These are the Best Studio Ghibli Movies, Hands Down
Any anime fan will tell you, if you want an amazing movie, you pick up something from Studio Ghibli. The company makes some of the most incredible stories you can watch, and they leave you feeling hopeful despite all of the heavy themes (except Grave of the Fireflies, we don’t talk about that). The stories are whimsical and leave you wondering, which we adore. However, there are some titles that stand above the rest. We wanted this to be a top ten list… but sometimes you just have to add one more, because so many of these movies are SO good you can’t resist. Here are what we consider the top 11 Ghibli movies:
11. Castle in the Sky
This magical story follows a young boy and girl as they attempt to keep a magical crystal out of the wrong hands. When Sheeta drifts down softly from the sky after an air battle, she is rescued by Pazu. Together they seek a mythical floating castle to which the crystal belongs. While they run from a shady military organization, they make friends with townsfolk and sky pirates alike. This Hayao Miyazaki film follows themes familiar to those who have seen many of Studio Ghibli’s films — war and peace. If the price of discovering the castle ends up being higher than expected, how do you go back to the time before?
This is one of the studio’s earliest works, but it is still incredibly powerful. The scenery is breathtaking and the flying crafts are awe inspiring. The message of this anime is clear and focused, and it makes for an enjoyable viewing experience. While not at the very top of our list of best Ghibli movies, it is well worth a watch.
10. Porco Rosso
This Hayao Miyazaki film has an incredibly poignant message: War turns men into pigs. The movie follows Porco Rosso, a veteran pilot from WWI who now operates as a freelance bounty hunter chasing down air pirates. He is cursed to appear as a pig man, and he feels it is punishment for his actions during the war. His long time friend waits for him to realize that she loves him, but her waiting causes others to seek out a duel with Porco Rosso in jealousy.
This film boasts some of the most incredible aerial combat in the collection, with stunning dogfights and acrobatics. It’s a truly heartfelt tale of a man who lost his humanity in war, as well as his quest to make up for his prior actions. The love story is sincere and sweet, and the animation (as always) is breathtaking. While it isn’t one of our absolute favorites, it definitely earned its spot on the list.
9. Kiki’s Delivery Service
A story of magic and growing up. Kiki is a young witch who’s set out on her own to find her place in the world. However, the world is growing and changing, leaving little place for magic. But Kiki is not easily discouraged. She meets with a boy, Tombo, who is obsessed with aviation and is wowed by her flying ability. She opens a delivery service — until she begins to have trouble with her magic.
This movie is a fantastic coming of age story from the perspective of a 13 year old girl. This anime speaks to independence, finding your way, and the challenges of losing one’s innocence. There is so much magic in this movie that doesn’t stem from Kiki’s powers. The story is family friendly, but is wonderful for all ages. It’s a sweet tale that belongs in every collection.
8. Howl’s Moving Castle
Based loosely on the Diana Wynne Jones book of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle focuses on Sophie, a girl who falls under a terrible curse. Sophie works in her mother’s hat shop until one fateful day when she meets a wizard in the marketplace. In jealousy, the Witch of the Wastes casts a nasty spell and curses her to become an old woman, but also makes her unable to discuss the spell that changed her. Seeking help from the mysterious wizard Howl, Sophie becomes a cleaning lady for his moving castle in hopes of having the curse broken — and discovers he is far different than she imagined.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a story of war in which you never learn which side is good or evil, as both sides are shown to be violent and destructive. When Howl refuses to fight for either side, he is tracked down by dark forces in an attempt to capture him. Howl’s Moving Castle shows how war changes people, and gives us hope that sometimes kindness and love can change everything. Sophie teaches us that you are only as old as you feel.
7. From Up on Poppy Hill
A really touching story without the fantasy of the studio’s other works. Set in the 1960’s, From up on Poppy Hill follows Umi, a girl who raises flags everyday that read ‘I pray for safe voyages’. Umi lives in a boarding house while her mother is away on travels. Her father died in the Korean War, prompting her to raise the flags so others may find their way home. She meets a boy, Shun, who writes for the school paper and wrote a poem about her flags. Together they decide to save the French Quarter, a club building that has fallen into disrepair and that the school intends to tear down.
From up on Poppy Hill is a story of young love against all odds. The anime shows that perseverance and hard work can conquer anything. The story also explores loss without dwelling too hard on the darkness, which makes it a really interesting piece. We love the plot twists in this one, and how the students come together to save something they love.
6. Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind
This movie was one of Hayao Miyazaki’s earliest works. Nausicaa is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where massive toxic forests and even bigger insects populate most of the world. There are pockets of fertile land that exist within the world; the Valley of the Wind is one such place. The people live in peace simply keeping the toxic forest at bay, until a foreign ship crashes into the valley. When the aggressive kingdom rises to claim what is contained within, the people of the valley discover a horrific giant warrior that has the potential to destroy the world.
