Studio Ghibli has long reigned supreme as one of anime’s most beloved producers of feature films. Almost all of their work is highly-regarded and renowned even outside of the typical fandoms. That makes it a little strange that, up until last Monday, all my reviews of their work had been harshly critical.
So many of their movies I am either wholly indifferent to or even actively dislike, but I don’t specifically go out of my way to hate on everything Ghibli. My review of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is certainly proof of that, but let’s go a bit further. These are my top 10 favorite Ghibli movies of all time. Enjoy!
#10 Ocean Waves (1993)
Ocean Waves is a peculiar movie to start off with, as it was made specifically for TV rather than a cinema release and was directe dby Tomomi Mochikuzi, who had no real ties to Ghibli and never cooperated with them again. It’s a good movie, but it’s so good at flying under the radar that I routinely forget about it and then get excited whenever I find it again.
The story is a romantic drama centering around Rikako Muto, a teenager whose sudden transfer to a new school in a new city instantly becomes the topic of gossip. She strikes people as arrogant and strange, but catches the attention of the hardworking Taku Morisaki and his best friend Yutaka Matsuno.
It’s a setup for a traditional teen romance story, but Ocean Waves develops in interesting directions and its characters are more engaging than immediately apparent. Its artstyle is also one I could appreciate, even if it’s incomparable to anything Ghibli put out before or since.
#9 Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke is a rare example of Ghibli tackling straight up fantasy and hitting it out of the park. The story follows Ashitaka, a warrior from a distant land who becomes infected with a strange curse. As he attempts to find a cure by tracing down its source, he becomes embroiled in a war between local lords, nature spirits, and an enterprising woman who is industrializing and deforesting the region to increase her power & wealth.
It’s a gorgeous film with an imaginative storyline and intense action, featuring some of the most gruesome imagery Ghibli has ever tackled. The stakes are kept high and the movie does a great job at exploring both the perspectives of Lady Eboshi, as well as that of the distrustful wolf princess San, making Ashitake’s involvement in the conflict much less straightforward.
The story isn’t always as amazing and its characters aren’t the most memorable Ghibli protagonists, but with its fantastic animation and strong fantasy setting, I am comfortable giving Princess Mononoke the #9 spot.
#8 Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Talking about Grave of the Fireflies is a bit awkward for me, because it’s very similar to one of my all-time favorite films, Barefoot Gen. Still, there is space in this world for two war dramas about children surviving the allied bombings of mainland Japan; there being more than one doesn’t detract from the gruesome horror of either.
This Takahata classic deals with the firebombing of Kobe, which leaves the young teenager Seita and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko homeless. Their lives turn sour as they find themselves exploited and abandoned by their countrymen, soon forcing the kids to fight for their own survival in the brutal twilight days of World War II. It’s a confrontational film that benefits from its endearing protagonists and gripping writing, whereas Barefoot Gen emphasized the horrific visuals. Neither is a good recommendation if you want to make it through a film without crying, however.
#7 The Cat Returns (2002)
The 2000s weren’t very exciting for me in terms of Ghibli’s output, so The Cat Returns took me rather by surprise. It’s a pleasant family adventure about a young girl who is abducted to a fantasy world where cats live like people, with the purpose of being married away to the kingdom’s prince. She enlists the help of an unlikely group of heroes and attempts to escape from the clutches of the mad king before she is trapped in this world forever.
I tend to like Ghibli films when they focus on excitement and storylines with high stakes, which makes The Cat Returns a bit of an outlier. By comparison, I found movies like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro to be utterly boring. They have a few kinda-interesting moments interspersed with long lulls, which makes these movies feel tediously prolonged and boring to me. The Cat Returns might not be about intense drama or warfare, but it keeps its lighthearted adventure constantly engaging.
It’s not too deep or meaningful, it doesn’t even star any remarkable folklore to make video essays about, but it’s exactly that gleeful simplicity that makes it one of the most rewatchable Ghibli movies to me. All the fun and fantastic presentation of a Ghibli production, with none of the complicated fluff.
#6 Porco Rosso (1992)
Another fine Ghibli movie is found in 1992’s Porco Rosso, a film that very much channels Hayao Miyazaki’s usual fetishes, but does so in a way that is comedic and lovable. Porco Rosso is the story of an ace fighter who has been turned into a literal pig by a mysterious spell, and now works as a respected mercenary in a slightly-fantastical take on Italy.
