the greatest animated film of the 21st century and it is hard to imagine it ever being beaten.
2. PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)
Despite all the superlative acclaim of SPIRITED AWAY, Miyazaki’s greatest film is PRINCESS MONONOKE, a film which is just a notch higher in quality. This is the darkest film of Miyazaki’s career, confronting warfare and ecological disaster with a nihilism rare to see in animated cinema. It is a profound look at the changing social contexts of history, as mankind developed more weapons to kill each other and destroy our planet. Beyond the message, PRINCESS MONONOKE is also an incredibly exciting adventure, with Miyazaki’s most brutal action and largest scale. It is a feat of animation that no other director has ever accomplished, and remains one of the greatest films ever made.
1. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)
There are many possible answers for best Ghibli film, as there are so many masterpieces beloved by so many. However, it is hard to name a film, of any kind, more devastating than GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. This wartime drama is quite possibly the saddest film ever made. The tears do not stop by the end. However the real genius of this film is that it has more than just sadness. The unique animation style, of brown lines and grim colour, lends itself to something more experimental. Here is a film of reality that shows us happiness within the confines of a tragedy that envelopes everything. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES is one of the most potent films ever made, bringing Ghibli’s consistent anti-war message to its most logical conclusion. Yet it never forgets that children want to be children and if you want to save the world, they need to be saved too. It asks us to confront the realities we create for our children. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES is cynical of humanity’s past and hopeful of humanity’s future. Maybe. But whatever the case, it is one of the fiercest works of animation ever made and a masterpiece truly like no other.
With 21 films, of which at least two thirds are great, any ranking of Studio Ghibli is rather trivial. However, as we can see, they have a remarkable consistency and a constant need to create meaningful, emotive stories. They have new films coming out in the near-future, let’s hope this wonderful studio can go on producing masterpieces for many more years.