This post is spoiler-free.
With Studio Ghibli movies having dropped on Netflix around the world in February, March, and April of 2020, it seems like everyone and their pets are writing lists ranking each title from the worst to the best. Still, with how stylised yet varied the company’s filmography is, I figured I would throw in my two cents and rank them myself.
I would say that objectively speaking, the majority of the movies produced by Studio Ghibli are absolutely worthwhile but hopefully, this list will help you decide which ones to prioritise when choosing what to (re-)watch. That being said, I hope you enjoy and I would love to know what order you would put them or at the very least, what your favourite is!
22. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
I do wish I had some more positive things to say about Tales from Earthsea but it is bottom on this list for a reason. There are some really beautiful shots throughout and the characters are somewhat likeable but if I’m being honest, I forgot about it fairly quickly after finishing it. It, unfortunately, does not have the same impact as the other Studio Ghibli movies on this list but really seems to luckily be an exception and not the rule. That being said, it’s still worth a watch, especially if you want to get the full scope of the studio’s filmography.
21. Pom Poko (1994)
I honestly don’t think I could have ever accurately predicted what this movie would be like before I saw it. There’s so much charm in Pom Poko and it is a really fun watch. Unfortunately, I can’t say this one stuck with me afterwards. I can understand why it would be someone’s favourite Studio Ghibli movie and it is worth the watch but I wouldn’t say you have to rush to check it out.
20. From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)
Similarly to the previous two mentions, I honestly stopped thinking about this one almost as soon as it was over. It’s not very memorable, especially compared to a lot of the other movies on this list, however, it’s still got that beauty and charisma that most Studio Ghibli movies have. It’s got some wonderful characters and a story that, while being incredibly simple, doesn’t feel forced.
19. Ocean Waves (1993)
Also known as: I Can Hear the Sea.
This one is a TV movie and isn’t always considered as part of their feature movies list but considering it was one of the ones put on Netflix recently, I opted to include it.
Like most Studio Ghibli movies, Ocean Waves looks beautiful and has some great characters but it just doesn’t leave as much of an impact as some of the other titles on this list. It had so much potential but, unfortunately, didn’t quite reach it. I will say though that if you want a little slice of life and love some drama then this one might be worth checking out. There are still moments that I sometimes come back to and relationships I would have loved to have seen be explored further. Not to mention, it’s only a little over an hour in length and it honestly feels like no time has passed at all.
18. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1991)
This one is such a cute movie. It’s got a beautiful art style, some genuinely funny moments, and a wonderful setup. The entire thing is told in a series of vignettes, all surrounding the daily lives of the Yamada family. The varied subject matters covered within those vignettes make it a fun movie to stick on and just let run through, however, I found that some are stronger than others and my attention would often drift away from what was happening.
17. Only Yesterday (1991)
Such a visually pleasing movie. In a story that constantly moves between the past and the present, I can appreciate the way the art style changes to accommodate that. There’s something so whimsical about the way the scenes based in the past look and it creates a sense of nostalgia when paired with the art style of the present-day scenes. To make it even better, the main character Taeko is flawed but interesting regardless of whether we’re seeing her as a 10-year-old or a 27-year-old. Both versions of her have similarities but are distinctive enough to fit in with how she’s grown and changed over the years.
16. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Also known as: Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
There’s something about this movie that feels so typically Studio Ghibli but also like something entirely different. It’s got so many gorgeous colours that really enhance the already great scenery. It has an odd combination of feeling both unique and familiar. With an interesting plot and a great cast of characters who share some wonderful connections, this is a movie worth investing your time in.
15. The Wind Rises (2013)
Arguably one of the movies on this list that really highlights the skill of director/screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki. It shows just how well-crafted his work is. The pacing is so well done that it’s an effortless watch, especially when mixed with the wonderful story and how charming and lovable the characters are. It is, however, not that high on this list because it’s one that I feel will be much more appreciated once you’re familiar with Studio Ghibli (and particularly Miyazaki’s work).
14. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Whether you’ve seen this or not, Totoro is one of the most recognisable characters around (even serving as Studio Ghibli’s mascot). In a movie that’s beautiful and fun from start to finish, My Neighbor Totoro manages to create such a rich world in such a simplistic way. The whole movie just feels like a warm hug and a leisurely walk. Even when things get a little intense, it never feels like you’re far away from being enveloped in the love this movie radiates.
13. The Cat Returns (2002)
I feel like, for some people, this movie is far too high on this list and while I do agree it’s not quite the strongest movie Studio Ghibli has produced, it is a great watch. I always have a fun time with this one. The plot is a little thin but it’s also bizarre enough that it keeps up the momentum from start to finish. It’s got some great characters (the Baron is one of my all-time favourites from Studio Ghibli!) and it has a charm that really should not work but it absolutely does. It sits in this weird pocket of being so stereotypical Studio Ghibli while also being something entirely different on its own.
12. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
This one was really surprising for me. The post-apocalyptic world was a really wonderful one to explore and even the giant, mutant insects that inhabit it were interesting to watch. Between the plot, the themes, the visuals, and the characters this movie is a phenomenal watch that is absolutely worth your time. Despite the heavy environmental focus and the main character, Nausicaä’s, belief that life is valuable in order to stop an oncoming war, the movie never feels too much. It’s direct and unrelenting but is also done in a way that is entertaining and easy to watch. At the end of the day, you want to see what happens next as opposed to feeling like you have to/are being forced to.
