A short while ago, Netflix treated us by putting all but one of Studio Ghibli’s feature films onto their streaming service (Grave of the Fireflies being the only one left out, for some reason) so I of course took advantage of this opportunity by (re)watching them all and putting them into a final, ranked list. The vast majority were completely new to me (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya being the only ones that I’d seen before) so it was a very rewarding experience watching these for the first time – some were really wonderful discoveries while others fell short so, perhaps in an effort to write a little bit more, having not written any blog posts through the month of April, I present to you now my ranking of all the 22 Studio Ghibli films that I’ve seen.
22. The Cat Returns (2002)
As something of a sequel to Whisper of the Heart (which I didn’t see beforehand – maybe I would’ve enjoyed this a little more if I had? Nah, I doubt it), this film tells of a young girl who saves a cat from being run over, only to discover that he’s a prince and is soon transported into the cat kingdom, and while it starts off somewhat promisingly, it ends up being a surprisingly unpleasant affair, with offputting animation and no characters that I particularly cared about. It may be one of the shortest Ghibli films, but I ultimately found myself wanting it to end as soon as possible.
21. Ocean Waves (1993)
As one of the studio’s more “realistic” films, focusing on human beings start to who reflect on their adolescence, this one sees a young man who spots a familiar face on a train platform and then reminisces on his past relationship with her; it’s alright but also very forgettable as the story is kinda dull and the central female character is too unlikeable.
20. Tales from Earthsea (2006)
From director Gorõ Miyazaki, son of the maestro, this film attempts to tell a fantasy story full of wizards, magic, prophecies, evil wizards, scary monsters, and an unassuming young hero and it’s certainly worth watching once, fully capable of providing an hour or two of fantastical entertainment and the final act works well enough, but it doesn’t manage to do enough and it’s ultimately a “one and done” fantasy adventure.
19. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
A very different sort of Ghibli tale, this one is uniquely animated and gives us a series of vignettes about the life of an everyday Japanese family; the episodic nature is definitely a unique touch and there’s enough heart and humour to be found, plus the “Que Sera, Sera” musical finale is a most wonderful way to finish, but the novelty wears off after a while, some episodes are naturally stronger than others, and I sadly found myself losing interest as it went on.
18. Pom Poko (1994)
Pom Poko is clearly very imaginative and has a central message about the importance of preserving nature, focusing on a society of shapeshifting raccoons of all things, and while the film provides a fair amount of crazy fun, humour, and several visually intriguing sequences, it eventually loses the plot as the story goes on to become a bit too convoluted and things end up getting too messy.
And I certainly was NOT expecting raccoon testicles to play such a large part of the narrative. Good lord!
17. Only Yesterday (1991)
Another “realistic” tale that sees a young woman reflecting on her adolescence, this film has a pretty strong story as the sections that take place in her youth are interesting to watch and the rest of the film proves to be meditative and thoughtful, giving us some likeable characters and a moving atmosphere, but there’s not that much that you’ll remember afterwards.
16. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Apparently not an official Ghibli film, seeing as how it was made before the studio was officially founded, but the studio logo does indeed appear before the feature and many consider it to be a worthy member of the Ghibli family so of course, I’ll include it; it’s a little rough around the edges but nonetheless, it gave audiences a taste of what Miyazaki had to offer: an expansive, magical adventure about a very likeable, brave and heroic young girl who takes to her flying machine to save the day and although it tends to ramble on a bit, it’s something of an early gem full of colour, wonder and adventure, and it made Miyazaki a name to watch out for.
15. The Wind Rises (2013)
Based on fact, telling the story of a plane designer during World War Two, this film pays loving tribute to legendary aviators and its appreciation and love of the design of flying machines is admirable even to those who know little about it; the main character is wonderfully sweet and supportable and there’s an extremely emotional, tragic ending that gives the film so much power and worth.
14. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Another Gorõ Miyazaki one, this film includes some very infectious musical choices (ones that somehow reminded me of Pixar, for some strange reason) and it’s a warm and heartfelt story about a group of young people who try hard to prevent their club from being destroyed by the Olympic committee; the relationship between the two main characters works well and overall, this is quite a lovely film to watch as it’s full of humour and good feeling.
13. When Marnie Was There (2014)
A visually pleasing film about a troubled young girl who meets a mysterious new friend and begins to unravel the mystery surrounding her, this feature sure does have an interesting mystery at the centre but above all else, the final act wherein the secret of just who she is is uncovered is incredibly emotional, a real tear jerker, and all in all, the film has good writing, characters, and there’s some real heart in there.
12. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
The film that’s leagues ahead of its “sequel” The Cat Returns, this film, which first features the character of The Baron, has an entertainingly headstrong and spirited young girl at the centre who spends her time rewriting John Denver lyrics (among other things!) and who yearns to continue writing; it’s very fun to watch her become infuriated with the male protagonist (“Jerk!”) but beyond that, this film has an endearing atmosphere of magic and wonder and there are a few musical sequences – when they have a “ho-down” and when her reworked lyrics to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” are heard over the closing credits – that are just joyous to experience.
