Debating whether or not HBO Max is worth your time? Allow us to give you one perfectly good reason why you should sign up right now: Studio Ghibli. The Japanese-based animation studio started by Hayao Miyazaki has produced some of (and arguably the) greatest animated movies of all time. Titles like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle are but a few of the legendary films that jump to mind when hearing the Ghibli name.
History of Studio Ghibli
But before we dive into our list of the best Studio Ghibli movies, first let’s discuss history. Miyazaki, fellow director Takahata Isao and producer Suzuki Toshio started Studio Ghibli in 1985. Though Miyazaki had already written and directed two feature films (along with tons of television shows), the first movie to debut under the Ghibli banner was the 1986 film, Castle in the Sky. From there, Miyazaki and co. released countless other critically acclaimed movies nearly every year until 2014.
Initially, the best Studio Ghibli movies released only in Japan, but starting in 1996, they began to release stateside as well. Today, most Ghibli fans can watch English versions of their favorite films, with standout performances from the likes of Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Michael Keaton and Billy Bob Thorton to name a few.
Ranking the Best Studio Ghibli Movies of All Time
Now that you know a little bit about the history, let’s talk about which Studio Ghibli movies are the best to watch right now. It’s not an easy issue to resolve and every Ghibli fanatic will point you in a different direction. The one thing we can all agree on though is that you need to start. And start immediately.
Below we’ve listed the best Studio Ghibli movies. Now, remember, this is by no means an official ranking. The film we list first is just as spectacular as the film placed last. We just like to have some order here at SPY, which is why we’re assigning numbers in the first place. So don’t bite our heads off if you think Porco Rosso deserves the top spot when it’s all said and done (though, honestly, some of us would probably agree).
But now, without further ado, the best Studio Ghibli movies according to SPY.
1. Spirited Away
Released in 2001, Spirited Away is famous for damn good reason. The movie follows Chihiro Ogino as she and her family move to a new home. When they’re all but there, Chihiro’s dad decides to take a pit stop and go exploring in what seems to be an abandoned theme park. Soon enough, however, Chihiro realizes the theme park isn’t abandoned at all but instead belongs to spirits in the spirit world. While gorging themselves on food, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and it becomes up to Chihiro to help free them by working for a crafty witch in a spirit bathhouse.
Far from a conventional adventure, Spirited Away is a beautiful tale about overcoming one’s fears and finding compassion even in the face of adversity. Like all Ghibli movies, the animation and set pieces are stunning, the worlds are relatable and the characters memorable. In fact, this movie was all of that and more and won an Academy Award for the Best Animated Film in 2003.
2. Princess Mononoke
Arguably one of the best Studio Ghibli movies (and certainly the goriest), Princess Mononoke follows a young prince (plot twist) who is banished from his village after killing a demon-possessed boar and suffering a wound that is slowly killing him. Don’t worry, it’s technically a kid’s movie. The prince then must find out what caused this boar-god to turn evil, and try to remedy the situation.
The movie has its brutal scenes, but mostly the artwork is gorgeous and the action fast-paced. Miyazaki does a fantastic job here showing the various sides of environmental arguments that still rage on today, making Princess Mononoke an impressively relevant movie for one that came out 23 years ago.
If you like action and a pro-nature message, this one is for you.
3. Porco Rosso
Sometimes you want a warm message about saving the trees, and other times you want to watch a pig shoot down airplanes off the coast of Italy. If you fall into the latter camp, Porco Rosso is the film for you. While there is more than just aerial dogfights in this movie, Miyazaki uses Porco Rosso as a way to gush and flex about his love for aviation. The battles are beautiful and epic, and one run through will make you want to pack your bags and move to the Adriatic Sea in a hurry.
You can think of this movie as Indiana Jones with less art and more heart, and in the best way possible.
4. Howl’s Moving Castle
Based on Diana Wynne Jones’s book by the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle follows a young hat maker named Sophie as she tries to regain her youth after being turned into an old woman by a jealous witch. Out of all the movies on this list (outside of Totoro, maybe), Howl’s Moving Castle feels especially Ghibli-esque thanks to the fluid animation, dazzling colors and exciting set pieces. From talking flames (voiced by Billy Crystal) to shapeshifting wizards (voiced by Christian Bale), this movie has something for everyone and will quickly become one of your favorite flicks of recent memory.
5. Castle in the Sky
If there’s one thing the folks at Studio Ghibli know how to do, it’s make an adventure film. Castle in the Sky is filled to the brim with white-knuckle chase scenes and epic airships and castles. There are even a couple of nature-loving robots throughout the flick.
The story follows Sheeta and Pazu as they try to escape the grasp of the sinister Colonel Muska. At first, you don’t know much about why Muska is chasing Sheeta and her companion, but as the story slowly unfolds, the world of Castle in the Sky begins to take shape. The finale is a memorable one that does a fantastic job highlighting the dangers of war.
