Screenshot: 'Spirited Away,' Studio Ghibli
Every Studio Ghibli Movie Ranked by Their Ghibliness
Whether Ponyo makes you feel like a child again or Kiki's Delivery Service reignites your creativity, Studio Ghibli movies can be cinema's weighted blanket.
Few names in cinema carry prestige like Studio Ghibli. Their output is miraculously cohesive in its singular artistic sensibility. Instilled from its three founders, Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata, were principles of storytelling that gave the studio a reputation for comforting, gentle experiences. Miyazaki himself often speaks about the idea of “Ma,” meaning “space.” The auteur believes in leaving space between big events in the story as to avoid the film descending into chaos. The works of Ghibli abide by this law to varying degrees.
The perfect Ghibli movie is as relaxing as it is inspiring. Ma doesn’t mean to have an event-less story, it’s about creating something so resonant that the audience needs time to process it. The comfort of a Ghibli film is derived from the balance between empty space and emotional discovery.
The year 2023 will go down in the Ghibli history books as it will see the release of How Do You Live?, the first film from Hayao Miyazaki since 2013. A lot changed in those 10 years. Miyazaki went into — then swiftly out of — retirement; his long-time friend Isao Takahata passed away; and the studio almost closed for good. Before How Do You Live? brings Miyazaki’s work into a new decade, let's look back on the history of this singular studio and rank their films based on their comforting vibes.
23. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Its inclusion at the bottom of this list is not to discredit Grave of the Fireflies as essential cinema. Its commentary on the horrors of a country at war hit with the impact of an asteroid and will leave the twist of a knife lingering in your stomach. Grave of the Fireflies is worthy of being held at the pinnacle of most conversations about Ghibli, about cinema, about storytelling in general, but the feeling it thrusts upon you is not one you’ll want to re-experience.
22. Earwig and the Witch (2020)
The latest Ghibli movie looks to take on a more modern approach, being the only film in the entire catalog to be completely CGI. Unfortunately, director Goro Miyazaki does not take full advantage of modern technology. The animation is plasticky and rigid, the character models more akin to cheaply made mobile game characters than expressive hand-drawn people. The experience is unnerving compared to the sweeping visuals of the majority of Ghibli films.
21. Tales From Earthsea (2006)
This high fantasy tale somehow manages to feel less adventurous than Ghibli’s most grounded films. The lack of information given about the protagonist Prince Arren mixed with his lack of personality means the film rests on a dull foundation. The intended effect of crafting a compelling mystery box with details secreted sparsely through the movie is ambitious and structurally interesting, but could so easily go wrong. Tales From Earthsea falls into almost every pitfall it could and by its climax, the characters at the center of the conflict still feel like empty vessels rather than people.
20. Ocean Waves (1993)
Despite being one of the more calming films from Studio Ghibli, Ocean Waves ceases to be much fun. Its attempt at a low-stakes teenage story feels underbaked compared to other Ghibli efforts in a similar vein. In order to pull off slice-of-life character studies, the characters themselves have to be charismatic and engaging. The story of tepid high school crushes surrounding characters lacking much charm doesn’t quite come together, despite typically beautiful animation.
19. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
A story about walking nuclear bombs the size of mountains, and the slow corrosion of the Earth due to humanity's propensity for war, is not what I’d describe as “comfy.” Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind represents a significant milestone for the studio, being their first movie and already carrying with it the Ghibli hallmarks of a female protagonist, anti-war themes and a reverence for the environment. However, Ghibli’s earliest films saw an attempt to grab audiences from within the action-adventure genre, before pivoting to their signature slice-of-life style.
18. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
A theme with Miyazaki’s later work is the manner in which it is fueled by rage. Howl’s Moving Castle was born from his disgust at the U.S. invasion of Iraq and thus takes on a darker tone. Scenes of complete evisceration and unending seas of fire engulf Howl’s Moving Castle. An ongoing war spices the background of the film for the first two-thirds, before the final act when its chaos is unleashed on the characters. Each character brings a completely different energy than the next, and if the entire movie was seeing friction form between Sophie, Calcifer, Markl, and Howl, it would likely be much higher on the list. However, the overly complicated plot gets in the way of the natural banter which made the film such a blast to begin with.
17. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
In terms of atmosphere alone, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the most sparse and airy films Studio Ghibli has ever released. Usually, this would make for one of the most comfortable watches in the catalog. It is not constantly stimulating, the soundtrack is one of Joe Hisaishi’s best and the animation style is completely unique, carrying a singular beauty. However, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya possesses an unerring darkness looming over every scene. Its comments on the place of women in society, the seasonal nature of depression and joy, the corrupting effects of wealth, and the relationship between humanity and heaven all swirl into a gumbo which seems to be saying a million different things in each scene. Isao Takahata’s final masterpiece is worth your time, but is not to be taken lightly.
