If you’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli film before, I’m honestly kind of jealous. With the addition of the majority of the studio’s back catalog to the new HBO Max streaming service in the US, along with its earlier arrival on Netflix elsewhere, you now have one of the greatest collections of movies of all time on tap. That’s a lot of potentially life-changing material to discover.
Studio Ghibli never even sold digital versions of its films until recently, so the shift to streaming will surely mean more people checking them out than ever before. To Ghibli first-timers, though, it might not be immediately obvious where to start. These movies are diverse in tone and style, with little to no connection between them beyond certain recurring motifs and themes. The overall quality is very high, but there are definitely some oddball films that wouldn’t be the best place to jump in.
Rather than outright ranking the movies, which would be a truly impossible task, I thought I’d put together a guide that would hopefully help people getting into Ghibli for the first time. This is obviously very subjective, and even then I’m not necessarily putting my favorites toward the top of the list; this is about easing you into the studio’s work and making sure you don’t write it all off after accidentally watching Tales from Earthsea.
THINGS TO KNOW FIRST
What the heck is Studio Ghibli anyway?
A Japanese animation studio founded by director Hayao Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, and the late director Isao Takahata in 1985, the year after the three worked on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Since then, the studio has produced 20 feature-length movies, the majority of which have been met with widespread acclaim.
How do you pronounce it?
Soft G. Unlike GIF. (Sorry.)
Should I watch in Japanese with subtitles or dubbed into English?
Up to you. I’d recommend the Japanese voice tracks if you don’t mind subtitles — most of the dubs are decent, but they’re a little inconsistent. And I really couldn’t imagine watching the more grounded-in-reality Ghibli movies in English. But I live in Japan, so your mileage may vary. It’s also worth noting that a few of the movies have slightly different soundtracks depending on their language.
Not to kick off with a curveball or anything, but I think the best place to start with Studio Ghibli would be its first movie, Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (1986). This film perhaps lacks some of the pathos of Ghibli’s later work, but it holds up incredibly well as a spirited fantasy adventure in the vein of Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Some of the most iconic Ghibli imagery, from the ancient robot guards to the titular floating castle, comes from this movie, and Joe Hisaishi’s synth-heavy soundtrack remains instantly recognizable today. Castle in the Sky is wildly entertaining and set a high bar for what was to follow.
My next suggestion is nothing like it at all. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) is Studio Ghibli’s most successful movie, and while I wouldn’t rank it this high as a personal favorite, I’d recommend watching it early on because it’ll show you a lot about the range of the studio’s work. It’s dense, lavish, ambitious, and all around an incredible achievement. The story of a young girl crossing into a magical world is simple enough, but it provides the backdrop for some of the most outlandish and creative animation ever committed to celluloid.
I would now like to bring you back down to Earth with Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday (1991), a truly wonderful movie without any fantastical elements whatsoever. It’s the best example of Ghibli’s ability to wrangle deep emotion out of the mundane, with hyper-realistic detail and subtle animation guided by an astute understanding of human psychology. Only Yesterday’s nostalgic tale could easily have been a live-action drama, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as moving. While this is one of Studio Ghibli’s lesser known works, having only received an official English release four years ago, it should be high on your list.
My personal favorite Miyazaki film is Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), so I can’t leave it off this list much longer. It’s such a simple, spare movie, but it’s so relentlessly heartwarming that I couldn’t imagine not having it in my life. Kiki, the headstrong but vulnerable witch-in-training making her way in a new town, is perhaps the best of Ghibli’s many excellent heroines, and the story never devolves into predictable cliché. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a movie that takes its time, delivering its upbeat message and emotional punches with perfect pacing, all set to a gorgeous Hisaishi score. I only wish I’d seen it when I was a kid.
