The Best Japanese Movies. Top 5 Studio Ghibli Masterpieces! | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

The Best Japanese Movies. Top 5 Studio Ghibli Masterpieces!

By Guidable Writers Sep 4, 2020

The Best Studio Ghibli Movies

The movies of Studio Ghibli 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.

5) My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro – 1988)

Release date: April 16, 1988 
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Featured song: My Neighbor Totoro
IMDb: 8.2/10

My Neighbor Totoro is probably the film with the most iconic Ghibli character. 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. The actual movie has an incredibly simple story of a nice dad who moves to a new home in the country with his two 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.

Simply romance. 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 the top 5), is mainly because very little happens in it. It is essentially an imaginative home movie. And there are only really three 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 is that it is just so much fun to watch. The interactions between the sisters and with the elements they encounter capture the childhood sense of awe, wonder, and humour so well. My Neighbor Totoro is just a lovely little film where everything is so elegant and turns out well, and sometimes that can be very refreshing.

4) Ponyo [on the Cliff] (Gake no Ue no Ponyo – 2008)

Release date: July 19, 2008 
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Featured song: Gake no Ue no Ponyo
IMDb: 7.7/10

The Little Mermaid admittedly inspired the story of the movie, 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.

The cut on Sosuke’s finger is the worst thing that happens to anyone in a movie where rising oceans submerge an entire island. Everybody is just fine, and it 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 assets are 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 whole movie was drawn by hand instead, giving this film more than 170,000 individual images. This 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 standard Ghibli quality) making it the 4th highest-grossing anime film of all time.

3) Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro – 2004)

Release date: November 20, 2004 
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
IMDb: 8.2/10

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 older woman.

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 have 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, compelling characters (Calcifer, the whiny contracted fire-demon that moves the castle, is my favourite), and outstanding musical scores of any of the Ghibli films still make Howl’s Moving Castle extremely enjoyable and definitely one of the 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)

Release dateJuly 20, 2001 
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Featured song: Always With Me
IMDb: 8.6/10

Spirited Away is the story of a young girl and her parents who accidentally get lost in the spirit realm. It is an Alice in Wonderland type of tale with a lot of magic and many of the colourful characters for which Ghibli films are known.

This film rises high by the sheer scope of creativity used to fill an entire spiritual bathhouse with dozens of original creations that somehow immediately seem familiar. 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 the 2nd highest-grossing anime film of all time now that it has been edged out by the film Your Name, released in 2016.

1) Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime – 1997)

Release date: July 12, 1997 
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Featured song: Princess Mononoke Theme Song
IMDb: 8.4/10

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. This film is considered as having the most well-developed characters and the highest stakes within the story. It does not introduce as many colourful 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 movies 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 nothing bad happens to anyone. A darker side of humanity is shown where characters are greedy, dishonest, and ruthless. 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 a top choice because it keeps all of the typical brilliant aspects of Ghibli films: dynamic characters, a magical world, incredible music, great 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. 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. 

What Do You Think of This List of the Best Studio Ghibli Masterpieces?

What are your top 5 favourite 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 the list. 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.