The expansive Ghibli studio universe consists of 22 feature-length films (more exist outside the periphery of regular feature lengths), which are mostly marked by their rapturous storylines, remarkable characters, and euphoric animations. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata mostly spearheaded the creative front of this studio whose impeccable storytelling stands strong against the tides of time. For many, the Ghibli studio movies form a definitive part of our growing years. Thus, it is indeed a difficult task for one to rank the studio Ghibli movies. After a thorough Ghibli studio marathon (I’m not one to say no to such an opportunity), I have curated a list of what to me are the best Ghibli studio works of all time.
15. Porco Rosso (1992)
Miyazaki’s love for planes was first given the form of “Porco Rosso”. Set in the times of World War I, this is one of those rare Ghibli films which directly uses war as space and time setting. A war hero who is cursed with a pig’s head makes for an interesting protagonist (who is famously known throughout the internet for saying ‘better a pig than a fascist’). It is not the most spectacularly written Studio Ghibli Movies but includes some impressive aerial shots.
14. When Marnie Was There (2014)
The introverted and emotionally unsure Anna is sent to her aunt’s house to help her recover from asthma attacks when she meets a mysterious girl named Marnie. As Anna struggles to accept herself in an overwhelming world, she quite literally draws from her experiences of the past. Yonebayashi’s sensitive storytelling helps give this rather unlikeable character a certain depth and renders Anna through a trope that is more than that of the misunderstood character.
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13. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
In his directorial debut, Hiromasa Yonebayashi manages to pack an empathetic yet powerful story. It may not be the most brilliant Ghibli film, but “The Secret World of Arrietty” encompasses most of the artistic splendour that Ghibli is known for – well-written female leads, detailing to perfection, a heartfelt storyline and hope for a better future.
12. The Wind Rises (2013)
Miyazaki’s most personal film is also one of the most conflicting ones for me. On one hand, Miyazaki almost sounds guilty for the war and destruction caused by an object that he adores. On the other hand, it does feel shorthanded on the horrors of it, when the splendour of it all is so celebrated. These conflicting emotions aside, “The Wind Rises is showered” with picturesque beauty and heartfelt emotions one can expect of a Ghibli film.
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11. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Often considered as Isao Takahata’s masterpiece, “Grave of the Fireflies” paints a grim, heart-wrenching picture of war. It wastes no time in making one feel sympathy for the protagonists’ plight – Seita and Setsuko. This film is unapologetically emotionally manipulative, yet it cannot be argued that this film also provides us with some of the best of Ghibli’s gorgeous animation.
10. Ponyo (2008)
One of those rare Miyazaki films that do not include flying (or perhaps you can consider it as flying through water). Ghibli’s version of underwater scenes includes some of the most creative creatures and ideas, none of which will fail to delight you in this straightforward tale. A fish morphed into a girl befriends a human boy and their bond and respective parents form the crux of this sweet story.
9. Pom Poko (1994)
Takahata drives home the story of deforestation and displacement via a community of shape-shifting raccoons (in the Japanese folklore, they are called ‘tanuki’). It is told in a documentary narrative style and while the story does meander and could have been tighter, it is extremely endearing to see a bunch of raccoons dance and make merry most of the time. Leave it to Takahata to inject such affectionate celebrations even in the most depressing narratives.
8. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
The imaginative wonder, used in this film to design a walking castle with such precision is in itself, an applaudable feat. It has every staple ingredient of a Miyazaki film – a coming of age character, old ladies, witches and a ton of other fantasy elements. Yet, it is grounded in very real human emotions. And let’s not forget those mouth-watering shots of the bacon and eggs.
7. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Another one of Takahata’s masterpieces is “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”. This timeless folklore of Japan was brought to life yet again through his exceptional storytelling. The tenderness of the watercolour-based art through which The Tale of Princess Kaguya is told makes even the most heartbreaking sequences seem poetic.
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6. Only Yesterday (1991)
If Miyazaki’s works are at their best when they are humane stories set in fanciful worlds, then Takahata’s best works are set in our seemingly mundane world where one finds happiness in everyday things. “Only Yesterday” tells the story of a woman in her late 20s who visits a village for vacation and by extension, her childhood. Nostalgia is a powerful thing and Takahata evokes it with some of the best transitions, within an animation largely set in an inviting, light-coloured canvas.
5. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
“Whisper of the Heart” is criminally underrated, despite having everything needed for a perfect slice of life story – whimsical teenagers figuring out their feelings and lives, self-doubt and ambitions, aspiring writers and musicians and most important of all – cats. This film helps one embrace the facts and fallacies of youth and leaves us humming a pleasant tune of ‘Country Road’ for a week or two. Makes me wonder how many more such tales we could have enjoyed if it wasn’t for the untimely demise of the director Yoshifumi Kondo.
4. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
The best part of Studio Ghibli Movies has always been how they put a magnifying lens on all things children and their experiences while never trivializing them. Satsuki and Mai maybe your regular bumbling bunch of sisters, but Miyazaki’s storytelling validates their worries and problems and gives them a touch of wonder. Totoro isn’t your regular, pocket-friendly cutie that chirps sweetly; he is large and sometimes makes strange noises but he also gives out the best hugs for those who need it.
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3. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
As I grew up, I grew more empathetic to Kiki’s predicament of losing her powers and becoming increasingly insecure about herself. She may be a teenage witch who flies around her broom but Kiki has a lot in common with those of us who struggle with problems, albeit not as magical as hers. To do something one loves for a living is rendered harder than it is in a largely capitalistic world but “Kiki’s Delivery Service” wonderfully nudges one to not give up hope on their path.
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
“Princess Mononoke” is an angry film. It also best explains Miyazaki’s view on the relationship between humans and nature. It is not a battle to be won; it isn’t a ‘triumph’ that needs to be celebrated but a symbiotic relationship that needs to be built. His woes about how this has turned into a parasitic relationship instead, take the form of a more visually violent film in the Ghibli universe. It is an epic tale of unparalleled proportions aided aptly by Joe Hisashi’s swelling music score. It is not perfect by any means but is all the more important in a world where we remain largely ignorant as the mightiest rainforest is burned down for industrialist purposes.
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1. Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away remains Ghibli’s most accessible and popular movie of all time. This is the tale of a young girl who welcomes her flaws and strengths to go on a journey to save not just herself but her loved ones. It is placed in a fantastical world of old lady witches, a boy who turns into a dragon, and the friendly but deadly Ayakashis that only Miyazaki could conjure. It is a coming of age story, heightened in all senses and never squandered. Breathtaking visuals are a given (this is, after all a Ghibli masterpiece), but Miyazaki’s ability to layer a story in a way that crops a new meaning with every watch is best at work here.