The Best Studio Ghibli Films
The Ghibli film studio has become one of the modern iconic elements of Japanese pop culture. Throughout the world, even people who have never seen one of their films will know their style or recognize one of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastical characters. They have been making animated films for over 40 years that still delight and entertain audiences of all ages. Studio Ghibli has 5 of the top 10 highest grossing anime films worldwide including spots 2, 3, and 4. Out of the many wonderful films that Studio Ghibli has produced, I will be listing my personal picks for the top 5 best of the best. These are the films that I believe tell the best story, have the best imagination, and are just generally the most enjoyable to watch. I will say as a disclaimer that all of Miyazaki’s films are worth watching (many of them again and again) so I apologize if your favorite Ghibli movie did not make my list.
5) My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro – 1988)
This is probably the film with the most iconic Ghibli character. I knew what a Totoro was years before I actually finally saw the film itself. Totoro has become a sort of de facto mascot for the studio. There are Ghibli stores all over Japan and they always have the Totoro plush or cutout pushed out in front. I attribute Totoro’s universal popularity to this film being released fairly early in Miyazaki’s career so he has been around a very long time (and he is just a really adorable character). The actual movie has an incredibly simple story of a nice dad who moves to a new home in the country with his 2 young daughters. They fix up the old house while the girls run around and explore the countryside until the younger one finds Totoro asleep in a giant tree.
That is basically the entire movie. The only conflict comes up when the younger sister decides to walk to the next town over to visit their sick mother in the hospital. Then the older sister is forced to enlist Totoro’s help and the also now-iconic cat bus to find her, which of course they quickly do. Then everyone is fine. The reason that this film is at the bottom of this list, and possibly why it is only the 50th highest grossing anime film (lowest of my top 5), is largely because very little happens in it. It is essentially an imaginative home movie. And there are only really 3 fantasy characters in it: the dust goblins, Totoro, and the cat bus. Beyond that, the setting is just regular Japan. The reason this film made the top 5 (other than that people would be mad at me if it did not) is that it is just so much fun to watch. The interactions between the sisters and with the elements they encounter captures the childhood sense of awe, wonder, and humor so well. My Neighbor Totoro is just a lovely little film where everything is nice and turns out well and sometimes that can be very refreshing.
4) Ponyo [on the Cliff] (Gake no Ue no Ponyo – 2008)
Ponyo is the story of a small fish girl who escapes from her father Fujimoto, the formerly-human wizard/steward of the ocean and finds her way to a small Japanese fishing village shore. After she gets trapped in a glass bottle, a young boy, Sosuke, finds her and breaks her out, cutting his finger in the process. Ponyo licks the blood from Sosuke’s wound, healing it and using the blood and her own magical instincts to turn into a human girl. Ponyo and Sosuke play together until her father comes and takes her back to the ocean, but she escapes again, accidentally unleashing a torrent of magical energy that destabilizes the ocean and the balance of the world. Ultimately, Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the sea, comes to the rescue and a test of love allows Ponyo to turn into a human forever.
The story was admittedly inspired by The Little Mermaid and the parallels are obvious, down to Ponyo’s red hair. However, this is the Ghibli children’s book version of that story. Very much like Totoro, this film is a little bit too G-rated for a top ranking for me. Literally, the cut on Sosuke’s finger is the worst thing that happens to anyone in a film where rising oceans submerge an entire island. Everybody is just fine and it really undercuts the stakes and dramatic tension that usually carry a 2-hour film. However, the characters of Sosuke and Ponyo are treated so honestly and playfully as 5-year-old children that it becomes impossible not to smile at watching them do the simplest tasks throughout their adventure.
Ponyo’s best points for me come from the animation used in this film and from the soundtrack. During the production of Ponyo, the entire CGI department of Ghibli studio was closed and the entire film was drawn by hand instead, giving this film more than 170,000 individual images. This really helps establish the storybook quality of Ponyo and makes it seem like you are watching a much older but no less beautiful film. The imagination and detail used for the myriad of sea creatures are breathtaking. Combine all of this with a fully orchestrated soundtrack (typical for Ghibli films) and you have a film that is quite magical (also a common Ghibli quality) making it the 4th highest grossing anime film of all time, perfect for my number 4 spot.
3) Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro – 2004)
This film is set in an unnamed European-like country on the verge of a war in a historically fictionalized version of the early 20th century. It is a world where technology and magic coexist. A young girl named Sophie gets caught up in a magical rivalry and is cursed by a local witch, turning her into an old woman. Sophie then seeks out and finds the titular moving castle owned by the young wizard Howl. Once there, she appoints herself the cleaning lady and through her we see the magic of Howl’s world unfold. She falls in love with Howl despite her curse (and several others; almost everybody has a curse of some sort) and the fact that he is also a bird monster sometimes. They grow to love each other while Howl continues fighting against the war itself, and everybody winds up happy and with all the curses lifted by the end.
This film is loosely based on a 1986 novel of the same name by a British author. The details of the conflict are left intentionally ambiguous and there is a strong anti-war sentiment throughout. The story and structure of Howl’s Moving Castle has a tendency to meander around and several of the elements introduced are either glossed over, unexplained, or left behind, which I find a little frustrating, and why this film is only number 3 on the list. But the beautiful landscape artwork, magical animations, interesting characters (Calcifer, the whiny contracted fire-demon that moves the castle, is my favorite), and one of my favorite musical scores of any of the Ghibli films still make Howl’s Moving Castle extremely enjoyable and definitely one of my top 5 choices. It is no wonder why it is the 3rd highest grossing anime film of all time right behind Spirited Away.
2) Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – 2001)
Spirited Away is the story of a young girl and her parents who accidentally get lost in the spirit realm. When her parents eat some magical food and turn into pigs, Chihiro must beg for a job at a bathhouse for spirits until she can find a way to save them from being eaten. Chihiro’s name is magically taken away by the business owner Yubaba, and she is given the name Sen (the only remaining kanji character in Chihiro’s name and why it is in the Japanese title). With the help of some new friends, including the young boy Haku who happens to also be a dragon, Sen is forced to mature and become more confident in herself and her abilities. It is an Alice in Wonderland type of story with a lot of magic and many of the colorful characters for which Ghibli films are known.
This film rises high for me by the sheer scope of creativity used to fill an entire spiritual bathhouse with dozens of original creations that somehow immediately seem familiar. Along with Sen, we as the audience get to be immersed in the world of this film. It is a relatively simple and easy to follow the story with some actual stakes and motivated characters, though you are not always sure what those motivations are. Spirited Away is actually the 2nd highest grossing anime film of all time now that it has been edged out by the film Your Name, released in 2016. And although it is the most profitable Ghibli film to date and rated the best (IMDB), it is not my personal number 1 pick, but it definitely deserves to be high in my top 5.
1) Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime – 1997)
Set in the Muromachi Period in Japan, Princess Mononoke is a story about Ashitaka, the last prince from a dwindling Emishi tribe, whose remote village is attacked by a cursed forest spirit. While defending his people, Ashitaka becomes fatally cursed as well and must venture out in search of a cure. He discovers an iron-working village and a campaign by its leader to kill the god of the forest in hopes of using it to grant the Emperor eternal life. While trying to convince his human counterparts to adopt respect and harmony with nature rather than destroy it, Ashitaka finds San, a young princess who has been raised by and become part of the forest’s wolf tribe. Together they try to stop the oncoming war and prevent disaster for everyone. This film for me has the most well-developed characters and the highest stakes within the story. It does not introduce as many colorful characters as Spirited Away but the various spirits of the forest and cursed giant monsters definitely get the point across.
Princess Mononoke is unusual in that it is not a film for young children. It is considerably darker and more violent than most other films produced by Studio Ghibli. Its portrayal of the warfare between man against man and man against nature is a far cry away from My Neighbor Totoro where literally nothing bad happens to anyone. A darker side of humanity is shown where characters are greedy, scheming, and merciless. There are numerous deaths, dismemberment, and decapitations throughout the film but not in a way that is overly graphic or obscene.
This historical fiction is my top choice because it keeps all of the typical brilliant aspects of Ghibli films: dynamic characters, a magical world, incredible music, amazing art direction, and also sprinkles in my love of Japanese history and some gritty realism. These extra elements make Princess Mononoke the most engaging and emotionally satisfying story of all the Ghibli films I have seen. I am definitely not alone in my love for this film because of Princess Mononoke, though only the 7th highest grossing anime film of all time, it is rated as the 2nd best behind Spirited Away and just above Howl’s Moving Castle. For me, Princess Mononoke is the number 1 best Ghibli film.
What Do You Think of These List of the Best Studio Ghibli Films?
What are your top 5 favorite Ghibli studio films? How do your rankings stack up against mine? Which other Ghibli films do you think should have made the cut? Feel free to comment below and let us know if you agree or disagree with my results. But one thing is clear: Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have made some of the best films in the world, and hopefully these masterpieces will stand the test of time for generations to come.