6. Whisper of the Heart
Not all of the best Studio Ghibli movies involve gods, nature and flying pigs. Sometimes, the movies are more straightforward and have to do with someone chasing a dream. If you’re a creative who could use a little inspiration right about now, give Whisper of the Heart a try.
The story focuses on Shizuku, a young girl who loves to read and wants to one day become a writer. She eventually finds her life intertwined with a fellow classmate and violin maker, and the two do their best to support each other and follow their respective dreams. Of course, there is a precocious cat and a cat statue who comes alive during a dream sequence, it is a Ghibli movie after all.
7. Kiki’s Delivery Service
One of the more iconic and well-known Ghibli movies, Kiki’s follows the titular witch (voiced by Kirsten Dunst) as she embarks on her coming-of-age journey. At 13, all witches venture off on their own to find a town and become the resident witch. But as much as she wants them to, things don’t exactly go that smoothly for Kiki and her cat companion Jiji. But after a chance encounter, Kiki realizes that as a witch with a broomstick, she can do a pretty great job at delivering packages, and decides to create her own business.
Filled with some heartwarming scenes and tense moments, this is a great Studio Ghibli movie to watch with the family. It’s also one of the more entrepreneurial kid’s movies out there.
8. The Wind Rises
After you’ve seen a few Studio Ghibli movies, you’ll notice a rather consistent motif popping up throughout the studio’s works: aviation. As it turns out, Miyazaki has a soft spot for airplanes, which is why so many of his movies feature awesome and radical-looking planes. So when Miyazaki announced he was going to retire, it seemed all too fitting that he would go out with a movie based entirely around the creation of planes in The Wind Rises.
The movie follows Jiro Horikoshi as he chases his dream of becoming an airplane designer. Based on the life of the real Jiro Horikoshi (who designed WWII fighter jets), The Wind Rises is a true love letter to the craft of creating planes. While Miyazaki usually takes a hard stance against war, he leaves all of that aside with this film to honor a brilliant mind with an equally brilliant film.
9. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Now, back to saving the environment from meddlesome humans. Originally a manga of the same name, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is basically the precursor film to Princess Mononoke. In both films, humans have wrong the environment, and only a select few are wise enough to realize that humans can coexist with the natural world without destroying it. In this film, it falls on Princess Nausicaä to take a stand.
While Princess Mononoke deals with villages in the past, this movie takes place far in the future, where human colonies are split across the land by patches of infected jungles. After a particularly greedy batch of humans decides to resurrect a gigantic robot killing machine, it’s up to Nausicaa to save the world and all the bugs, plants and people who live in it.
10. Only Yesterday
In a similar vein to Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday doesn’t feature any high-flying princesses or moving castles. The story revolves around Taeko Okajima as she travels to a rural village for the summer. Taeko is in her late 20s and unmarried, but sees nothing wrong with life sans a spouse. As she travels, however, her past quickly catches up with her, pulling her back to some of her most cherished and hated memories as she reconciles who she is now.
In a way that only Studio Ghibli can, Only Yesterday is a kid’s film that will really hit home for adults. It’s the sort of movie that you’ll finish and then sit for a while, thinking about your past and the choices you’ve made.
11. My Neighbor Totoro
You didn’t really think we’d leave off Totoro, did you? Never. If you know absolutely nothing about Studio Ghibli movies, odds are you’ve seen this furry, big-mouthed bear/cat thing around somewhere. May we officially introduce you to Totoro.
My Neighbor Totoro follows Satsuke and Mei, two sisters who have just moved into a new home. While their dad is busy working, Satsuke and Mei go on all sorts of adventures as they wait for their mother to come home from the hospital. The story is about as sweet as can be and anytime these girls run into danger, it’s always Totoro and his pals who help them out of it. While there are certainly grown-up themes, most of these will skate right over the heads of young kids who will quickly fall for Totoro and all of his quirks.
BONUS PICK: Castle of Cagliostro
Why did Castle of Cagliostro make our list but only as a “bonus” addition? Well, technically speaking, this isn’t a Studio Ghibli movie. Though it was written and directed by Miyazaki, this film debuted in 1979, a full six years before Studio Ghibli was officially created. In other words, it’s Ghibli in everything but name, and a fantastic film at that, so we had to add it.
Castle of Cagliostro follows two thieves as they get embroiled in an international escapade involving a princess. The animation still holds up, as do the music and chase scenes in this fast and fun adventure. It’s not available on HBO like the rest of them, but you can watch it on Netflix. Whether you’re a fan of Ghibli films or just generally a fan of fast-paced adventure movies and mysterious castles, this one is worth a watch.