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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

Recommends: Top 15 Studio Ghibli Films

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

Studio Ghibli’s cinema was the first time I really understood the difference between a children’s film and a family film. Until then my understanding was that they were just another animation house like any other, telling strange stories unfamiliar to my Western ideology. I was wrong of course. They are so much more. Bringing joy to the masses for decades, there’s no dispute that they are the most well-known and well-loved animation studio outside of the US. Founded by long-time collaborators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Studio Ghibli were most people’s gateway anime. Producing powerful family films exploring complex, deeper themes and narratives and tackling unusual subject matter whilst being accessible to all viewers, they know their audience is filled with as many adults. As Disney has done since the 1930’s, Ghibli has found the child in all of us and reminded us to look for the little bits of magic that are around us everyday.

*Note before reading on: Although a Sub (Subtitled, not the other thing) girl most of the time, I very specifically select my Dub – Cowboy Bebop and My Love Story being one of handful of exceptions. I really enjoy Disney dubs in association with Ghibli and here one can’t really complain as it brought an amazing art form to a wider audience. So most of my picks are actually based on the dubs – sorry guys.

15. The Cat Returns (Dir. Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)

I vividly remember seeing this for the first time, entirely out of context, in the middle of the day on Film Four, just before my afternoon classes in college. I didn’t know what was going on; all I knew was there was a cat floating in a giant jug of punch. Admittedly I missed the first twenty minutes of this very short film, so I had no context to go with. But it made the experience all the more enjoyable. It follows the story of a school girl whisked away by cats into their realm, they plan to marry her off and so the mysterious cat Baron must save her. Years later as I finished my binge on these titles, I learnt this film is a spin-off of a character first introduced in Whisper of the Heart. Worth the watch just for that, it’s also a very fun and weird fantasy adventure.

14. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Dir. Isao Takahata, 2013)

Director Takahata’s last film and what a film to go out on; a retelling of the tragic Japanese folktale of a Princess from the moon being found within a bamboo shoot by the childless woodcutter and his wife. They take her in and raise her as their own. Good fortune awaits them, and soon it is believed that Kaguya is of divine royalty. They move into a beautiful palace and live finely, but at the expense of their daughter’s freedom as she is raised to become a respectable princess, to be married off. Animated in a beautiful water colour dream, her own little world and the short time she spends it.

I actually prefer the sub to this one which is unusual for me as I think Disney did a fine job of casting and performing the dubbed versions of the films. However, it doesn’t actively change the story but it does affect the immersion for me in this one. The tale dates back to the 10th century, listening to Chloe Grace Moretz… well. When it’s a traditional setting I often find it distracting listening to American accents. And The Tale of Princess Kaguya is full of ancient etiquette, lore and culture that feel out of place when spoken in English, even a little ridiculous.

13. Only Yesterday (Dir. Isao Takahata, 1991)

A series of flashbacks of a career woman’s youth as she returns home to see her sister, reminiscing about her childhood and wondering if her busy life now is what her young self would have wanted for her. One of Ghibli’s most grown up stories; it revolves around the loss of youth, childhood innocence, first love and the disillusionment of adulthood. All these themes are handled in a perfectly magical way, however. With minimal background designs, capturing the feeling of fragmented memories and the world through a child’s eyes, from the characters to the art style this film has a whimsical charm and nostalgia we can all recognise. I’ve never met a soul who wasn’t moved by its rolling credits, its optimism and charm infectious hours after the conclusion.

12. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)

Delightful. That’s how I would describe Miyazaki’s tale of good-natured witch in training, sent off by her village to live alone for a year as her training requires. In a seaside town, she sets up a delivery service, helping lots of people but begins to lose her abilities when self-doubt starts creeping in. A series of events in the little witches life, Kiki still stands as one of Ghibli’s most engaging and heart-felt films about self-reliance and believing in oneself. If that hasn’t sold it to you, there’s a talking cat, a coming-of-age romance and the sweetest cast of side characters to bless the screen. All they want is to see our heroine do well!

11. Pom Poko (Dir. Isao Takahata, 1994)

There are things Pom Poko is remembered for. These things’ in recent years have marred its legacy. Because there is so much more to this film than raccoon testicles, I can promise you that. Pulled from Japanese folk tales, the Tanuki are shape-changing creatures, who predominately take the form of raccoons, rumoured to bring good fortune. The story follows them as their homes in the forests are threatened when urban developers arrive and so follows a series of amusing adventures as they attempt to take back their land using their supernatural abilities. Much of the humour comes from the sheer foolishness of the cast; they had good intentions but short attention spans, are greedy, lazy and throw a party for every minor success. This means their plans don’t always work out for the best. But despite its light-heartedness, Pom Poko packs a weighty story for us all, exploring the effects of the urbanisation of rural Japan and the history, beautiful nature and spiritualism that were lost in doing so.