11. Porco Rosso (1992)
Wow, I’m surprised that this actually isn’t in the top ten because this tale about an ace pilot who just happens to be a pig is a treat from start to finish; I really love the design of the main character, as well as his occasionally grumpy personality, and equally as endearing is the character of Fio – an enthusiastic mechanic who forms a close bond with our protagonist. All in all, it’s a pleasingly designed, wonderfully uplifting, fun and adventurous story with great characters and it more than earns a big “thumbs up” from me!
10. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from this film, having never really heard much about it beforehand, but Studio Ghibli’s take on The Borrowers contains plenty of beautiful animation, a small group of excellent characters (including a superb heroine and a really nasty villain), and the story is engrossing, entertaining, and imaginative.
9. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Another one that I really wish I could place higher (I think that I took some points off because I felt the interest waned towards the end), this film is just delightful as it tells a unique and fun story that centres on a really loveable young protagonist (and her equally awesome cat) as she takes to her broomstick to deliver goods and to spread happiness to all of her lovely neighbours; the music is absolutely superb (especially in the scene where she takes on her first delivery), the animation is wonderful, and it’s ultimately just an ideal comfort film. Not bad, Miss Witch.
8. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Studio Ghibli’s first official film gives us a quintessential Miyazaki adventure, complete with flying machines, a lost city, a gallery of rogues, and two young protagonists who race against the bad guys and to unravel a mystery; the old-school animation is a real treat and the whole thing is just a fun adventure that’s full of colourful characters – as it was with Nausicaä, it demonstrated just what wonders Miyazaki could create, giving us that sense of wonder, imagination and magic that only a true maestro could weave.
7. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Another Miyazaki epic, this film boasts some truly enviable animation, particularly when it comes to the castle itself, and we’re also treated to an inventive and magical world full of talking fires, helpful scarecrows, witches, wizards, and one of the better protagonists in “old lady” Sophie. I have to admit that I think that the film drops the ball in the second half when events get a little clunky and convoluted, but the story is nonetheless epic and very creative, there’s plenty of adventure to be found, and it remains a highly impressive animated spectacle.
6. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Admittedly, I didn’t exactly love this film when I first saw it and fully intended to place it towards the middle of this list but upon rewatch, my opinion of it certainly grew. As the longest Ghibli film so far, it definitely feels long and the slow pacing is a bit of an issue but apart from that, this film shows off some incredibly spectacular watercolour animation and design (particularly when it comes to the Woodcutter and his wife or in those early scenes of the Princess as a baby), the music is wondrous, and it has an intriguing and thematically rich story about nature, the relationship between parents and their child, and the central struggle that occurs when the Princess must choose between living her own life and holding on to her spirit and individuality or honouring her parents and respecting her royal duties.
5. Ponyo (2008)
This was an incredibly fun, smile-inducing and imaginative film about a particularly rambunctious and energetic goldfish creature who wants to escape her oppressive father to become human and in addition to her inescapably heartwarming antics, Ponyo also succeeds thanks to its very endearing brother/sister type relationship which lies at the centre of the film as well as its typically imaginative and colourful story and gorgeous visuals. Ham!
4. Princess Mononoke (1997)
This will surely be too low a placing for some, since I believe that it’s considered be one of the studio’s absolute greatest, but while I think that there are three who are more worthy of taking the top prize, Princess Mononoke is nonetheless one of the very best Ghibli films, given its epic nature, strong characters, stunning animation, and excellent story that’s full of the adventure, conflict and boundless magic that we’ve come to expect from the maestro Miyazaki.
3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
This was the one Ghibli film that wasn’t made available on Netflix and beforehand, I obviously wondered why that was but having now seen it, I think that I can guess the answer. Short answer: it’s grim.
Far from the magic, wonder and good feeling of most other Ghibli films, Grave of the Fireflies is the darkest and most tragic film from their back catalogue: a harrowing, powerful and emotionally draining story about a young brother and sister who struggle to survive during the war, the former striving to shield his sibling from the harsh realities of the world and to keep her fed and her spirits up.
But while it doesn’t hold back on showing the horrors of war, there are still wonderful moments of levity as the siblings occasionally play around and have fun with each other (their realistic relationship is mesmerising to watch) and in other areas, the animation is beautiful and the music is lovely.
2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
The ultimate comfort film, this 90 minute wonder tells a simple story of two sisters who move into a new house and soon discover the larger-than-life spirit who lives in the forest; those two girls are just so entertaining to watch, Miyazaki having captured the boisterous nature and childhood glee and innocence perfectly but there are so many other absolutely lovely characters as well and elsewhere, the music is fun to listen to and the story is simple but very effective, also managing to include a little conflict as the family tries to cope with the mother’s illness.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Maybe I’m a little biased as this was the very first Ghibli film I ever watched but this recipient of the Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards contains absolutely everything that makes the studio great and then some, telling an epic and highly imaginative tale about a gloomy young girl who finds herself in a bathhouse full of all kinds of spirits; as it is with so many other films mentioned above (you’re probably tired of me mentioning the same things over and over again!), the animation is divine, the music leaves you speechless, the various spirits and monsters are memorable, and the story is one that you just savour getting stuck into as you immerse yourself into the tale that’s full of excitement, wonder, magic, imagination, and danger.
Truly, Spirited Away is a wonder and a winner.