Studio Ghibli: Worst to Best
Studio Ghibli is a widely-acclaimed Japanese animation studio created by legendary animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki along with his friend and colleague, the late Isao Takahata, as well as producer Toshio Suzuki. I was able to watch all of their movies in the span of less than a year and thought it would be a neat idea to rank them from my personal least to most favorite. It still feels unfair to do so, because Studio Ghibli is one of the very few animation studios who can deliver a quality film every single time. A lot of their movies are equally high in caliber of one another, so if you have a favorite movie that is at least somewhere in the top 10 (or maybe even top 15), I can’t really argue with you. This list is mostly subjective, and the views are solely my own. With that said, here is every Studio Ghibli film ranked from worst to best.
25: Only Yesterday
Within the first ten minutes of this two hour-long film, there is a dragging scene where the family debates about getting a pineapple, cutting up the pineapple, eating that pineapple, and being dissatisfied about how said pineapple tastes. This is a perfect example of what it’s like to watch Only Yesterday. Unlike Miyazaki, I’m not particularly a fan of Isao Takahata’s work; his movies don’t have nearly as much wonder and fantasy, and he focuses on the nitty gritty mundaneness of real life. It is impressive that he put so much emphasis in this in animation, but in a storytelling aspect it can make for a very dull watch. Taeko, the film’s main character, retreats to her childhood hometown to get away from city life and help out with the annual harvest. She experiences flashbacks from her childhood and her dissatisfaction with the rise of progressive values in Japan. This is where the film suffers tremendously. Her memories shown range from being frustrated with math to wanting a brand new enamel bag and a starring role in a stage play. Her solution to these childhood frustrations? Farming, and how great country life is compared to the city. I understand what Takahata was trying to say with this film, but instead of addressing the grand scheme of things, he makes the most random potshots that ultimately have no value to them whatsoever. The flashback sequence involving puberty and female menstruation is this film’s only saving grace; it would’ve been a much better movie with more moments like these. Only Yesterday is dreadfully boring, misses the mark entirely, and is in my opinion Studio Ghibli’s worst film.
24: When Marnie Was There
There were reports in 2014 that When Marnie Was There might be Ghibli’s final movie. I’m so happy that’s not the case, because this is one of the worst movies an iconic animation studio would release to go out on. A retelling of the novel by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There follows 12 year-old Anna as she relocates to the countryside after suffering an extreme anxiety attack. She has low self-esteem and is mean to just about everyone she interacts with. She runs into a mysterious girl named Marnie, to whom she expresses her inner personal issues. Her reason for being so rude to everyone is because she once saw her foster mother get a welfare check for taking care of her. Imagine being mad at someone for getting money to help take care of you in a loving home, because that’s Anna in a nutshell. She is extremely unlikeable for this reason, especially when Marnie tells her she was abused by her nanny as a child while her parents were frequently away. Not only that, but later on in the film, Marnie is revealed to be the ghost of Anna’s dead grandmother. While this might seem neat, the movie makes it obvious that - to maybe a small extent - there is a bit of romantic tension between these two. Seeing this and then finding out that the two are direct family members is nauseating. The movie could’ve been much better if, instead of being angry about money, Anna was frustrated that she might be a closet lesbian, and her interactions with Marnie would help her come to terms with it.
23: Tales From Earthsea
This is a commonly-agreed bad Ghibli movie. Directed by Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son), Tales From Earthsea is a jumbled mess from start to finish. This movie takes the entire Earthsea novel series from Ursula K. Le Guin and combines them all into one feature-length project. The result is a mix of incoherent storytelling, unanswered questions, and a lack of depth to the film’s world and the characters who inhabit it. Arren and Therru, the two main characters, are angsty for the sake of it and make for awful protagonists. There is definitely potential in the lore of this movie, but it falls way short of generating interest and curiosity in the viewer. It probably would’ve benefitted more as an anime series, since it would have the time needed to unpack all these things.
22: Ocean Waves
If you had no idea that this movie even existed, I don’t blame you. Ocean Waves is a made-for-television movie that involves a love triangle between high schoolers Taku and Yukata and a girl named Rikako, a problematic girl who just transferred. They drift apart after many unfortunate circumstances on her part, then by the end everything is magically resolved. It’s the shortest Ghibli movie at only 72 minutes, so hardly any time is given to fully flesh out any details, and the story is as unoriginal as it gets. It’s not nearly as bad as the previous three films, but you’re not missing out on anything special here.
