Few names stir up the emotions of animation fans quite like Studio Ghibli. Since its founding in 1985, the company has produced some of the most beloved and influential animated films of all time. Their catalog occupies four spots on the top ten highest-grossing films in Japanese cinema history, including the number two and four spots.
22 feature films have been animated by Studio Ghibli, plus a few that are more loosely associated with the studio. Many of them were helmed by the great Hayao Miyazaki himself. Whether you’re wanting to watch some classic Studio Ghibli movies or their next film The Boy & the Heron, here is the complete list of Studio Ghibli films and the perfect occasion to watch them.
When You Want Early Miyazaki Magic: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Though it was released a year before Studio Ghibli was officially founded, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is usually cited as their first film. This animated fantasy is set 1000 years after an apocalypse wiped out most of humanity and was based on a manga written by Miyazaki himself. It is a deeply anti-war movie with a grand scale and feels like the moment when Miyazaki found his style as a director.
For When You Want a Classic Adventure: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Castle in the Sky is the first movie to have the Studio Ghibli title on the box and it has all the hallmarks of their films. There are several references to classic fantasy literature, kids on a grand adventure, and incredibly detailed planes piloted by sky pirates. The animation of their flying is incredible and makes this film feel like a death-defying, action-packed adventure of epic proportions.
For When You Need a Good Cry: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
It feels absurd that the most harrowing Studio Ghibli film, came out the same year as the cute and low-stakes Totoro. Many of the films on this list have an anti-war message but none are as explicit in portraying the horrors of war as Grave of the Fireflies. It doesn’t pull a single punch yet still treats the subject and the viewer with the highest respect.
For Introducing Your Kids to Studio Ghibli: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro is possibly the most whimsical movie in Studio Ghibli’s library. There is no villain and most scenes are rooted entirely in the wonder of childhood. Your kids will love the fuzzy Totoros and will almost immediately go searching for Soot Sprites hiding just out of sight. This is Ghibli at its most innocent and magical.
When You Want a Low-Stakes Adventure: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Despite the fact she can fly around the city on a broom and has a wise-cracking cat sidekick, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a deeply relatable film. That is because it is all about that first time you step out into the world on your own, trying to find out who you are outside the protection of your parents’ home. Though there is danger, it never feels like the world is at stake. Everything feels manageable for a kid just doing her best, which is what Kiki is.
For a More Reflective Evening: Only Yesterday (1991)
Only Yesterday is one of the few Studio Ghibli movies that doesn’t include sweeping fantasy or soaring adventure. Instead, it tells the story of a young woman at two times of her life. It focuses on the contrast between how we see the world in our twenties versus our childhood. Taeko’s story is one we can all relate to, with that little bit of sadness to how we lose the wonder and awe of our youth.
The Perfect Movie for War Film Fans: Porco Rosso (1992)
This movie is rare among Studio Ghibli films, with a heavy focus on adult characters and romance. Porco Rosso is a high-flying adventure set in the aftermath of World War I, with a title character who has the face of a pig and an appetite for shooting down sky pirates. Miyazaki loves animating flight and this movie feels like a perfect excuse to indulge in that practice.
The Perfect Film for Date Night: Ocean Waves (1993)
This movie was originally made for TV and has a shorter runtime than most other films by Studio Ghibli. Ocean Waves features a teenage love triangle, something rare in the Ghibli catalog. The characters are relatable, and the script is decidedly lean, never overstaying its welcome.
When You Need a Good Laugh: Pom Poko (1994)
Want a movie about shape-shifting tanuki bouncing, floating, and fighting on their giant testicles? Well, Studio Ghibli has you covered. Pom Poko seldom makes sense but it is incredibly fun and silly. Despite its wild concept, there is an incredibly Ghibli message hidden within the chaos. This movie is all about the need for humanity and nature to find a balance together.
The Perfect Film for Book Lovers: Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Another film with a romantic heart, this is the first and only Studio Ghibli movie directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, who was the intended successor to Miyazaki before he died tragically from an aneurysm. Whisper of the Heart is a beautiful film about a budding writer who takes inspiration from her growing romance with a boy who loves the same books as her. There is a wonderful message about how books bring us together as well as the best cover of Country Roads by John Denver you’ll ever hear.
When You Want to Root for an Eco-Terrorist: Princess Mononoke (1997)
While many Studio Ghibli movies feature an environmental message, none are more explicit than Princess Mononoke. San is a young girl raised by wolves who sets out to defend nature from the increasingly industrial endeavors of humans. There is more gore and blood than most Ghibli offerings along with the hauntingly beautiful imagery on display. This is a raw, emotional film that ranks among the greatest animated movies of all time.
