With the soon-to-be release of Hayao Miyazaki’s latest, The Boy and the Heron, on the horizon, we’re ranking all of the Studio Ghibli movies. Studio Ghibli have released some of the finest animated films in history. Led by titans Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata, the studio has produced works of art and expanded the language of animation worldwide. Often working with hand-drawn animation in some forms with immersive artistry that utilizes fantastical realism, the best of the studio’s films have forever changed the landscape of animation. It’s not just that they’re the best of their medium — they make the correct case that animation is just as viable an art form as live action, producing works of fiction that are emotionally universal yet singular in their particular stories. If you’ve enjoyed Studio Ghibli films, there are plenty of other studios and projects worth seeking out. Still, there’s no doubt the studio has had an indomitable presence and influence on modern filmmakers.
(Note: While Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) was directed by Miyazaki, it was not released through Studio Ghibli.)
25. Tales of Earthsea (2006)
Sometimes it’s okay to not be a completist and simply skip out on the films directed by Goro Miyazaki that make up Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre. Based on the combination of the first four books of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series along with his father’s Hayao Miyazaki manga series Shuna’s Journey, the film possesses little to no personality. With flat animation and soulless characters, the film lacks the necessary, fantastical spark.
Based on the novel of Dianna Wynne Jones, Earwig and the Witch, another Goro Miyazaki misfire, combines music and 3D animation for a messy production. The story follows an orphan girl named Earwig who is thrust into an adventure when she’s forced to move in with a witch and immerse herself in a world of magic. Despite the magical setting, however, very little of it exudes in the film itself. The main downfall though is the animation, the 3D jarring despite the talent on board.
23. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Goro Miyazaki simply doesn’t possess the same keen eye for whimsy and wonder as his father, and it’s evident even in his most stripped-down film, From Up on Poppy Hill. Based on the 1980 manga of the same name illustrated by Chizuru Takahashi and written by Tetsurō Sayama, the drama is relatively self-contained, with two high schoolers working to protect the school’s clubhouse. As is the case with Earwig and the Witch and Tales of Earthsea, From Up on Poppy Hill lacks the inventiveness of other Ghibli properties.
22. The Cat Returns (2002)
The fantasy adventure film The Cat Returns, directed by Hiroyuki Morita, acts as a bite-sized prequel to 1995’s Whisper of the Heart. Slight in its narrative with animation that doesn’t truly come alive in the slower moments, the film is at its best when animating the cats themselves, each of which is given distinctive personalities through physicality and movement alone. Its enchanting nature and the dreamlike story that cushions it display a much more youthful tone than many other Ghibli films.
21. When Marnie Was There (2014)
In an instance where the trailer for the film is ultimately more interesting than the final story When Marnie Was There isn’t without its attributes. That said, the ghost story from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is patient and contemplative with some gorgeous lakeside visuals, even if it fails to maintain interest for the entire duration.
20. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, The Secret World of Arrietty is a contemplative adventure film with fun, playful details that help make up this world. Based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton, the film follows the story of tiny people, most notably Arrietty, who live in a household occupied by average-sized humans as they borrow items in order to survive. In this case, Arriety befriends a human boy, with their friendship maintaining the heart of the story and imbuing this whimsical world with a necessary gravitas as he struggles with his health.
19. Ocean Waves (1993)
A peculiar film that never quite lands emotionally the way many other Ghibli greats do, Ocean Waves is notable for its restraint and humanistic rendering. Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, the film follows the character Taku Morisaki on his way to his high school reunion as he remembers his days at school and the love triangle he was involved in. While it lacks the visual vigor of most Ghibli films, there’s an interesting undercurrent of queer thematic narratives that the film never really digs into but that viewers have picked up on since its initial release.
18. Ponyo (2008)
Regardless of personal preferences, any Ghibli film directed by Hayao Miyazaki is going to be baseline good. Ponyo is a beautifully animated film that leans into the fluctuations and elasticity of nature as the characters race on water and confront the elements. It’s the story itself that lacks here, with irritating characters and a lackluster plot.
17. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
One of the most notable aspects of Isao Takahata’s career is the versatility he demonstrated. The differences between films such as My Neighbors the Yamadas and Grave of Fireflies are striking in tone, but the former highlights his penchant for utilizing negative space. The story is simple as it follows a Japanese family on their day-to-day pursuits with minimal drama, but the artistry is inventive in its use of comic strip style paneling, a noted difference from the rest of Ghibli’s films.
16. Pom Poko (1994)
Isao Takahata leans into playfulness in Pom Poko, one of the many instances where his love for folk tales takes center stage. The film follows a group of tanuki — characters of myth known as Japanese raccoon dogs — whose forest home is threatened by urban development and their efforts to save it. The film plays with themes of environmental allegory while never leaning away from the larger-than-life character designs, utilizing folktales and myths for modern consumption.
15. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Castle in the Sky deals with many themes and visual elements that Hayao Miyazaki is known for. While it might not be as rewatchable as some of his other titles, in part due to a runtime that feels longer than two hours, the artistry on display is breathtaking. The film follows orphans Sheeta and Pazu as they’re chased by the army and a group of pirates who seek Sheeta’s crystal necklace which leads them to Laputa, the titular “castle in the sky”. The film’s exploration of nature and humanity’s effects on it are stunning and brought to life through the rolling landscapes of Laputa.
14. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Isao Takahata is an undisputed master, and his film Grave of the Fireflies is also an undisputed masterpiece. A masterpiece that I will never, ever watch again in my life. The film tells the heartbreaking story of a brother and his younger sister who are separated from their parents during a firebombing in World War II. As the two struggle to stay alive, they bear witness to the worst, most negligible parts of humanity in this devastating portrait of the costs of war. As is the case with most Takahata projects, the animation is superb, allowing the visuals to peek at pockets of beauty, even if that beauty is unlikely to last in such a torn-apart world.
13. Only Yesterday (1991)
A beautiful deconstruction of how we repress, embody, and recall memories, Only Yesterday is a deeply human portrait of how we find ourselves. Only Yesterday follows Taeko Okajima on a trip to a rural town outside of Tokyo to visit her sister’s family during the annual safflower harvest as she ruminates on her adolescence. The film offers one of the best looks at Isao Takahata’s utilization of empty space in film as Taeko remembers her childhood the way most adults do, through glimpses and fleeting recollections brought on by our senses. The scene with her as a girl floating home after talking to her crush is one of the filmmaker’s best, most innovative sequences.
12. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Amidst all of his other iconic films, sometimes it’s easy to forget the true epic scale of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Hayao Miyazaki has long pushed narratives with overt, environmentalist leanings, and the same is true in “Nausicaä.” Set in the future following an apocalyptic event, the film follows Nausicaä, a young woman who can communicate with the insects that populate the jungle near her home and works to heal the war-torn planet. Bolstered by Joe Hisaishi’s bombastic score, and aided by Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno in the pivotal sequences of the God Warrior’s attack, “Nausicaä” is an enormously pivotal production that inspired many other filmmakers both of anime and live action.
11. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
A meditative coming-of-age story with some truly tremendous city-scape artistry, Whisper of the Heart is something of a tragic oddity for Studio Ghibli. The film follows Shizuki, who realizes all of her library books have been previously taken out by a mysterious boy and aims to find him. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, who was poised to become a major director for Ghibli and successor to Miyazaki and Takahata before his untimely death in 1998, the film’s animation is extraordinary with art direction by Satoshi Kuroda. The themes of honing skills in order to pursue dreams and the connections of others are brought to life, whether it be in the city or rural settings.
10. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
A film that gets increasingly melancholy with age, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a pinnacle of Miyazaki’s ability to craft strong and determined young female protagonists. A universal tale of what it means to find yourself throughout adolescence, the film follows Kiki, a 13-year-old witch, who moves to a seaside town with her talking cat, Jiji, to spend a year alone in accordance with her village’s tradition for witches in training. She becomes a courier with the help of her broomstick, and the slice-of-life framework allows for greater emotional pull as she struggles with self-doubt and faces the realization that her abilities still need room to grow and develop. Despite the serious nature of Kiki working to find her independence, there’s a definite, necessary lightness to the animation style.
9. The Red Turtle (2016)
Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is a miraculous little film. Completely dialogue-free, the film, co-produced by Studio Ghibli, follows a man who has been stranded on a tropical island whose escape efforts are forever stalled by a massive red sea turtle. The story progresses in shocking, emotional ways as the film studies the all-consuming, relentless power of nature and how it shifts and shapes us. The film presents a story about our helplessness against the odds of nature without ever succumbing to hopelessness, as much a love story as it is about survival.
8. The Wind Rises (2013)
If this had been Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, it would’ve been the perfect swan song. It is a reflective, factionalized film about Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a fighter aircraft used during World War II. A film that contemplates how dreams can lead to destruction, no matter the virtuous, clear-eyed intent, the story exudes a well-earned patience in its structure. The historical film is awash with some of Miyazaki’s most gorgeous single-frame imagery and delivers a harsh, honest tale about what it means to create great things that go on to be weaponized for war and how those great minds must reckon with those devastating results. It never loses the requisite visual whimsy of his films, but it has the touch of a filmmaker who sees plain the follies of man.
Hayao Miyazaki plunges into new, personal depths with his most recent film, The Boy and the Heron. The film aches with grief over the passage of time and the inevitability of loss while seeking hope through new generations of dreamers. There’s an uneasy discordance to the story, where loss follows our lead, the 12-year-old Mahito, throughout the film after the death of his mother to a fire. Equipped with Miyazaki’s requisite whimsy, there are also touches of horror that permeate throughout the film, curling the frames so that the natural world is just as fantastical as the magical one. It is backed by one of Joe Hisaishi’s most emotionally turbulent scores that is both celebratory and mournful. The Boy and the Heron is a visual feast as it traverses multiple worlds, heaven and hell, as Miyazaki wrestles with dual truths—the need to see the world without malice and the fear of what comes next.
6. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro embodies the feeling of nostalgia. Miyazaki captures memories of our youth that are elicited through touch and smell. The film follows two sisters as they venture to an old country house with their father as their mother recovers from an illness at a nearby hospital. Their adventures in the forest that surrounds the home infuse the journey with a sense of all-encompassing wonder, with the writing taking care to honor the minds and imaginations of children as they see the world through unclouded eyes. The visuals are superb and inventive, with so few directors capable of creating something as imaginative yet simplistic as the Cat Bus. The film, from its landscapes to the iconic, nighttime downpour, is visual poetry.
5. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle entrenches itself in full fantasy with some of the finest, most awe-inspiring images of Miyazaki’s career. A story that grows on you the more you rewatch it, its compassion for its characters is overwhelming. While the love story between Sophie and Howl becomes the heart, it’s the details and individual character beats that are its soul. From the mechanics and monstrosity of the moving castle itself that moves with the grace (or lack thereof) of a living being to the moment where a lost Howl means calciferol, holding the dying embers in his hand before saving him and condemning himself, to Sophie’s slow belief in herself that reverses her curse, there’s no lack of ingenuity of plot and visuals and how the two marry. The film delivers an ode to the grace of growing older and of finding families in this life-affirming, all the while being visually grand.
4. Porco Rosso (1992)
People who have watched more than a couple of Miyazaki’s films understand his love of aircraft. Porco Rosso hones in on that fact with an adventure film centered on a former World War I pilot who was somehow transformed into a pig. As Porco Rosso readies himself for another treacherous journey, the film finds its beauty and contemplative nature in smaller, emotional beats. One of the strongest moments sees our protagonists mourning the lives of his fallen comrades as well as how life used to be as we watch a funeral procession of planes take flight in the sky — but there’s a sense of celebration of life, too. Strengthened by the neorealist animation style that brings to life the bright countryside and blue oceans that follow them, Porco Rosso is one of the filmmaker’s most introspective films.
3. Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away is the embodiment of magic. Perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s most famous film plays with coming-of-age core themes with expected environmental touchstones along with the significance of names in a tremendous cacophony of fantasy. The score, composed and conducted by Joe Hisaishi and performed by the New Japan Philharmonic, digs into the whimsy of the story, entangled with the story in a way that breathes even greater life into images. Each and every scene in Spirited Away is emboldened by Miyazaki’s vision and ability to bring textured tactility to the smallest crevices of this world. Tears spill in spooling rivulets, ghostly train rides mimic our own gradual growth through adolescence, and the curious tenacity of youth flourishes in this rousing, breathtaking depiction of growing up.
2. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2015)
Isao Takahata ascends to dizzying, devastating heights in his final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Based on the 10th-century tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the story follows a tiny nymph found inside a bamboo stalk who grows into a beautiful young woman. As her life transforms into one of regality and excess after the simplistic, naturalistic beauty of her youth, she orders would-be suitors to prove their love for her. A story of family, personal gain, and the wants and wills of parents who fail to see their children’s desires, the film is a melancholic masterpiece that utilizes all of Takahata’s tricks and artistry. His utilization of negative space has never been so potent, with the world becoming bigger and filling the screen as Kaguya grows; despite her happiness waning from when her world was made up of the small grove, she took her first steps. With one of Joe Hisaishi’s strongest compositions and heartbreaking voice work from Takeo Chii, “Kaguya” is an exquisite, introspective work by a visionary who understands how to marry human stories with fantastical animation.
1. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Of all of his masterpieces, Princess Mononoke remains Hayao Miyazaki’s definitive epic. Each frame allows for restraint, from the detailed but deliberate infection seen crawling on warping skin and the shape of the boars to San’s movements when she first infiltrates Iron Town or the way her face nuzzles into the fur of Moro. This is a story of larger-than-life gods, Kodoma roaming the forests, and the disease transforming landscapes. Yet Princess Mononoke retains its humanity by showcasing the small efforts that inspire change along with the universe-defying moments of divine, cataclysmic catharsis, such as when the Great Forest Spirt’s body crumbles and, instead of laying waste to those who took his life, instead inspires growth and the promise of prosperous futures with his death. His fallen body quite literally brings new life to the land.
As is the case with most Miyazaki films, the whimsy infused into the film comes with a ready dose of melancholy, aided by the haunting and robust score from longtime Miyazaki collaborator and composer Joe Hisaishi. From the very first moments of monstrous deformity eating the land to the closing promises for atonement and peace, Princess Mononoke delivers a timeless journey of conflicted heroes and morally gray antagonists.
Studio Ghibli is a part of the animation canon in a way that many don’t just remember. They feel them. Your ranking may look different based on your connections to the films, and that’s what Ghibli would want.
The Boy and the Heron is now playing in theaters nationwide.