21: My Neighbors the Yamadas
This movie is an adaptation of a Japanese newspaper comic, kinda like Garfield but not as popular. It follows the comical life of the Yamadas, an average Japanese family, and the movie is shown through a series of vignettes. However, it feels very disjointed and drags on in many spots, a typical trademark for Isao Takahata. You might find this movie to be slightly funny if you have any familiarity with Japanese culture and lifestyle. Like Tales From Earthsea, it would’ve been better as a series.
20: The Red Turtle
Studio Ghibli actually co-produced this movie with Wild Bunch, and it was directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. It’s about a sailor who gets stranded on a remote island and is prevented from leaving by a giant red turtle. He suddenly meets another stranded woman, whom he has a kid with, then grows old and dies as she turns back into the same red turtle. It’s a silent film with beautiful animation, but other than that it’s your typical arthouse film. Nothing to write home about.
19: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
This movie is almost unparalleled in terms of artstyle, since it’s designed like the watercolor paintings omnipresent in Feudal Japan. This film is a retelling of the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and the themes surrounding this film are pretty substantial to the modern age (women’s roles in society, wealth and power, the beauty of life, etc.). However, it goes on for way too long; Isao Takahata could’ve easily shrunk this movie down from two hours and 20 minutes and still get his point across. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has a lot of interesting tidbits to offer, but unfortunately it doesn’t do enough to keep you engaged. It’s still very pretty though.
18: The Secret World of Arrietty
I always had a fascination of being shrunk down and living in a world where everything is literally gigantic. The Secret World of Arrietty checks off those boxes for me. It’s a fun adventure movie with a small side of fantasy elements incorporated in it, and Arrietty is a great main character. Fun fact: This movie has two separate English dubs, one done by Disney for the U.S. and one from StudioCanal for the U.K. Did you know that this was Tom Holland’s very first acting credit? He’s the voice of Shō in the U.K. version.
Yet another adorable kid-friendly movie. Watching this film feels like reading a children’s book that you picked up in the kids section of Barnes and Noble, and it has a lot of charm to it. The animation is pretty, and the story is appealing to both kids and adults. Ponyo may come off as an annoying character though, since she frequently shouts a lot. But overall, it’s very uplifting. If you’re looking for a cute film to distract yourself away from serious personal troubles or want something that will brighten your mood, look no further.
16: Grave of the Fireflies
On the flip side, if you realize you’re too happy and need a dose of crippling depression, Grave of the Fireflies is the film for you. The story follows siblings Seita and Setsuko struggling to survive during the final months of the war, as they navigate their way through the bombings that took place in Kobe. It shows how war leaves ruinous results on the citizens, even from the actions of their own military. Seita is forced out of his job since it got destroyed, and he eventually has to resort to crime in order to scrape small pickings for him and his younger sister. Unfortunately, they both end up dying from starvation. Isao Takahata sets the movie up to be pretty slow-paced, but unlike his other three movies so far listed, the slow pacing actually helps the movie out. It shows the kids slowly dying alone, hungry, and hopeless, which is arguably a fate worse than a quick death. The biggest drawback with this movie is the way the narrative is structured; Seita announces right away that he’s dead, so the rest of the movie is spent watching these kids as the viewer begins wondering when they’re finally going to die. The ending would’ve hit much harder than it already did if the narrative was rearranged slightly. I would not wish anyone to watch this more than once, if at all, because it’s the most depressing film I’ve ever seen. Definitely the darkest movie in the studio’s catalog.
15: Whisper of the Heart
I actually wasn’t too crazy for this movie when I first saw it. To me, it was just a typical shoujo “boy-meets-girl” love story with cookie-cutter protagonists. It definitely grew onto me more upon rewatching it; the romance is definitely more interesting than in Ocean Waves, which was absolutely generic. The plotline about finding your creative spark and following your passion is really good, and the segments with the antique shop owner and the Baron are beautifully written. It still didn’t hit close to home for me nearly as much as another movie that’s much higher up on this list, but it’s still an inspiring film for many rising artists or anyone with a burning creative passion.
14: From Up on Poppy Hill
This film took me by surprise. From Up on Poppy Hill shows life in post-WWII Japan in a more positive light as the country prepares to host the 1964 Summer Olympics. It starts out with a very cute story about restoring the school’s club house and how main characters Umi and Shun grow more attached to one another. They are a much cuter couple than Shizuku and Seiji in Whisper of the Heart, even with the incestuous mixup that’s revealed in the middle. Don’t worry, they’re not related at all, but it’s very complicated to explain. This is a huge step up from Goro Miyazaki and his last film, although to be fair his father wrote the screenplay for it. For a film that’s only an hour and a half, it’s extremely tight-knit and worth a watch.