10. Ponyo (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)

Comparative statements are pretty much redundant now. When have we ever agreed with them? Many Ghibli films have been unfairly compared to western films and it hardly does them nor the movie it’s compared to any favours. As can be said with regard to Ponyo. What critics described as Ghibli’s version of The Little Mermaid, it’s the story of a lonely boy, Sosuke, who unknowingly befriends a fish princess. This fish, who he names Ponyo, longs to be human and live on land. Defying her father, she breaks free but destroys elixirs in doing so that endanger the lives of the village Sosuke lives. It’s cute and fantastical, it’s pure and simple. I think your heart must have died if you don’t enjoy the simplicity of the childhood love in this story.

9. The Wind Rises (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

Claimed to be Miyazaki’s last but looking highly unlikely at this point - he can't help himself. The story follows a man who dreamed of flying; a fictionalised biopic of the Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi who created of the A6M World War II fighter plane. A beautiful love story, an inspiring tale of the underdog achieving his dream, The Wind Rises explores many themes. That of morality is one of them as Horikoshi loves the beauty of flight, desiring to invent beautiful feats in technology but all the while he must come to terms that his creations must be used for war. It’s a powerful story with many iconic moments; moments to break your heart and inspire you. Also, it probably has the most tender love stories put to screen. You'll be swooning when you're not drying your eyes.

Miyazaki has long had in interest in aircraft, stemming from his childhood during the war, and it can be seen again and again in many of his works, creating exceptional and fantastical inventions. But here he is able to put the source of that inspiration and share the beauty of it with the world.

8. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)

An amazing fantasy often over-looked in favour of Ghibli's later works, Laputa still stands out as one of their best adventures. A quest for the Mythical floating city of Laputa, a girl who falls from the sky, a mysterious crystal, and the bad guys who are after it; there’s plenty of intrigue and excitement alongside a beautiful tale of friendship in this one. It carries a powerful story; how human greed can taint the past. The cast of characters are brilliant with the crew of lovable pirates as a highlight. Our protagonists are brave and likeable, our villain as dastardly as necessary and our creatures of legend adorable to boot, I couldn’t recommend this one enough.

7. Grave of the Fireflies (Dir. Isao Takahata, 1988)

You will never meet anyone who hasn’t cried at this film. If you do it’s because they probably lied about watching it. Separated from their parents during World War Two, a teen-aged boy must look after his little sister. He tries his best to protect from the harsh realities, trying to allow her to enjoy of blissful innocence as he struggles to keep them sheltered and fed. The horrors of war and the struggles of survival are captured harrowingly in this melancholy tale about the loss of youth and innocence. Just thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes.

Released with My Neighbour Totoro, the films paired together, two sides of the same coin, capture the messages that Ghibli has always wanted to portray, almost a mission statement. They remind us of the importance of childhood and how losing the sacred child within you is the greatest tragedy of them all, and that man must take responsibility for its crimes against the soul.

6. Whisper of the Heart (Dir. Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)

Made by a talented director whose untimely death a few years later was a tragedy to animation, Whisper of the Heart is the most inexplicably heart-warming film in Ghibli’s filmography. A coming-of-age tale following a young teen-aged girl who loves reading to escape planning for the future, she discovers the books she has been borrowing from the library have all been taken out by the same boy before her. In searching for this mysterious person, she comes upon an old antique shop owned by the grandfather of the boy and housing the aforementioned Baron. Inspired by his story and the new love she finds, she proceeds to write a story about it. The film is about finding your passion and working hard for it. It’s about first love and longing. It’s unexpectedly wholesome and wonderful. It will have you singing Country Roads for weeks.

5. Princess Mononoke (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

An action epic, defying the historical genre it draws so much inspiration from, Princess Mononoke has its roots proudly in the legends of the past. In 14th century Japan, Prince Ashitaka must seek a cure for the curse inflicted on him by an infected animal as he tried to defend the village. He travels far in search of an ancient spirit rumoured to hold answers to the cure and along the way is faced with a brutal and bloody war between humans and the wolf gods. Humans ravage the earth, spirits fight back with the aid of a human girl, San. Grand in very sense of the word, with a powerful soundtrack and amazing vision, it was Ghibli’s first foray into CGI, using it seamlessly to enhance the 2D animation and choreograph some of the best fight scenes in any anime. There are the environmentally conscious themes, ever present in a Miyazaki film and a beautiful love story that ties this amazing story together (And the Kodami are very cute!).