16. Princess Mononoke (1997)
In what might be the crowning achievement of Miyazaki’s career, the director’s acidic views on war and the nature of humanity come to the surface. Princess Mononoke presents a difficult world to navigate morally. The people of Irontown are a wholesome community, but their leader is obsessed with the destruction of the forest for the sake of expansion and the harvesting of resources. The animals of the forest, driven to the point of white-hot rage by the rifle-wielding humans look to exact revenge. At the center of it all is Ashitaka, an outcast from an ancient tribe who wants to conserve the sanctity of the forest while preserving quality of life for the residents of Irontown. However, the complexity of the story removes it from the top of this list. Being born from frustration at the undying greed of humanity and the disrespect we have for nature makes Princess Mononoke a film for radicalization rather than relaxation.
15. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
As Isao Takahata is compelled to do, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a significant shift in style from his previous film, the colorful and wide-scoped Pom Poko. Experimentalism is at the core of who Takahata is as a creative. Visually, Yamadas completely subverts any audience expectation of what an animated film can look like. There is no attempt to hide the fact that we are watching a series of drawings strung together, the construction lines metaphorically visible in every shot. Rather than feeling rough, this intimate family story feels subversive. This art style allows for more surrealism, more creative imagery, and more fluid transitions. From the opening seconds of the film, the audience’s expectation of realism is completely shattered more harshly than it is for most Ghibli movies, or animated movies in general. My Neighbours The Yamadas may make for a challenging watch for anyone unable to surmount the experimental art style, but those who can are rewarded with a daring, yet warm, string of abstract vignettes depicting companionship, domesticity, and family.
14. Pom Poko (1994)
Being the studio’s most experimental director, one might not expect Isao Takahata to put out an adorable-looking, seemingly young-skewing film about anthropomorphic shapeshifting tanukis. The trope of the anthropomorphic animal movie is one Ghibli tactfully avoids for the most part, let alone Takahata who expresses a more arthouse sensibility. It turns out that the cute aesthetic is a trojan horse for Takahata to explore the cost of industrialization and push boundaries with extraordinarily fluid animation.
Pom Poko takes you through the process of Tokyo’s modernization through the eyes of an animal. From this perspective, it was a manmade disaster. Lines like, “As Tokyo grew, it gnawed the land in random patterns like a huge insect,” make you question the morality of the very ground you stand on. Meanwhile, the film manages to keep a cheerful, almost slapstick tone as the tanukis look to take revenge on the human race. Neither tone outweighs the other, you’re never a few minutes away from being reminded of the effect human progress has on the natural world.
13. When Marnie Was There (2014)
The typical magnetic Ghibli protagonist is made to be compelling through their endless energy, optimism, and charm. Anna, the focus of When Marnie Was There, draws you in with her quietness. Often straight-faced and silent, Anna endures deep self-worth deficiencies simmering just beneath the surface of her calm exterior.
Despite Anna’s journey being projected through luscious animation and a sparse, tender story structure, it doesn’t make enough room for stimulation either. When Marnie Was There works best when in the background of other activities, rather than something to throw on and release the stress of a long work day.
12. The Wind Rises (2013)
Miyazaki’s last movie is easily his most controversial, a controversy born from the rawest expression of his deepest inner conflict. Repeatedly we see the director’s love for aviation, particularly in films like Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky. However, the origins of this love are rooted in his father’s involvement in the creation of Japanese naval craft during World War II.
The Wind Rises details the creation of the Mitsubishi Zero, an engine used in Japanese planes from that very war. Miyazaki’s history of anti-war messaging in his work left similarly-minded fans disappointed in what could be interpreted as a glorification of tools of destruction and conservative values. Admittedly, these interpretations are not unfounded. Scenes of planes drifting through blue skies above trees that glisten in perfect lighting are seen through a rose-tinted lens, overlooking their incredible potential for destruction. Intrinsically and contextually, The Wind Rises is a complex piece.
11. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Another pick from the infancy of Studio Ghibli with an action-adventure flare. Castle in the Sky follows Sheeta, a princess from the fabled Laputa, a floating island said to harbor advanced technology and overwhelming amounts of treasure. She befriends an orphan miner named Pazu, and together they flee pirates and the state army who seek to use her as the key to find Laputa. Of the Ghibli synopses which could be mapped onto a classic Disney tale, Castle in the Sky is the most likely. The almost unrelenting pace of the film as our characters are chased, plan heists, and are the victims of heists amongst exploding giant robots and dragonfly-like aircraft is unlike anything that will be matched by the studio again.