13: Mary and the Witch’s Flower
After Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement for like the tenth time, many of the Studio Ghibli employees decided they weren’t going to wait for him to make another movie. They all formed Studio Ponoc, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower was their first film. This movie radiates so much energy that’s reminiscent of Ghibli’s older films, and the setting is absolutely cute and adorable. You can tell how passionate the creators were when making this film, even if the influences are so visible on their sleeves. I only wish that Mary kept pursuing magic instead of giving it up at the end.
12: Howl’s Moving Castle
I have a very weird relationship with Howl’s Moving Castle. Every time I watch this movie, my opinion is different from all the other times I’ve seen it, although they are always positive in some way. Perhaps it’s because the plot is an absolute rollercoaster; Sophie, a serious and over-mature girl, gets cursed by an evil witch who turns her old, forcing her to seek out help from a boyish and immature wizard named Howl. From there, the story goes from one point to another with a lot happening in the background. The curse that’s placed onto Sophie is never really explained, but the dynamic that she shares with Howl makes it somewhat clearer. Both of their personalities are polar opposite of one another, so they each act as a foil for the other. Sophie learns how to act her age and be more spirited from Howl while he learns how to take responsibility for his actions and face problems head-on from her. It is a beautiful love story, arguably the romance in all of Ghibli’s movies. I also find reasonably cute how many young girls who watched this movie in the past probably had Howl as their first animated crush. If you can brace yourself for the insane trip and are able to withstand everything this movie throws at you, then Howl’s Moving Castle is a must-see.
11: Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro
This movie was released several years before the first Studio Ghibli project, but it was Hayao Miyazaki’s theatrical debut as a director and he incorporates many elements that can be found in several of his subsequent films. Lupin III is an already-established franchise in Japan that focuses on the international thief of the same name as he tries to save a princess from an arranged marriage to a notorious dictator. It’s full of high-octane energy and oozes charm from start to finish. Lots of Lupin III films are very dark in tone, but this movie is much lighter than most of them. It does an incredible job at mixing light-hearted kid-friendly quirks with more mature themes. Also, that car chase sequence in the beginning is still insane!
10: Pom Poko
We’ve finally reached the top 10 with what is easily my favorite Isao Takahata film. Pom Poko focuses on a large group of tanuki living in a forest that slowly gets destroyed by a new residential project. It’s presented as if it were a documentary, so the slow pacing that Takahata is notoriously famous for actually makes sense and helps the movie in its favor. It also does a much better job at explaining Takahata’s criticism of Japan’s departure from traditionalism and the rise of capitalism than Only Yesterday. The tanuki are hilarious and comical, but even with their wacky antics this movie is still pretty dark. They have to fight against the housing developers and they end up getting wiped out by them. The tanuki who are able to transform into humans end up being forced into living among their society, while the others get sent away to the spirit world forever. Pom Poko is very down to earth; it shares an important reminder to all of us that we must respect our environment and all of the creatures who call it their home.
9: Castle in the Sky
This was the first “official” Studio Ghibli movie, and it’s a pretty fun one. It almost feels like a Steven Spielberg or Chris Columbus family-friendly adventure film. Pazu and Sheeta are two kids who find themselves caught in the middle of a war between a band of pirates and a corrupt military, as Sheeta holds the key to unlocking the true purpose of Laputa, a castle in the sky (get it?). The adventure these two go on is completely exciting and is guaranteed to leave you on the edge of your seat the whole entire time. Mark Hamill also does a phenomenal job voicing the main villain.
8: The Cat Returns
This movie started out as a short animated segment for a cancelled theme park attraction, then they decided to make it a short film that accidentally ran on for much longer than it meant to be. The Cat Returns is pluckier than any other Studio Ghibli movie and is the most hilarious of the bunch. High school student rescues a stray cat who turns out to be the crown prince of the Cat Kingdom; the Cat King and all of his servants offer her the prince’s hand in marriage as a way of saying thanks, and when things start to get out of control, she goes to seek help from the Baron (Yes, the same Baron from Whisper of the Heart). He gets the spotlight in this film the same way he should’ve gotten it in Whisper of the Heart, many people actually speculate that this is a story written by Shizuku. Regardless of this theory’s accuracy, The Cat Returns has a sense of humor that is unparalleled to any other Ghibli movie with many comical moments. It is by far the most underrated film from the studio.
