Following the UK release of Earwig and the Witch, the most recent production from Studio Ghibli, a company synonymous with elite quality animation and wondrous story-telling, we take a look at their entire filmography and rank them in definitive order. Founded by legendary creators Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata, Ghibli is now at a turning point in its history, with Miyazaki coming out of retirement to direct one last film – ‘How Do You Live?’ The following 23 entries are comprised of several of the pairs’ masterworks, and considering many of the animated juggernauts included, the task of ranking them was unenviable. During this period of transition, with Gorō Miyazaki struggling to find his feet and the Studio suffering from an identity crisis, who knows what the future holds for Ghibli. However, for a company renowned for its unmatched consistency and inherent genius, there is little doubt we will be treated to additional masterpieces further down the road.
- Earwig and the Witch (2020)
The beginning reminds the viewer of the initial chase sequence in The Castle of Cagliostro, if the scene was a computer-generated mess devoid of character or style. The Studio’s first entry comprising entirely CG is not only controversial, but also looks dated and low budget. It is animated like Paw Patrol or any daytime childrens’ TV show from the late 2000s, with simplistic texturing and non-existent facial features. At times it almost looks like poorly constructed stop-motion. Ghibli will have to be careful not to alienate fans of theirs if this is the direction they intend to follow after Miyazaki’s full retirement. As Gorō Miyazaki takes on the mantle, there is clear room for improvement.
- Tales from Earthsea (2006)
Gorō Miyazaki also missed the mark with his first Ghibli film. Tales from Earthsea had every component necessary to be a bona fide classic. A Ghibli-adapted version of Ursula K. Le Guin’s eternal Earthsea series, complete with Archmagis and Warlocks voiced respectively in the English Dub by Timothy Dalton and Willem Defoe. Unfortunately, what should have been a winning combination ultimately fell short. This entry is humourless, soulless and insipid to a point where the audience is completely disconnected with the amazing animation before them. Even a stunning dragon fight can’t help this film escape the bottom of Ghibli’s proverbially barrel.
- My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Takahata’s experimental story My Neighbors the Yamadas distances itself from the classic style of animation in favour of a newspaper strip aesthetic. It’s a light-hearted depiction of an urban Japanese family, told through brief, evocative episodes. These vignettes tackle typical encounters and trials, building a believable picture of family life which is globally relatable. While this easy-going film has its place in Ghibli culture, interspersed among the anti-war and climate-aware entries, it would have served better as a series of shorts akin to the funny pages found in newspapers. The lack of a cohesive plot makes the 105 minutes drag, and the intermittently successful humour can be wearisome. A flop at the box office, it is no surprise Ghibli haven’t utilised fragmented, comic-strip animation since.
- The Cat Returns (2002)
This is reliably Ghibli with its central existential narrative, but lacks the emotional complexity and charm associated with some of its superiors. We follow a disillusioned schoolgirl called Haru, who is inadvertently transported to a feline kingdom after she saves a Cat Prince from being crushed by a truck. The narrative is relaxed and silly, but it never separates itself from other coming-of-age Ghibli classics. Coincidentally, The Baron in The Cat Returns is an anthropomorphic cat based on the same statue from Whisper of the Heart. Ghibli canon consistencies are always a pleasure, but the lack of integral subtleties and magic hold this entry back from the top spots. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita, the absence of Miyazaki’s flair is unfortunately palpable.
- Pom Poko (1994)
This is Takahata combining Japanese folklore with Animal Farm, shedding light on inherent greed and ‘human nature’. Pom Poko follows a tribe of raccoon shapeshifters attempting to prevent the urbanisation of their forest. Predominantly a children’s film, there are enough crude jokes and lascivious raccoons to pique the interest of adults alike. While an interesting take on climate crisis, and a cross-examination of ecological destruction and its consequences, the extended runtime and non-specific characters dilute any meaningful message. Still, it’s an enjoyable entry in Ghibli’s collection complete with the most interesting use of testicles committed to film.
- From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
The non-fantastical Ghibli entries are typically the unsung heroes of the studio releases. From up on Poppy Hill tells the story of a group of Yokohama students attempting to save their clubhouse and with it, a myriad of esoteric student societies. It is nostalgic, realistic, well-crafted and animated smartly. The overriding message that we can’t move forward without addressing and contemplating the past is powerful and resonant. Add to that a complex and nuanced central romance, and you get a thoroughly enjoyable entry which is comfortably Gorō Miyazaki’s best. Lacks the power, gravitas and emotional punch of other Ghibli films, and loses focus in the second act, but stands on its own feet amongst the powerhouse filmography.