Studio Ghibli isn’t just about Miyazaki and Takahata. Whisper of the Heart (1995), the only Ghibli project directed by Yoshifumi Kondo before his tragic death, is a beautiful film that encapsulates so much of what makes the studio’s work so timeless and evocative. A coming-of-age drama set in a meticulously drawn ’90s suburban Tokyo, Kondo effortlessly blends realism and fantasy to create one of the studio’s most romantic and magical stories. It’s no wonder that he was the first person Miyazaki and Takahata entrusted to direct a movie besides themselves, and it’s devastating that he never got the opportunity to achieve their renown. Don’t sleep on Whisper of the Heart — it’s right up there with the best.
The last Ghibli movie to earn my “essential” designation is Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988), perhaps the studio’s best-known film — or at least the one that’s produced the most merchandise. Totoro is, of course, an instantly iconic character that you no doubt recognize, but the movie itself is surprisingly spartan; almost nothing happens beyond “cute kids in rural Japan meet Totoro.” It’s a loving, funny depiction of childhood, however, and the background to the bare-bones story lends a sense of quiet melancholy that elevates its impact. My Neighbor Totoro is the sort of movie you could watch every few years and get something different out of it.
Here I’ll give a rundown of some Ghibli movies that I really like but wouldn’t quite rank as highly as the previous six in terms of accessibility. You probably wouldn’t be put off if you started with any of them, but I don’t think they’d be as representative.
- Porco Rosso (1992, Hayao Miyazaki) might be a tougher sell visually than most other Ghibli films, given that its protagonist is an obese pig in World War 1 flight gear. True to its “Change my looks but not my heart” tagline, though, Porco Rosso reveals itself to be one of Miyazaki’s most directly entertaining movies. It’s a straight-up comedy that finds space to touch on the horrors of fascism, the misogyny of the era, and the freedom of flight.
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata) doesn’t look like any other Ghibli movie or any other movie at all. Based on a Japanese folk tale, Kaguya employs a starkly minimalist art style with faded watercolors and harsh charcoal strokes that shift in precision with the tenor of the story. It outstays its welcome slightly, but this is a must-see.
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Miyazaki) was technically made before Studio Ghibli’s formation, but it tends to get included in Ghibli collections and is part of the HBO Max library, so I’m listing it here, too. Also, it’s awesome. A stark post-apocalyptic sci-fi story about a princess battling against a kingdom whose warmongering threatens to destroy the world altogether, there’s really nothing else like Nausicaä. The animation is clearly a little cruder than what was to follow, but this is still a visually iconic movie with one of the all-time great Joe Hisaishi scores. It’s a good thing these guys kept on working together.
- The Secret World of Arrietty (2010, Hiromasa Yonebayashi) flew under the radar a little, but it’s my favorite 21st-century Ghibli movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up on The Borrowers, which this is an adaptation of, but Yonebayashi’s directorial debut really captures the wonder and adventure of the studio’s best work, and composer Cécile Corbel turns in a wonderful European-influenced score. The concept of rendering everyday objects at oversized scale is perfect for Ghibli’s obsessive attention to detail, and Arrietty herself is a great protagonist. This is kind of a low-key movie in its scope, but I love it.
- Princess Mononoke (1997, Miyazaki) is Studio Ghibli’s take on an Akira Kurosawa-style war epic. It doesn’t quite get there for me, suffering from a bloated running time and a sprawling plot that loses sight of the intimate details that make Ghibli’s best works so impactful. But there’s no denying the scale of the ambition and the achievement — it’s a visually amazing movie that shows Miyazaki accelerating his powers ahead of Spirited Away.
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004, Miyazaki), meanwhile, is what followed Spirited Away, and it’s of a piece with Princess Mononoke — a stunning but unfocused epic. This film is all over the place plot-wise, but it’s never less than gorgeous to look at, and thematically it feels like Miyazaki’s id spilled out onto the screen. Anti-war messages, the joy of flying, a suspicion of technology — it’s all here. And the moving castle itself is one of Ghibli’s most vividly realized creations.
- The Wind Rises (2013, Miyazaki) was originally pitched as Miyazaki’s final picture before he came out of retirement yet again for a future project, How Do You Live? It’s an exceptional movie, but I’d definitely recommend watching it after all his other works. Ostensibly a biopic of World War II fighter plane designer Jiro Horikoshi, The Wind Rises is a complex, moving meditation on many of the themes that marked the director’s work to date.