The strong writing and endearing characters make this movie immediately stand out, with the titular Porco being an exceptional main character both in his personality and design. He is a cool piggy and his banter with friends, enemies, and frenemies is constantly enjoyable.
Porco Rosso also does a great job in the animation department. It’s as beautiful as any other Ghibli feature of the time and has several fantastic-looking dogfights. Makes you wonder where all that talent and creativity went during the production of The Wind Rises.
#5 Arrietty (2010)
Hidden away in the world are so-called “Borrowers”, people the size of a thumb who live by scavenging the small items that ordinary people are unlikely to miss. Their existence is a secret to all, but one family of Borrowers is put in peril when their young daughter Arrietty is spotted by a sickly young man called Shou.
I have always liked the concept of having everyday environments turn enormous, which is exactly the kind of fantasy that Arrietty speaks to. Watching her and her family navigate the house by making use of nails and bits of tape is amazing, and the movie keeps surprising with its setpieces and imaginative visuals. The story is a little aimless, admittedly, but the lovable characters easily make up for that. In particular, Arrietty is probably one of my favorite Ghibli protagonists to date, and certainly a top pick in terms of character design.
#4 The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Well, we just covered this one.
Adapted from ancient folklore, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is amazing both in terms of presentation and emotional storytelling. As the title implies, it tells the tale of Princess Kaguya, a girl born from a bamboo stalk who is raised by an elderly couple and soon draws the affection of suitors all around the country.
The hand-drawn artstyle is mindblowing to see in motion. It’s one of the most gorgeous anime I have ever seen and it’s such a unique look that, honestly, this is a must-watch movie if you’re into animation for the artistic appeal. The story, meanwhile, does a great job at finding a middle-ground between adapting a classic story and making it more appealing to a modern audience, by giving its female lead much more agency and development than the original allowed.
I legitimately did not expect to be so wowed by this movie when we popped it in just to test a new TV. Amazing stuff.
#3 Castle in the Sky (1986)
The first OFFICIAL Ghibli movie ever made, Castle in the Sky is emblematic of all the themes the studio loves to work with. Childhood adventures, aviation, fantasy, and maniacal villains. It’s a historic movie that stands strong, even as Ghibli itself kept evolving and iterating on its ideas.
Pazu and Sheeta are two kids who are pursuing a mystery related to Sheeta’s glowing pendant, which puts them on the trail of a legendary, flying city called Laputa. The story doesn’t do anything too crazy, but the adventurous feeling it evokes is damn near perfect; a gold standard within anime. The animation is similarly sublime and the movie features my favorite Ghibli soundtrack of all time.
With a hit like this, it’s no wonder that Ghibli would go on to become a household name.
#2 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä technically predates the founding of Ghibli as a studio, but was directed by Miyazaki at a studio that would later be bought and incorporated into Ghibli proper, giving it more legitimacy than, say, 1968’s The Little Norse Prince. The movie is also so clearly the brainchild of Miyazaki that excluding it out for formality ought to be a crime.
This is a post-apocalyptic story where the remnants of humanity inhabit a poisoned world dominated by inhospitable wildlands and enormous insects. Nausicaä herself is the princess of an idyllic country by the seaside, but she is forced to step up when her people are pressured into war and other calamities strike her community.
The movie wears its environmentalist and anti-war messages on its sleeves, and tells a gripping story through these themes. Nausicaä‘s world is one that inspires awe at every turn and is the only Ghibli film that inspired me to also read the manga version. I was so engrossed in the world and characters that I absolutely wanted to see it explored further and see where the characters’ lives would lead outside of the movie’s runtime.
#1 Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
I mentioned earlier that I prefered Ghibli movies when they feature action scenes and focus on stories with high stakes, so putting Kiki’s Delivery Service at #1, ahead of Nausicaä, would seem like an act of madness. It’s certainly uncharacteristic of me, but Kiki is a movie that damn well deserves the exception.
It’s a coming-of-age tale about a little witch girl who sets out to pursue her dreams, but the ideal life she envisioned for herself falls flat almost immediately. She finds herself in a city of strangers, all of them indifferent to her soaring ambitions and in little need of her craft. This begins a long and painful process of self-actualization and growing up, during which Kiki becomes one of the most relatable anime protagonist I have ever seen. It’s a touching story that’ll resonate incredibly well with many.
Of course it has beautiful music and of course it has the fantabulous animation that all Ghibli movies guarantee, but for Kiki’s Delivery Service it’s the subtle yet relatable story that elevates it to true greatness.