- Ocean Waves (1993)
Ghibli’s sole TV film was also the first not to be directed by Miyazaki or Takahata. In spite of these facts, it is arguably the studio’s most underrated and underappreciated. It tells the story of a high-school love triangle which transcends its basic premise to examine the tribulations of youth and the difficulties in maintaining long-term friendships. Ocean Waves is a melodrama which is succinct, poignant and understated. Its existence can be attributed to the younger members at Ghibli being given a chance to make a film quickly and cheaply, neither of which they were able to achieve. However, this is a beautiful and melancholy coming-of-age film that shouldn’t be solely part of a completionists’ watchlist, but a fundamental entry in Ghibli history that is celebrated for its enduring charm.
- The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Adapted from Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Arrietty provides a refreshing take on a well-known story. While fairly unassuming and lacking in grandeur compared with other Ghibli childrens’ films, the central friendship between borrower Arrietty and human Shō is brilliantly comforting. Yonebayashi’s first film at the helm is a showcase of the studio’s unmatched skill in animation. The perspective of small people looking up at the world, and vice versa, provided the masters at Ghibli a perfect opportunity to flex their creative muscles. While it is warm and gentle, the uncomplicated storyline and lack of humour hold it back from the higher tier kids’ films.
- The Wind Rises (2013)
Scattered throughout Ghibli lore, namely in Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle, is an expressed interest in engineering and flight. Hayao Miyazaki focusses on these themes in The Wind Rises, using his creativity to build a largely fictional biopic about famed aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Horikoshi’s dream-like sequences about flight are the most quintessential Ghibli and are visually sublime, helping elevate a simple biopic into a thought-provoking, layered account on the cost of ambition. This instalment marked Miyazaki’s initial retirement and touches on many aspects of his life’s work; a retrospective analysis which forces the viewer to look back at his other films and comprehend his thoughts on pacificism. Building a machine of war at the expense of time with a dying loved one is hardly a subtle metaphor, but looking at the futility of hindsight is central to this film’s complex emotional core.
- Whisper of the Heart (1995)
A beautiful and riveting tale of imagination and following your passions. Shizuki is an avid reader who, in her aspirations to become a writer, develops a story centred around The Baron. The Baron represents a cat statue with an interesting past, exhibited at a local antique store. It would also go on to provide the titular feline in Ghibli spin-off The Cat Returns. Whisper of the Heart explores themes of reunion and blossoming romances, where not even the corny soundtrack can detract from the narrative. Written by the studious and meticulous Miyazaki, it is unsurprising that Shizuki provided the inspiration for the ‘study girl’ on YouTube; a character synonymous with Lo-Fi playlists which have helped millions of academics worldwide.
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Finding your place in a difficult world is the most widely used trope in coming-of-age films. Kiki’s Delivery Service follows this basic narrative, but embellishes it with an alluring story about a trainee witch, Kiki, as she leaves home and attempts to establish herself in the world. Resonant more now than during its initial release, owing to the increasing financial hardships experienced by young people, the movie focusses on the complexities of maturity. Miyazaki wanted to explore the delicate relationship between reliance and independence, and through immaculate pacing, delivers a heart-warming entry with unexpected depth.
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
From Takahata comes a beautiful and gracious film centred on Japanese folklore, about a princess born inside a bamboo stalk who rapidly grows to become an enthralling and mysterious young woman. The animation is quite astounding – how Ghibli can manipulate their drawings to reflect mood and tone is second to none. The contrast between the smooth, contoured, graded lines that fill the screen during peaceful sequences, and the jagged, erratic, deliberate lines present during frantic phases of the film, is wondrous. When Kaguya flees a party after overhearing some unsavoury things about her family, the animation, which is similar to the style of Yubaba’s fast movements in Spirited Away, is striking and gripping. The 140-minute runtime is cumbersome but with it being Takahata’s last film, it represents a bittersweet ode to his enduring legacy, typified by a magnificent and fitting finale which helps to ensure nobody will forget his impact on film.
- Porco Rosso (1992)
The thematically dense Ghibli collection can sometimes weigh heavy with climate awareness and anti-war sentiment. Porco Rosso, the Crimson Pig, is Ghibli’s most frivolous and fancy-free entry which combines some exquisite aeronautical animation with a delightfully inconsequential story. It follows Porco, a cursed anthropomorphic pig and WWI flying ace who chases ‘air pirates’ in the Adriatic Sea. The sheer silliness of the story works remarkably, and has since garnered cult status among animated fans. There are vast similarities with Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, especially from a satirical standpoint of conscientious objection and disillusionment with humanity. Like Yossarian before him, Porco is a complicated hero you can’t help but root for.