- Pom Poko (1994, Takahata) is an environmentally conscious comedy about a threatened community of raccoon dogs with prominent, anatomically accurate testicles, and for the sake of concise writing, I feel like I’m underplaying the sheer oddness of this movie. It does have fantastic animation, despite the somewhat undercooked storytelling. While it’s not exactly Takahata’s most consequential work, I’d say it’s definitely worth a watch. Eventually.
- My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999, Takahata) is another oddball Takahata comedy, and I’d say it’s more successful as long as you’re not looking for anything remotely resembling a conventional movie. It adopts truly unique newspaper cartoon-style watercolor art and a structure based around unrelated slice-of-life vignettes. Not everything lands, but it’s often incredibly poignant. This is Takahata at his most experimental, and sometimes at his best.
- When Marnie Was There (2014, Yonebayashi) is another adaptation of a British children’s book from Yonebayashi, though it’s a much quieter and more sorrowful story about loneliness and friendship. I like it a lot, but it wouldn’t be a great first Ghibli movie; it’s extremely slow-paced and requires a certain degree of faith in the kind of payoff you’d expect.
- From Up on Poppy Hill (2011, Gorō Miyazaki) is the second movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, and it’s far better than his first — which we’ll get into later. The plot — a schoolgirl tries to save a crumbling clubhouse from demolition in ’60s Yokohama — is refreshingly low-stakes, but it’s told with real passion and the rendition of its setting is endearing and believable. This isn’t one of Studio Ghibli’s seminal works, but it’s charming and well-executed.
- Ponyo (2008, Miyazaki) is a bizarre take on The Little Mermaid that sees Ghibli make its clearest grab for adorable cuteness to date. This is a purely light-hearted kids movie that also manages to be extremely odd, and it’s honestly the Ghibli movie that I find hardest to get a read on. Compared to My Neighbor Totoro, another cute kids’ movie that nonetheless holds obvious appeal for adults, I was never really sure what to make of Ponyo’s cosmic sci-fi goldfish drama. There is little to no emotional resonance here for me. But hey, the sea looks amazing.
- Tales from Earthsea (2006, Gorō Miyazaki) is somewhat of an anomaly in Studio Ghibli’s library: a movie that received outright negative critical reception. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s popular fantasy series, I wouldn’t call it disastrously bad, but it is certainly overwrought and plodding, without much coherence in its storytelling.
- The Cat Returns (2002, Hiroyuki Morita) is a direct sequel to a subplot in Whisper of the Heart. I actually haven’t yet seen this one myself, somehow — I should really fix that — but its status as the only Ghibli sort-of sequel means I’m comfortable saying that you shouldn’t be watching it first.
- Ocean Waves (1990, Tomomi Mochizuki) is Studio Ghibli’s only made-for-TV movie ever, and it was expressly developed with speed and cost in mind. The story is formulaic, the animation is mediocre, and the lack of Miyazaki or Takahata’s involvement is obvious. This is definitely not essential.
ESSENTIAL BUT MIGHT REQUIRE MORE EFFORT
If you’re familiar with Studio Ghibli’s back catalog and have read this far regardless, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned Grave of the Fireflies (1998, Takahata). This WWII-era tale of two children struggling to survive in the aftermath of a firebombing is utterly crushing, and one of Ghibli’s most powerful and accomplished films. Everyone should watch it once, if maybe only once.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to on HBO Max — it’s the one Ghibli movie where the distribution rights don’t belong to the studio. You can’t buy it on digital download services like iTunes or Amazon Prime Video, either, though it is . Or, if you’ve made it through the above list, you might find it worthwhile to pick up the Blu-ray.
So there you have it. I hope you find this guide useful, and more importantly that you’re able to find some films that you love as much as I do. Studio Ghibli is truly a gift, and I’m glad these movies are now available to a wider audience.