The message, as in many Ghibli movies, is very anti-war and anti-violence. The fear of destroying our world through aggression, and learning nothing, is very clear. Nausicaa does her best to find a different path to understand the toxic forest instead of simply destroying it. After all, violence begets more violence.
5. Pom Poko
A charming departure from the heavier stories that Studio Ghibli is so good at, Pom Poko follows a group of tanuki (raccoon dogs) as their forest is destroyed by development. With their world rapidly shrinking, they do everything they can — including shapeshifting — to try and hold onto their old way of life. The story is fun and upbeat, but speaks volumes for the old ways of life not meshing well with the industrialized world. The tanuki are caught in the transition and their only wish is to keep existing.
This anime brings great awareness to the plight of wildlife in a time of shrinking greenspaces. Not all creatures can adapt to life with humans, and the tanuki experience it in a fun (and often funny) way. The story as they try to frighten off the humans is hopeful and honest in its absurdity. The message is beautiful, and the characters are lovable. While it is not one of the studio’s most known works, it is absolutely worth your time.
4. My Neighbor Totoro
Arguably one of Miyazaki’s best works. In fact, a Totoro even serves as the mascot for Studio Ghibli, acknowledging the significance of the character to animation. My Neighbor Totoro focuses on two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, as they move to rural Japan with their father, who is seeking a place that would be better for their ailing mother when she is released from the hospital. While living near the forest, the girls interact with many of the spirits there, including Totoro and the Catbus.
We love this story. It deals with the illness of a loved one, change, and most of all, understanding one another. The movie is very family friendly, but is beloved by all ages. My Neighbor Totoro comes straight from the heart and brings both magic and joy back into the lives of two little girls. We go back to this one all the time.
3. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
This story comes straight from traditional Japanese folklore. When a poor couple finds a baby in a bamboo grove who quickly grows, they realize they’ve been blessed by the gods. When they continue to receive gifts to raise her well, they take her to the city and far from the poor life they had known so that she may live as a noble. Many men court her, but she can’t help but remember the life she came from. When she is finally pushed too far, the truth of her nature changes everything.
One of the most beautiful animated movies we’ve ever watched. Princess Kaguya is animated as if painted in the traditional Japanese ink style. The effect is an anime that feels entirely different than anything else we’ve ever seen. It gives a life to the movie that takes our breath away. The style lends itself beautifully to visual storytelling and leaves you captivated. This is almost as much a work of art as it is a movie. Even if you know the story, watch this version.
2. Princess Mononoke
This story also takes a deep look at the combative relationship of man and nature. Ashitaka, an Emishi prince, is set on a life changing quest when a boar god, driven mad by hate, infects him with a curse. He travels across the land to discover the source of the hatred and finds a conflict between the spirits of the forest and the people who consume the resources there. Iron town is run by Lady Eboshi, who treats the people who live in her city exceptionally well, but knows that in order to keep the city functioning, they need the iron under the forest. The spirits of the forest want to preserve their way of life and keep the humans from destroying the place they call home. San, a human, lives with the wolf spirits and joins them in their quest to wipe out the humans. Ashitaka is left to find a balance between them — and to see with eyes unclouded by hate.
Princess Mononoke is one of the most violent stories Studio Ghibli has told, but it’s incredibly powerful in it’s message. The thing that always amazes us about this story is the way you can see it from both sides. Neither side is completely right, but they both have good reasons for why they are lashing out. Like most Ghibli movies, this one drives home the idea that violence only begets more violence. The anime is incredibly powerful, and the whole spectacle leaves you with a feeling of awe. Our favorite part about this dark story, though, is that it leaves you with a feeling of hope for the future.
1. Spirited Away
This is single handedly one of the most fully fleshed out worlds that Studio Ghibli has ever created. We bet very few of you are surprised to find this at the top of our list. Chihiro is a young girl moving to a new town and away from everything she knows. When her father takes a wrong turn, they get lost and accidentally stumble into the spirit world. When her parents eat food meant for the spirits they are turned into pigs, and Chihiro is trapped in the mystical realm. In order to save her family, she must work in the bathhouse for the evil witch Yubaba. The witch steals her name in order to trap her there. Chihiro gets help from many of the inhabitants, but most predominantly from a boy who has forgotten his true name, Haku. Things get even more complicated when Chihiro mistakes a monster named No Face for a patron of the bathhouse and lets him inside.
This film has, undeniably, the most beautiful backdrops of any movie. It is a stunning coming of age story amidst a magical world filled with both fear and wonder. Chihiro goes through so much growth throughout the story that she feels like an entirely different character by the end of the film. We adore all the characters — even the nasty ones. Every character feels like a fully fleshed out person with flaws and strengths that really speak to the humanity in everyone (even monsters). If you haven’t seen this film, do. It’s a magical tale that wills stay with you and remind you that perseverance and kindness are the two greatest traits a person can have.