11. Arrietty (2010)
Also known as: Arrietty the Borrower and The Secret World of Arrietty
I never did get on with the book The Borrowers by Mary Norton but the 1997 live-action movie is an all-time favourite of mine. For that reason, I was intrigued to check out Arrietty and I was pleasantly surprised at how wonderful it is. It most certainly has the Studio Ghibli charm throughout. It’s visually stunning both in how we see the world but also how Arrietty and her family see it. Similarly to the live-action version, it’s always fun to experience how everyday objects are repurposed to fit the use of the borrowers. This version is refreshing and differs just enough to be recognisable but not repetitive.
10. Porco Rosso (1992)
This one was a complete surprise to me. For many years, all I knew was that the main character was a pig and he flew a red plane. I’ve always wanted to see it and finally, in 2020, I got to and it was so much fun. I can’t imagine someone not having a good time with this one. It’s definitely an underrated gem that really doesn’t get as much praise as it should. It’s hilarious and dramatic and not a single second of it is boring.
9. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
This was such a magical little story. While there arguably isn’t that much of a wider plot, it feels incredibly personal. Kiki is such a fun character and the interactions she has with others are always fun, insightful, and loveable. There is a nice little touch of drama and intensity but, as I mentioned before, the whole thing feels very personal and it’s also very adorable to boot. We are drawn into Kiki’s world but more specifically into her identity. The entire movie is incredibly simple but never fails to reach that high quality of an outstanding Studio Ghibli movie.
8. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Probably Studio Ghibli’s most visually stunning movie. The entirety of The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks delicate and is incredibly intricate. All of which can also be said for the story and the characters that inhabit it. Running at around 2 hours and 17 minutes, it is a lengthy but beautiful tale. As soon as it captures your attention, you’ll struggle to lose focus, and it won’t be long before you fall in love.
7. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Definitely the most harrowing movie on this list and incredibly beautiful in as many ways as it is sad. The brother/sister relationship and the depths of which they have to go to in order to survive is put together so well and shown to us in a story that is technically so simple but speaks volumes. While Studio Ghibli isn’t a stranger to creating realistic depictions of life and stories that are incredibly human, Grave of the Fireflies outshines so many of the others. It’s a movie that’s clearly had so much poured into and it really pays off in the end.
6. When Marnie Was There (2014)
A stunning movie and one that feels incredibly human. As we dive deep into the thoughts, feelings, and wishes of the main character Anna, we are taken on such a wonderful journey. Her newfound friendship with Marnie is one that will capture your heart and refuse to let it go. Their relationship and interactions adds a sense of mystery to the overall movie but also helps to strengthen the depictions of Anna instead of overshadowing her. Marnie’s story is equally as important and is highlighted very well throughout but it never overtakes and that balance helps to make a movie that’s wildly enjoyable and simply beautiful. This one will definitely sneak up on you and it’ll be worth it.
5. Ponyo (2008)
Quite possibly Studio Ghibli’s most wholesome (feature) work. While there are obvious similarities between it and The Little Mermaid, this movie is anything but boring or repetitive and is honestly, pretty unique. Between the characters, the art style, and the story it’s all very adorable but like most of Studio Ghibli’s work, it’s beautiful and of great grandeur. Even though Ponyo seems most specifically aimed at children, that child-like wonder that is obvious throughout is a huge strength and overall this movie can, and should, be enjoyed by everyone.
4. Princess Mononoke (1997)
A tale that is beautiful and intense and quite frankly, one of the most enjoyable ones on this list. It doesn’t take long for Princess Mononoke to pull you in. It’s got some fantastic pacing that adds detail at just the right moments. It’s entertaining from start to finish and progresses in a way that slowly amps everything up until it concludes in a very satisfactory way. In such a well-rounded piece, no part of it is left behind. Along with great story and pacing, it also looks amazing and has a bunch of well realised, enjoyable characters.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
A movie that is sure to steal your heart. With a cast of characters that are all wonderful yet flawed in their own way, we get to experience such a great exploration of self while also witnessing the great relationships these characters share. It’s all wrapped up in a story that is just big enough to keep things moving along at a pleasant pace but not so much that it takes over. A common trait of Studio Ghibli movies are their intense focus on character and that couldn’t be more true for Howl’s Moving Castle. For one that contains a lot of magic, there’s something so real and honest about this movie.
2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
I feel like everyone has a Studio Ghibli movie that they relate to and/or that speaks to them. This is that movie for me but even beyond that, Whisper of the Heart is an objectively good, albeit simplistic, piece. While not the first (and probably not the last) to explore growth and dreams (/desires), this movie does such a fantastic job at showcasing both of those things through its main character Shizuku. Overall, it is a piece that is incredibly realistic and relatable while also having a whimsical streak running throughout it.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
The thing about Spirited Away is that it perfectly encompasses everything there is to love about Studio Ghibli. It’s got stunning visuals that are both vibrant in colour and their design, characters who are worth getting to know (and all very realised and detailed), a story that is simple yet powerful with pleasant pacing to boot, and music that never overpowers but only adds to every scene. It’s such an entertaining movie that’s simply fun to watch but also packs an emotional punch. It is, and I don’t say this lightly, a perfect movie and an experience that never gets old.