10. Porco Rosso (1992)
When Hayao Miyazaki gets to draw planes, his joy leaps through the screen. The dogfights and airborne journeys throughout Porco Rosso are feats of animation. The film maintains a jovial tone that never allows the conflict to escalate into high-stakes action. It's easy to sit and enjoy the beauty of animated movement. The protagonist is a middle-aged war veteran in the 1930s making his way as a bounty hunter while ducking the fascist Italian government, making it more adult in its sensibility. Very few mystical elements appear in Porco Rosso… other than the guy being a pig. Darker themes like survivors’ guilt and the cost of war are explored more deeply as the film progresses, something that mixes surprisingly nicely with the humor of its early stages.
9. The Cat Returns (2002)
The Cat Returns is a bizarre, frantic masterpiece. Studio Ghibli’s reputation for films that gently guide you through a low-stakes, fairly straightforward story is not reflected in this wonderful 75-minute fever dream. While starting out as many Ghibli movies do, with a young woman navigating life on the cusp of adulthood, from the moment she encounters a talking cat who just so happens to be the prince of an extradimensional reality dominated by felines, things take a more unique turn.
The way the tone of The Cat Returns shifts every 15 minutes is something to be studied. Beginning in such a grounded way sets you up for disbelief when the plot makes its increasingly surrealist turns. The energy is matched by some of the most charismatic, charming, and funny characters in all of Ghibli. Equally charming is its connection to Whisper of the Heart, acting as something of a sequel. Despite its erratic nature, the unique charm and constant humor of The Cat Returns make it one of the easiest Ghibli films to throw on in the background.
8. Spirited Away (2001)
Those gorgeous opening notes from Joe Hisaishi’s iconic score herald the most celebrated film to come out of Studio Ghibli. Audiences fell in love with his building of a world of spirits who inhabit abandoned theme parks. Social class existing beyond humanity, in this world of spirits where money doesn’t seem to be a thing, is deeply ironic and subtly scathing from Miyazaki.
When people point to an example of Miyazaki’s foundational principle of “Ma,” they’ll often point to Spirited Away’s train sequence. The image of Chihiro and No Face staring silently into the camera took on a life of its own due to its provocative nature even without context. Miyazaki leaves room for his audience and his characters to process the events of the film, allowing you to feel like you’re being guided through the events rather than having action set-pieces thrown at you. Scenes like Chihiro sitting on the train, or crying over rice cakes are microcosms of what make this studio so unique.
7. Ponyo (2008)
Nature fighting back against humanity has never looked so cute. With a younger perspective than most Ghibli films, Ponyo is more adorable than it is relatable. The protagonists are closer to being toddlers than teenagers, making for a soft experience. Miyazaki’s commentary on the relationship between man and nature is still present, but you’ll leave the movie thinking about Sosuke and Ponyo slurping noodles and making sandwiches.
Conflict arises when Ponyo uses her magic to release herself from her fish form and become human. This causes an imbalance between sea and land, resulting in an apocalyptic tsunami ready to wash over the town. The resulting imagery is some of the most stark in all of Ghibli. An entire highway submerged under water, trees poking their leaves from below the surface. What would usually be a scene riddled with anxiety is quelled by the confidence of Sosuke and Ponyo. Their determination allows you to take in the imagery and sail alongside them to once again find balance between land and sea.
6. Arrietty (2010)
The revelation of a small world lying just out of sight of the one we know is not enough to carry an entire movie on its own, but Arrietty’s supremely deft worldbuilding makes it so. Arrietty belongs to a race of people called borrowers. Barely taller than ants, they make their way through the world borrowing minuscule amounts of resources from humans. The immersion into the life of Arrietty and her family absorbs you into the film. Watching them use pins as swords, velcro to climb walls and extra-sensitive hearing to detect danger is endlessly engaging and inventive.
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
A Ghibli coming-of-age story is shorthand for an animated masterpiece. Kiki is a witch who must leave her small town in search of a city to take residence in. She finds her way to a small bakery in a town called Kariko, where she sets up a delivery service, a way to utilize her witch abilities. However, turning the joy of flying into work dampens her love for it, eventually spiraling into a depression which causes her to lose her ability to fly. Kiki’s experience maps perfectly onto those who pursue their creative passion as their careers. When you’re creating around a deadline, when you’re creating so you can eat, you no longer extract joy from that thing, it just becomes another tool. Kiki’s Delivery Service, by its conclusion, serves as a spark of hope for those who feel like their passion has lost its magical allure.