Perfect for Family Movie Night: My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
This one is an oddity among Studio Ghibli movies. The short runtime of My Neighbors the Yamadas focuses on several episodic adventures of the titular family rather than a sweeping epic storyline. Based on a popular Japanese comic strip that started running in 1991, this movie feels personal, quirky, and light-hearted, making it a good one to watch curled up on the couch with the whole family.
When You Want to Escape to a New World: Spirited Away (2001)
For almost 20 years, Spirited Away was the highest-grossing animated film of all time until it was surpassed by Demon Slayer Kimetsu no Yaiba - The Movie: Mugen Train. It remains one of the best Studio Ghibli films ever made. With fantastical, beautifully animated characters and a wonderfully presented world, Spirited Away captures all the joy and sorrow that the studio is capable of making you feel with just a few short scenes. This is life-changing cinema at its finest.
Perfect for Cat Lovers: The Cat Returns (2002)
There is a lot happening in this 80-minute movie. A young girl travels to a world of cats, is nearly forced into marrying the Cat King’s son, and has to escape with the help of a cat statue that has come to life. The Cat Returns' plot feels secondary to the animators’ desire to simply draw a lot of cats on screen, which makes this one of the less-celebrated Studio Ghibli films, but it is still beautifully animated and presented all the same.
When You Need to Believe in Yourself: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Yes, Howl’s Moving Castle is about a castle that moves and features one of the best love stories in Studio Ghibli's history, but it is really about the need to believe in your own value. Sophie’s curse traps her in the body of an old woman for most of the film, making her feel like she will never find love. It isn’t until she realizes her value outside of a relationship that the curse lifts and she can grow as a person.
When You Just Want Gorgeous Animation: Tales from Earthsea (2006)
It is tough to say that any Studio Ghibli movie is 'bad', but Tales from Earthsea is the closest. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his father’s work. Still, the visuals are stellar, showing what made the previous years’ offerings some of the most iconic the studio had ever created.
For Watching With Your Kids: Ponyo (2008)
Ponyo is loosely based on The Little Mermaid, but it never feels like a Disney clone. The animation of characters swimming and the water effects are both gorgeous. Though it is almost overwhelmingly cute, it does a brilliant job of humanizing the impact humanity has on the world’s oceans. This is children’s media at its best, never afraid to deliver a powerful message in a way kids will understand.
For the Perfect Twee Adventure: The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Calling this movie small-scale is a bit of a cliché. Based on the Borrower’s novel, The Secret World of Arrietty turns the British countryside into a thriving world all its own. It plays with expectations and features one of the most headstrong heroines in Ghibli’s history. Each blade of grass or button feels like it has weight to it, making this the perfect adventure for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
For Teenage Anime Fans: From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Goro Miyazaki’s second outing as a director is decidedly more grounded than Tales From Earthsea. In From Up On Poppy Hill, two classmates discover that they share a hidden connection in this story of complicated familial relationships. The stakes are low but still important and the difficulty in relating to your parents is something every teenager struggles with from time to time.
For Pure Miyazaki-film Lovers: The Wind Rises (2013)
While Nausicaa highlights Miyazaki’s early talent, The Wind Rises showcases all the things that made him a legend in his own time. This was meant to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film and he indulges in everything he loves. It has World War II planes, astonishingly beautiful dream sequences, and an exploration of the impact of war. The Wind Rises follows an inventor who struggles with his dream of making the perfect airplane, knowing it will ultimately be used to kill countless people. This movie is a haunting tribute to Miyazaki’s incredible talent.
For a Unique Visual Experience: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Every Studio Ghibli film is beautiful in its own way, but none look and feel like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The art feels like a watercolor painting coming to life, with flowing motions and charcoal highlights. The traditional art style is perfect for a distinctly Japanese folktale. While others might have more adventurous stories, no other Studio Ghibli looks as magical as The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
For the Young Adult Fan: When Marnie Was There (2014)
The first line in When Marnie Was There is a young girl saying she wants to die and the movie remains somewhat melancholy for the rest of its runtime. There are fantastical elements to the story but it deals with loneliness and being raised by surrogate parents with slight heavy-handedness. The exploration of parental bonds and growing up isolated from others is deep and satisfying even without the usual Miyazaki magic to guide it.
When You Want an Auteur Film: The Red Turtle (2016)
Though it was produced by Studio Ghibli, The Red Turtle was animated by a collection of French studios. It tells the story of a man who survives a shipwreck only to become stranded on an island and befriend a giant red turtle. There is no spoken dialogue throughout the movie and it feels more experimental than anything on the list.
For a CGI Animated Ghibli Film: Earwig and the Witch (2020)
While it is undeniable that CG animation can bring a lot to the anime industry, Studio Ghibli’s first foray into the technique doesn’t seem to capture the magic of the studio. Though it has moments where the animation shines, the characters lack the usual charm the studio is known for. There is a flatness to Earwig and the Witch that makes it feel like an imitation of Ghibli’s work rather than a continuation of it.