Studio Ghibli movies are close to the hearts of many, and it's not hard to see why. The Japanese film studio has created some of the best anime flicks of the past four decades, and has become synonymous with anime for Western audiences.
There are some Ghibli movies you're likely to have heard of already – My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps – but if you're looking for the very best of Ghibli, or want to know how your personal favorite compares with the rest of the studio's filmography, we have the guide for you.
We did an internal poll across the TechRadar team to rank every single Studio Ghibli movie ever made, from 1984 to present day. We're starting with our top pick – which you can see below – and then count down from there to the lesser-knowns and lesser-loved, but all of the films on this list are probably worthy of your time. See this guide as just a way to prioritize which films you watch first.
it's worth mentioning that Netflix now holds the rights to almost every Ghibli movie worldwide, minus the US, Japan and Canada – though those of you in the US will be looking to watch them on HBO Max instead when the TV streaming service launches later this year.
For a full run-down of where and when you can find Ghibli films to stream in your region, check out this page here: where to watch Studio Ghibli movies from anywhere.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away is often the first Studio Ghibli to come up in conversation, and for good reason. This powerful tale – of a human girl who travels to the spirit world, and is contracted to work in a mystical bathhouse in the hope of returning to her normal life – is undoubtedly a landmark piece of animation, and one of the greatest films of all time.
The cast of characters are truly unforgettable, from the spider-limbed coal master and his tiny army of soot sprites, to the toads and spirits that frequent the bathhouse – with the central character of Chihiro seeming smaller and more helpless the larger and more indecipherable the world around her becomes.
It’s truly a movie that shows off 2D animation at its best, even two decades after its release – as well as showcasing the incredible mix of empathy and imagination that the famed Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki has brought to the cinematic landscape. Just watch it already.
2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Next up in our list is that family classic, My Neighbor Totoro. In usual Ghibli fashion, it centers on a young girl – two, in fact – encountering the supernatural world.
The Totoro of the title is the ‘king of the forest’, a woodland spirit with a massive smile, adorable whiskers, and cuddly body that seemed made for tie-in plushies (which at least one TechRadar writer admitted to owning). When a family moves into an old, seemingly haunted house in rural Japan, two sisters quickly stumble across this Totoro and the magical forces enlivening the landscape around them.
It’s a heartfelt film, and one that beautifully counterpoints the pain of separation within a family – the girls’ mother being ill in the hospital, and the youngest sibling getting lost in the surrounding fields trying to find her way there – with the joy of loved ones finding each other in miraculous ways. It’s just 90 minutes long, too, making for a breezy and uplifting watch.
3. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Kiki’s Delivery Service is an utterly charming piece of animation, following the fortunes of a young witch, Kiki – complete with animal familiar and flying broomstick – who travels to a bustling city in the hope of forging her own path.
Despite the occult overtones, Kiki is mostly interested in using her witchy powers as a personal courier for baked goods and children’s toys – and becomes central to a rescue operation when an airship demonstration goes wrong.
As a whimsical take on a coming-of-age story, and one that deals sensitively with the pressures of expectation and independence, it’s a wonderful film for all.
4. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Another classic of the Ghibli oeuvre, Howl’s Moving Castle is packed with magical elements that make the Star Wars movies look positively mundane.
The film follows a young girl (seeing a pattern here?) who’s cursed by a witch to lose her youth – and finds employment in the travelling mechanical castle of a vain wizard without a heart (Howl), powered by an adorable fire demon (Calicifer).
With shapeshifting henchmen, a maniacal witch, and a dreadful military conflict the film’s characters find themselves caught up in, this is a film that ties the horrors of war and industry to a loss of identity and faith in ourselves – and then naturally, beautifully, finds a way to restore them. It’s a love story, too, if that sells it to you.
5. Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind is the first Ghibli movie, and also one of the studio’s best. It takes place in a world devastated by war, now turned largely to desert, with only a few patches of forest and greenland left.
Princess Nausicaä is a dedicated explorer and scientist, who takes to the skies in a glider and attempts to discern how to restore nature to its former glory – with thrilling villains, gorgeously rendered wildlife, and a thoughtfully environmental message at its core.
While American dubs can often feel disconnected from the emotions of the characters onscreen, you’ll find that there’s an incredible voiceover cast here, with Uma Thurman (Kill Bill), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: Picard) and even a young Shia LeBeouf (Lawless).
The film also features animation work from a young Hideaki Anno, who went on to create the iconic Neon Genesis Evangelion anime – and is worth watching for his incredible molten warrior set piece alone.
6. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Combining the ecological message of Nausicaä with the world of nature spirits, Princess Mononoke is one of Ghibli’s more mature films. There are the requisite cute characters that Ghibli is famous for (those tree spirits are adorable), but even the cute stuff is nestled among some pretty heavy themes and moments of shocking violence.
That can make Princess Mononoke a difficult film for people more used to the whimsical side of Ghibli, but if you persevere and put aside your preconceptions about what a Ghibli film should be, you’ll be rewarded with one of the studio’s very best films.
Set in feudal Japan, the story focuses on a young prince called Ashitaka, who becomes embroiled in a war between resource-hungry humans and the gods of a forest that humans are destroying. During his adventure he meets a wolf-riding human girl, San, also known as Princess Mononoke, who was raised by the wolf goddess Moro.
San hates the humans, the humans fear the gods, and Ashitaka is stuck in the middle. It gets complicated – and at times very odd – and you could argue it’s a bit like a violent version of Fern Gully. But it’s so much more than that, too, with stunning visuals and a powerful message behind it all. There’s a reason it smashed Japan’s box office record, keeping its crown until 2001 when it was beaten by another Ghibli masterpiece… Spirited Away.
7. Porco Rosso (1992)
“I’d rather be a pig than a facist.”
That one line tells you more about Porco Rosso than anything else – a heavily politicized animation that sits somewhere between fairytale fantasy and war film. It tells the story of Marco Rossolini, AKA Porco Rosso, or ‘The Red Pig’. An ex-World War I Italian fighter-pilot hotshot, Rossolini received a mysterious curse that turns him into an anthropomorphized pig – hence that ‘Porco’ moniker.
It’s a both wonderful and bizarre Ghibli tale, straddling the line between historical drama and myth. Porco is one of the most memorable of Studio Ghibli’s large catalogue of great characters, and the film’s masterful pastiche of hawkish aviation-focused war films makes it a unique movie in Studio Ghibli’s already-eccentric oeuvre.
8. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is undoubtedly the most beautifully-animated movie in this list. Using an illustrative, paint-brush style, it stands out boldly from the traditions of modern animation and is unafraid to let minimally-drawn sketches and colors take center stage.
The thumb-sized Princess Kaguya is discovered living in a bamboo shoot, and taken home by a tree-cutter who raises her as his own child. She quickly (and we mean quickly) grows into a young woman of both grace and unburdened joy, but their simple lifestyle is upended when the tree-cutter moves his family to the capital, in search of a noble lifestyle more befitting his mystical daughter.
Money comes with its own troubles, of course, including the attention of various nobleman suitors, and a host of new rules for how noble ladies are meant to behave. It’s sadder than some films in this list – with an emotional heft aided by the incredible strengths of its animation, and the convincing relationships sketched throughout the film – but is very much worth the journey.
9. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Grave of the Fireflies is slightly infamous as the Ghibli movie we’re often told not to watch, given the difficult subject matter.
Set during the final months of the Second World War, it’s a devastating tale of pain, suffering, and survival, as two siblings try not to starve while their family – and country – is rocked by the global conflict.
It’s hard to believe this film came out the same year as the heartwarming My Neighbor Totoro – and is one to watch only if you’re ready to be moved to tears. It’s not available to stream on Netflix, though, unlike most on this list, so you’ll have to find a rental or purchase elsewhere, if not find a 4K Blu-ray copy.
10. Only Yesterday (1991)
When people think of Ghibli movies, they probably think of fantastical imagery, or magic of some kind. Only Yesterday, however, is the most grounded Ghibli film on this list. In it, a Tokyo-based woman takes a trip into the countryside, harking back to her childhood in the process. This is a film about the realities of adulthood, and the disconnect between our dreams and where we end up in the world.
Sure, it doesn't feature a talking cat or any magic, but it's perhaps the most mature Ghibli film in subject matter. Only Yesterday can be a deeply melancholy film at times, especially if you're in your late twenties (ok, early thirties) and wondering what the hell you did with your life. We can't stress how underrated this film really is.
11. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Schoolgirl Shizuku is an aspiring but frustrated writer who, after meeting a handsome (but bizarre) talking cat – the same one that appears in the next movie on our list – pours everything into improving her writing, even at the cost of her schoolwork.
Shizuku goes through the kind of creative anguish you might expect from someone a lot older, which makes this an interesting film among the Ghibli back catalogue.
Really, it's a coming-of-age story about self-actualization. Thematically, it's got a little crossover with Only Yesterday, but the presence of the talking cat makes it feel more like a traditional Ghibli film. They'd certainly make a great Ghibli double bill.