- Only Yesterday (1991)
Takahata’s follow up to Grave of the Fireflies is significantly lighter. Flipping between the past and present, Only Yesterday follows Taeko, a disillusioned city slicker on a family trip to rural Japan. With regular flashbacks, the innocence of youth is explored through Taeko’s childish ambitions, and contrasted with her renewed outlook on life in her late 20s. ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ is a trope Takahata likes to play with, without the accustomed cynicism. The youthful Taeko attempts to live her life to the fullest, experiencing all and committing to everything. However, it is the natural, unplanned moments which resonate with her now she has fully matured. Only Yesterday represents a unique Ghibli film which focusses on the existential questions and the monotony of life from the perspective of a woman in Japan, similarly to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya but more realistic and grounded in its delivery. We’ve all wondered whether our younger selves would be proud of the people we’ve become, and Only Yesterday explores the idea of being true to yourself majestically.
- Ponyo (2008)
At this point in the list, we start to delve into Hayao Miyazaki’s real masterpieces. Ponyo follows a similar narrative to The Little Mermaid, with the titular character desperately attempting to become a human, much to the dismay of her sea-dwelling father. It has a poetic feel to it, with a simple but almost frantic storyline that is never boring. Miyazaki has always expressed an interest in the sky and in flight, and with Ponyo his focus switches to the ocean. The Great Wave of Japan is clearly encapsulated in Miyazaki’s animation, with a sumptuous storm sequence involving Ponyo bouncing across bulging waves in search of her friend. This is a magical film which is thoroughly enjoyable for kids and adults alike.
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Based loosely on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle gave Miyazaki a medium to express his discontent with global affairs and the Iraq war. Sophie, a young milliner, is inexplicably turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. In her quest to be turned back to her youthful self she encounters the titular castle and its master, a mysterious wizard called Howl. While Howl’s Moving Castle is rich with idiosyncratic characters and moving animation, it is also stark in its examination of war. There is a clear dichotomy between Miyazaki’s ethical opposition to violence, typified by a scene where innocent townsfolk are carpet bombed, and a touching story about the difficulties of ageing. This message doesn’t depreciate in the English Dub, with the absolutely stellar voice-acting ensemble of Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall and Christian Bale carrying the story dutifully. Miyazaki’s films invariably set to balance the light-hearted with the ethically complex, and Howl’s Moving Castle accomplishes this better than most, blending an emotionally intense narrative with a youthful sense of adventure.
- When Marnie Was There (2014)
Released after Miyazaki’s first retirement and representing the final work of famed animator Makiko Futaki before he sadly passed away, When Marnie Was There has a deferential and meaningful feel to it as it serves to highlight the inevitably of time. The story follows Anna, an orphan who’s sent to the seaside during the school holidays as a form of treatment for her ongoing asthma. There she develops an intimate relationship with a mysterious girl called Marnie. When Marnie Was There is arguably Ghibli’s most beautifully animated film, with visually breath-taking shots that take it to extraordinary heights. The film delves into identity and self-esteem, tailoring itself towards a younger audience who the director Yonebayashi hoped may feel slightly less isolated and alone after watching it. This is a heart-wrenching tear-jerker that reveals how much can change in a generation, and how powerless we are to prevent it.
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
The vast majority of Ghibli films are ostensibly made for kids, but My Neighbor Totoro is comfortably its most child-friendly. The plot is also their most simplistic, focussing on two sisters as they immerse themselves in the local environment and become acquainted with various woodland spirits. Released in the same year as Grave of the Fireflies, it is testament to Ghibli’s imaginative minds that they can depict two children in such starkly contrasting situations. My Neighbor Totoro is an irresistible tale in that it expresses the purity of childhood, with all the bumps and obstacles that appear along the way, and uses wonderfully created spirit animals to amplify these emotions. There’s a reason that Totoro is the Ghibli logo, and that’s because he captured the hearts of innumerable children worldwide.
- Castle in the Sky (1986)
Studio Ghibli’s first officially produced film has something for everyone and is arguably its most important. Castle in the Sky follows two children searching for a mysterious floating castle, while being pursued by military agents and air pirates. It has left an eternal mark on popular culture with its timeless references and ground-breaking visuals. Considered a major milestone in the steampunk genre, it has gone on to influence every aspect of multimedia. From other Ghibli classics like Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle, to WALL-E and Treasure Planet, the lasting effects of Castle in the Sky are there for everyone to observe. Even videogames like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Bioshock: Infinite were clearly inspired by its greatness. With air pirates, steam-powered robots and mechanical flying zeppelins, there are a multitude of archetypal steampunk elements which set this action-adventure classic apart from the rest.