4. From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)
Each frame of From Up On Poppy Hill feels like the warmth of ginger tea spreading through your system. Its location alone makes for visuals that are equal parts comforting and awe-inspiring. Based in the Port of Yokohama, From Up On Poppy Hill communicates a cozy feeling of a small sea-adjacent village of friendly people who all seem to know each other. Protagonists Umi and Shun are layered, determined people who are easy to root for. Umi is in charge of her household at 16 following the death of her father and her mother leaving to study medicine in North America. Shun is deeply involved in the politics of their school, fighting the demolition of their Student Union building. There is great satisfaction in seeing charismatic people complete a goal. The degree to which you become invested in this hyper-specific situation is a testament to the quality of writing on display in Goro Miyazaki’s sophomore feature.
3. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Totoro is the mascot of Studio Ghibli for a reason. Female protagonists, magical realism, a plotless story, a strong color palette, and pro-environmental messages congeal into the baseline all future Ghibli movies will be measured against. The only way it could be more Miyazaki is if there were a bunch of planes involved.
As we get older, yearning for the experiences of youth you wish you could live again, or regret that you never had, start to dominate the mind. My Neighbour Totoro preys on this feeling with two young protagonists you yearn to be in the shoes of. Mei and Satsuki discover this adorable, powerful being who acts as a safety blanket during their transition into living in their new home. When Mei encounters this creature for the first time — her fall cushioned by his enormous stomach — he creates an atmosphere of warmth and calm despite being an undefined 10-foot beast. Mei almost instantly falls asleep on his belly, acting almost like the adopted daughter of the forest.
2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
The decision to pursue a creative passion is not made overnight, but one made by the will to not stop pursuing it. Whisper of the Heart is one for the writers, the painters, the musicians, the people who have found themselves stuck between a world wanting them to conform to a standard career path, but unable to deny the allure of the pen, the brush, the mic, the camera. Whisper of the Heart exists for reassurance.
Yoshifumi Kondo’s first and only movie is the story of Shizuku, a bookworm obsessed with the fantasies she reads on the page as she grows increasingly jaded by her school assignments. When she meets Seiji, a boy determined to be a master violin maker, she grows jealous of his one-track-minded ambition, lamenting her own lack of direction. One thing that does keep Shizuku going is the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for which she rewrites the lyrics in order to reflect her emotional state. Realizing she has a talent for linking her words to emotion, she decides to write a book over the summer.
The self-imposed deadline grinds her enthusiasm down to a fine powder, an extremely relatable experience for any creative. Her relationships suffer and she doesn’t eat in order to get this book into the world. Once written, she shows it to the owner of an antique shop whom she befriended. Anxious to be told that it’s brilliant, that she found her purpose, the store owner simply tells her that it shows promise. Initially, this breaks Shizuku, displaying the youthful arrogance that we have to be good at everything we try. Her lesson learned is that artistic greatness is never immediately obvious, but a rock you must polish until it's a diamond.
Creatives can feel like they’re running out of time, as if creativity diminishes with age. Whisper of the Heart is a reminder that time is needed for you to grow as a person, and with that so will your art.
1. Only Yesterday (1991)
Gentleness and emotional resonance distilled into hand-drawn animation — Only Yesterday was a surprise hit for Ghibli. In its year of release, it became the highest-grossing movie in Japan, thanks in large part to a contingent of adult moviegoers. Bypassing the typical Ghibli audience, Only Yesterday plays the heartstrings of those in their mid-to-late 20s like a fiddle. We follow Taeko, a 27-year-old visiting her brother-in-law’s family out in the country while on vacation from her Tokyo-based job. While traveling, she is consumed by memories of her 10-year-old self, a time of metamorphosis. She begins to draw parallels between the transition and the new experiences of childhood, and the stagnant phase of adulthood she currently finds herself. As she searches for a new purpose, a new way of living, her past begins to inform the decisions she makes.
Only Yesterday is deeply deliberate, letting each scene breathe in a way that reveals the layers of meaning beneath them. Stillness is used in juxtaposition to the rapid transformations 10-year-old Taeko undergoes. From something as simple as trying raw pineapple for the first time, to the changes in self-perception when she learns about periods and puberty, each stage of her blossoming into a young adult is given equal weight.
Gentleness is key to the presentation of the film. The bombastic vibrancy of other Ghibli films is pulled back slightly. More empty space fills the frame and colors are softer. This art style forces you to pull in closer to each frame to appreciate the more subtle detail. Only Yesterday wants to draw you closer to it, to map your experience onto Taeko’s, to wrap you in its warmth and its hopeful tone. Comfort doesn’t just come from a lack of events or low stakes, it comes from relatability and reassurance. Whether you’re the 10-year-old wondering how you’re going to make sense of the world around you, or the 27-year-old having fallen into an inescapable rut, Only Yesterday shows you that there’s a way forward and a way out.
Ryan Gaur is a film, music, and football writer based in Birmingham, England.