7: The Wind Rises
At the time, many believed The Wind Rises was going to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, but it makes sense that he would have decided to end his career making a film about his favorite passion: airplanes. This movie is a biographical story about Japanese engineer Jiro Horikishi and his career working for the Japanese military. Despite his job, he and some of his colleagues are critical about the empire’s rising dominion in the pacific and how they are foolish for believing they won’t be stopped. It’s a perfect reminder from Miyazaki about the dangers of unchecked power and authority. The love story between Jiro and Naoko is also very romantic, but the only thing stopping this from being the best Ghibli romance was how, literally right after Jiro proposes to Naoko, she tells him out of nowhere that she has tuberculosis and has only several years left to live. It felt like a pretty cheap cop-out, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being heartfelt in every way possible. Miyazaki reaches new technical levels in his animation, and his passion for aeronautics shines through in this movie way more so than in any other of his films. Miyazaki’s father worked as an airplane mechanic, which is where he got his fascination for airplanes and flying. You can tell how personal this movie was for him.
6: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Although this movie wasn’t made under the name Studio Ghibli, everybody who worked on it would become part of the company, so this movie is often included under their umbrella. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is an absolute thriller all the way through, and the world is the most intriguing out of any Ghibli film. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world as a result of a war amongst the humans, and this world is being consumed by poisonous gas created by the Toxic Forest. This forest spawns gigantic insect-like creatures known as the Ohmu, and Nausicaä, the princess of a neighboring kingdom, wants to find a way for the humans and forest to coexist. Meanwhile, a warring kingdom known as Tolmekia wants to eradicate the forest by any means necessary. Nausicaä comes to the realization that the soil in the Toxic Jungle was tainted by pollution and that plants that grow in clean soil are not harmful. This movie shares a great message about caring for our world and for each other. It follows Miyazaki’s anti-war sentiment because the apocalypse was man-made, and the polluted world was the result of selfish actions from the humans. He takes a very down-to-earth lesson and creates a mix of fantasy and sci-fi post-apocalypse out of it, and that is what makes this movie so special. My only gripe with this movie is that Nausicaä is a bit too perfect of a main character, almost like a “Mary Sue”. If you’re interested, Miyazaki wrote a seven-volume manga series about Nausicaä, and this film covers the first one or two.
5: My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro might be the most clever kids movie ever made. The film is about two young sisters named Satsuki and Mei, who move into an old home in the country with their father. They do this in order to be closer to their mother while she is recovering in a nearby hospital. It’s never explained in the film, but their mother is recuperating from tuberculosis, a disease that no one was guaranteed to survive from in the time period this takes place in. It’s clear that both Satsuki and Mei would have a lot to worry about, but the way they cope with this situation is where the movie shows its cleverness. Throughout the whole film, the girls (and even their father) play pretend and imagine all sorts of things that exist in an imaginary world. This is how the mythical creature Totoro came to be; whenever the girls feel an ultimate dread or despair creeping up on them, such as the iconic bus stop scene, Totoro appears and turns a serious situation into a whimsical one. It is interesting because as the viewer we are watching a window into the lives of two young girls, but at the same time it feels like the story is being told from the kids’ perspectives and imagination. It’s almost like Miyazaki is trying to tell us that the best way to conquer our own internal fears is to be like a kid and laugh at them, which goes against what we’ve been taught growing up internalizing our emotions. Sometimes, letting it all out is the best way to cope with our fear, and I think that is a powerful message.
4: Porco Rosso
What. A. Film. Think of it this way: If The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s token of tribute to the world of aeronautics, then Porco Rosso is his love letter. This film focuses on an Italian WWI fighter pilot who goes by the name Porco, aptly given because he was cursed into becoming an anthropomorphic pig. He spends much of the film evading both a band of air pirates and the fascist Italian government with Fio, his mechanic’s granddaughter. He doesn’t care for her at first because he doesn’t think women have the ability to fix airplanes, an industry traditionally dominated by men, but warms up to her once he sees her potential. They share a very weird chemistry though; even though she’s an underling, Fio is also hinted at having romantic interest in Porco despite being only 18. It creates a weird love triangle with Porco’s interest in Gina, who is a mature lady and an opera singer at a hotel. Fio and Gina never even meet until the very last minute in this movie, which ends a little abrupt at the same time. Porco Rosso does a really good job at mixing a fun adventure movie with an introspective melancholy vibe attached to it. Porco has witnessed the horrors of war firsthand and lost his faith in humanity, which is what led him to become a pig in the first place. There’s one moment where the viewer briefly gets to see his human face, and it is a powerful moment in the movie. Also, the setting is the most breathtaking out of any Studio Ghibli movie, it’s so pretty.