12. The Cat Returns (2002)
After saving a cat from being hit by a truck, high school student Haru is offered the cat's paw in marriage. It turns out that the cat she saved is the prince of the Cat Kingdom, and her mixed replies are taken as a yes. Not actually wanting to become a cat princess, Haru enlists the help of Baron, a smooth and well-mannered cat gentleman who knows the true consequences Haru’s marriage will have: she’ll become a cat, trapped in the Cat Kingdom forever.
The Cat Returns isn’t always considered as one of the best Ghibli films out there, but it’s a heartwarming and funny tale that should be on the watchlist of any cat lover.
13. Ponyo (2008)
Ponyo is your classic tale of boy meets goldfish. Sosuke is out for a stroll when he comes across a goldfish princess – who he charmingly calls Ponyo – that wants to become human rather than continue living underwater.
Ponyo’s father is insistent that she can’t become human, but the princess begins to transform the more she gets to know Sosuke and the human world he lives in. The story touches on the topics of humanity and our relationship with the natural world – and feature some adorable animation too.
14. When Marnie Was There (2014)
Young girl Anna goes to visit family on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, but comes across a mysterious mansion and an even-more-mysterious girl named Marnie. As the two girls become friends, and dreams start to blend with reality, Anna learns more about her extended family and the town she’s relocated to for the summer.
When Marnie Was There is especially bittersweet by being the final feature film produced under the Studio Ghibli label before the studio went on hiatus – though another film (How Do You Live?) is due to release within the next couple of years.
15. Castle in the Sky (1986)
A castle! In the sky! You don’t get much more fantastical than this early Ghibli flick, which features as many robots, airships, and precious amulets as you could ask for in a steampunk adventure – also directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
There’s a good dash of magic throughout alongside the more mechanical aspects of this film, and you’re sure to see some recognizable iconography, given its lasting influence in the decades after release.
16. My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999)
Films of heartbreaking beauty are all well and fine, but if you’re after a simpler animated comedy, My Neighbors The Yamadas could be the right fit.
Using a more comic strip style than traditional Ghibli films, My Neighbors the Yamadas is broken up into several small vignettes, rather than one 90-minute story. The events are quite domestic – family arguments, losing a child in a supermarket, and the like – but with a heart and simplicity that’s hard to capture with the larger casts and globe-trotting stories of other films in this list.
17. The Wind Rises (2013)
Another WW2 film, but one that approaches the conflict from a more… appreciative angle. The Wind Rises is a biopic of the engineer and designer Jiro Horikoshi, who created the designs for Mitsubishi A5M fighter aircraft deployed by Japan’s air force during the war.
It’s a curiously quiet movie, largely focusing on the pensive hours Horikoshi spent daydreaming of flight, rather than the moments of conflict the airplanes inevitably find themselves in. The film’s short – but impactful – earthquake animation helps to make this a worthwhile watch too.
18. Arrietty (2010)
A retelling of the English classic children’s book The Borrowers, Arriety gives the story a uniquely Ghibli flavor. The story follows a young boy called Shō who discovers a small girl – and we’re talking small enough to more than comfortably live in the walls of a house – called Arriety who lives around Shō’s family, secretly taking food and other items for her tiny family.
Unlike many other Ghibli tales, the story for Arriety is small in nature, focusing on the relationship between Shō and the movie’s title character. It’s a charming film with interesting characters, but it’s unlikely to be your absolute favorite from the studio.
19. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
From Up on Poppy Hill was the second feature from Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, who helmed the film while his father wrote the screenplay. It follows a group of students at boarding school who renovate their school clubhouse, but then have to defend it from the industrial motivations of a local businessman.
It's not a hard-hitting movie, by any means, but has a sweetness and heart that should make it an untaxing watch on a spare evening.
20. Pom Poko (1994)
Fond of raccoons? So was Pom Poko’s director, Isao Takahata – which resulted in this quirky animation feature, about the lives of a community of raccoons banding together to stop residential developments for pesky humans from ruining their home.
What’s notable about Pom Poko is its mix of animation styles, jumping between the comic strip style of My Neighbors The Yamadas and more realistic depictions of the raccoons – as well as something a bit in between. A silly, if thoughtful story of community and coming together in the face of adversity – that may make you look at ‘trash pandas’ a bit differently.
21. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
This fantasy adventure is based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of short stories of the same name – offering a world of dragons, mages and swordsmen struggling to keep balance between the forces of life and death.
Earthsea was also directed by Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, who was initially brought in as a consultant but ended up helming the film (against his father’s wishes). It feels like a debut feature – which it is – with some thin plotting preventing the film from reaching the heights of other Ghibli titles. One worth a watch nonetheless.
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