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
Princess Mononoke is one of Ghibli’s most mature-themed films, and definitely Miyazaki’s most visceral. Ashitaka is a prince caught in the middle of a brutal conflict between the animal gods who wish to preserve the forest, and the humans who wish to destroy it. Miyazaki’s humanitarian and objectionist beliefs are brought to the fore in a truly epic saga which exposes the concerning relationship between human growth and natural preservation. Its release also underpinned a seismic change in the relationship between Ghibli and US distributors. Harvey Weinstein notoriously insisted on making several cuts to Mononoke in order to increase the appeal to an American audience. One of the film’s producers sent him a katana accompanied with the message ‘no cuts’, consolidating their firm policy of ‘no editing’ when licensing their movies internationally. This ironically contrasts with the story itself, which features all manner of violence and dismemberment to accompany the complex script.
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Strictly released before the inception of Ghibli, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a stalwart in any complete list, simply for its lasting influence and creative similarities. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world and focusses on Nausicaä, the princess of The Valley of the Wind. Through a set of unfortunate events, she becomes entangled in a complex ecological clash between the belligerent kingdom of Tolmekia and a species of massive, mutated insects called Ohms. While its plot is borderline convoluted and too complex for children, its role in Ghibli lore is second to none. It is Miyazaki’s seminal work, bringing his fervent beliefs into light with a masterclass in animation and storytelling. His ideologies would be mirrored and refined some years later with Princess Mononoke, which many consider to be its sister film, but the raw and uncompromising nature of Nausicaä affirm its significance. With inspiration from Le Guin’s Earthsea and Herbert’s Dune, this is every nerdist’s dream film, combining a thematically dense and enriching story with Ghibli’s most formidable heroine.
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Both Miyazaki and Takahata lived through bombing raids during the early parts of their youth. The stark reality and harrowing depiction of these events, combined with clear anti-war sentiment, is drawn directly from their real experiences and expressed in the deeply emotional Grave of the Fireflies. Set during the final months of WW2, Seita and Setsuko are siblings desperately trying to survive the war-torn landscape. The tragic and needless realities of Japan in its lamentable state is brought to life with cutting animation. As one of the most haunting animated films ever, there is barely any of the customary Ghibli joy to be derived from Grave of the Fireflies. However, the importance and gravity attributed to its narrative make it a must watch. Clearly a vital influence for the immaculate In This Corner of the World, it is clear that the ripples generated from this evocative entry remain widespread and irrepressible.
- Spirited Away (2001)
There are absolutely no surprises when it comes to the best Ghibli film of all time. Spirited Away is a landmark in animated history and a paradigm of the weird and wonderful. Chihiro is a 10-year-old girl who inadvertently enters the world of Kami (Japanese spirits). After her parents are transformed into pigs by the local witch Yubaba, Chihiro must find a way to liberate her family and return to the human world. This iconic entry remains the only Ghibli film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. However, because of the USA’s involvement in the Iraq War, Miyazaki boycotted the ceremony and did not return to the country until 2009. This is testament not only to Miyazaki’s long-held principles, but is also mirrored in the pacifistic themes that are evident within many of his films.
Through Chihiro’s liminal and enchanting journey, Miyazaki was able to develop his magnum opus, with hyper-realistic animation that is both vibrant and textured. The animation in Ghibli films invariably falls between great and perfect, but it is the additional aspects of Spirited Away that elevate it above its siblings. Joe Hisaishi’s score is the most accomplished in the filmography, typified by One Summer’s Day, an orchestral overture which sets the tone succinctly. Additionally, Spirited Away is peopled with the greatest ensemble committed to animation. Kamaji the spider-like spirit who controls the boiler room, Yubaba the proprietor of The Bathhouse and the enigmatic pseudo-antagonist No-Face comprise a spectacular set of inventive and complex characters.
Spirited Away contains a plethora of ultramodern animated shots which could comfortably fill an art gallery. It explores Western consumerism, environmentalism, identity and Japanese folklore with a larger-than-life tale drawn straight from the recesses of a Lewis Carroll dream journal. It is the product of fearless imagination, compounded by a fantastical plot which is as whacky as it is profound.