3: Kiki’s Delivery Service
This is one of my favorite films of all time. Kiki’s Delivery Service follows a young witch named Kiki, who leaves home to live in another city as she begins her full year of witch training. She struggles to make ends meet until a bakery owner sees her flying skills and offers to set up a delivery service with her. Kiki is the perfect representation of the modern-day young adult who is trying to find their place in a world that doesn’t appreciate their artistic skills. She doesn’t have any magical talent outside of flying with her broomstick, and she is forced into running her own small business in order to make a profit and survive. Many young adults with artistic talent have to lend their skills to companies and established businesses as opposed to making something of their own, such as a graphic designer making logos for businesses or a videographer who takes photos and videos for weddings. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these things, but when we lend our services to others there may arise a case where they don’t get any appreciation despite all the hard work put into it. This is evident in the middle of the film; there is a sequence where Kiki has to go out of her way to bake a pie for an old lady and deliver it to her granddaughter in the rain, only for her to brush it off as a pointless endeavor. This devastates Kiki and lowers her morale. As she becomes more depressed, she loses her ability to fly completely. This is the equivalent of burnout, and it is something that so many young adults experience in their career (artists especially). It’s only until the end of the movie when Kiki’s friend is in trouble that she begins to realize why she loved flying in the first place: because she loves it, and her friend is fascinated by it too. This is the perfect movie for any young adult trying to learn how to find their place in the world, and every time I watch it I can feel the warmth of this movie hugging me throughout it. The English dub is phenomenal as well - Phil Hartmann steals the show as Jiji. If this list were purely subjective, Kiki’s Delivery Service would take the top spot. These next two movies are too immaculate, however.
2: Princess Mononoke
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was an already fantastic movie. Princess Mononoke is basically the same exact film, but even better and in a more grounded setting. Princess Mononoke takes place in ancient Japan, a time where humans and spiritual animals are at war with each other over nature and who should have dominion over it. Ashitaka is a banished prince who becomes corrupted by a demon boar, and he has to travel the land trying to find a cure before the corruption takes his life. His journey eventually leads him to Irontown, a sprawling city-state led by the powerful Lady Eboshi. She wants to conquer the surrounding land and exploit all of its resources so her people can survive. Her village is full of social outcasts, and she wants them to feel like they have a purpose in the world. Their endeavors are interrupted by the animals of the forest, including a girl named San who was raised by wolves. She and the other animals want to protect the forest from being destroyed and ruining their way of life. Neither one of these two warring factions are better than the other, and the film has no clear villain because of it. Lady Eboshi is ruthless and unstoppable in her pursuit for the forest god’s power, but she only wants to provide care for her outcast villagers. San is the supposed hero in this story, but her methods in doing so are questionable. Prince Ashitaka is the middle man in all of this; all he wants is peace. Miyazaki does an outstanding job of telling us that there is no true winner or good guy in war. Only the desire for peace and respect for our world can truly bring us to a better tomorrow. There are few films that could be described as a masterpiece, and Princess Mononoke is one of them. So is the number one spot on this list.
1: Spirited Away
Yep, Spirited Away. Total surprise. This movie follows the childish girl Chihiro as she and her family get stuck in the spirit world and need to find their way out. Her parents get turned into pigs, and she must work in a bath house in order to turn them back into humans. What is there to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? Chihiro’s maturation is parallel to how we ourselves learn to grow up and dive head first into the unknown. The spirit world is also entirely full of wonder and intrigue, but nothing unnecessary is ever given to the viewer. It’s one of the best ways soft worldbuilding has been incorporated into filmmaking. Lastly, the train scene is one of the most beautifully crafted moments ever to grace cinema - I still get chills everytime I watch it. I could go into great detail about why this scene is so significant, but maybe for another day. Spirited Away is Miyazaki at the top of his game, and it is the one Ghibli movie I will tell everyone to watch first because it has all the elements you can expect out of any Ghibli movie. It is a truly awe-inspiring film, and in my opinion it is the best one from Studio Ghibli.
You can watch all of Studio Ghibli on HBO Max.
(Cover Photo: Seth T. Hahne, check out more of his work here!)