4. When Marnie Was There (Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014)

Oh my goodness, this film. I wasn’t prepared. Based upon the 1967 novel of the same name by British author Joan G. Robinson, this tear-jerker follows the story of loner Anna who, for her health following a stress-induced asthma attack, is sent away from her foster parents to the countryside of their relatives. With low self-esteem, she struggles to make friends and wanders off exploring on her own. This is how she discovers the Marsh house and the mysterious young girl who resides there. What follows is a beautiful tale of friendship, family and mystery. I can’t explain much more than that, it’s something that must be seen for itself. I’m a sobbing mess every time, and it only gets worse with each viewing. It certainly pierces my cold, dead heart.

3. Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

Miyazaki’s crowning achievement, his most famous film and the majority’s first exposure to the world of Studio Ghibli is Spirited Away. Chihiro and her parents are moving to a new house but lose their way in the woods which they decide to explore. Accidentally intruding upon the world of the spirits, her parents are turned into pigs and, with the help of a young boy Haku, she gets a job in the bath house owned by the witch behind the spell and find a way to save them. Meanwhile there is a spirit, No-Face, who moved by her kindness latches onto Chihiro, wreaking havoc on the residents of the spirit realm. Miyazaki creates an amazing world, enriched by a cast of strange and wonderful creations, drawing heavily from traditional Japanese spirituality and traditions and beautiful set pieces. I’ve seen it countless times and it has yet to bore me.

2. My Neighbor Totoro (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

Totoro, Soot Sprites and Cat Bus. If you haven’t seen this film, you would have seen one of those things, still merchandise and the stuff of pop-culture after all these years. This adorable tale follows two sisters who move with their father into the country to be close to the sick mother in hospital. They explore their new home, meeting and befriending the big, fluffy forest spirit Totoro who takes them on various adventures. It’s magical which isn’t unusual for Ghibli but also captures a beautiful family unit on screen, the deep bonds of sisterly love and how they’re allowed to keep being children despite the worries they all have about their mother. It’s lovely and cute. You’ll be looking for Totoro the next time you’re in the woods, and wishing for Cat Bus on those late nights following a bender.

1. Howl’s Moving Castle (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

My number one is very close to my heart. I intended to work on coursework and stick the film on in the background, despite it being my first time watching it, as some noise. But The Merry-Go-Round of Life began to play and there emerged the castle from the fog, so nothing was finished that day. For the entire run-time I couldn’t take my eyes away. A beautiful animated film, brilliant designs and sets, a sweeping Joe Hisashi soundtrack which is my favourite of all the Ghibli films, its’ Miyazaki’s most fantastical.

Based upon the book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, an adaptation she approved of whole-heartedly, Miyazaki brings to life the vibrant worlds. It tells the story of 'plain' hat-maker Sophie who is one day saved from soldiers by the mysterious Wizard Howl. This catches the attention of the jealous Witch of the Waste, who places a spell on Sophie that turns her into a 90 year old woman. She embarks on a journey in search of the Howl and his magical moving castle where he hopes he can help undo her curse, despite that fact that one of the terms is that she cannot talk about it. From here she takes up employment as Howls housekeeper whilst he avoids the Kings summons to join the war effort and fights off the beast within himself.

Sophie is my favourite Ghibli heroine, standing up to the vain, but ever-handsome heart-eater Howl, a maniacal cleaner with little self-confidence, and a desire to be braver than she is, she’s just so relatable. Her kind heart shines through, able to tame the irritable fire demon Calcifer. This film has so much heart, a wonderful message and a wheezy, lazy dog. It ticks all my boxes.

There we go. That was my Top 15 Studio Ghibli releases. Let me know your favourite's and why, watch out for my Top 20 Anime List and check out some of my other recommendations on Japanese cinema.

(Honorable mentions)

I love, love, LOVE the Castle of Cagliostro (Miyazaki, 1979) but can’t technically include it as it is not a Ghibli production, therefore it will be appearing on my Top 20 Anime List.

It’s blasphemous that Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Miyazaki, 1984) doesn’t appear on this list or that I don’t rank it higher. I actually really like it but the ones I’ve chosen for this list have a special significance to me and that film just didn’t quite make the cut.


Image List:

The Cat Returns. (2002). Directed by Hiroyuki Morita. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

The Castle of Cagliostro. (1979). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Optimum Asia.

Grave of the Fireflies. (1988). Directed by Isao Takahata. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Howls Moving Castle. (2004). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Kiki's Delivery Service. (1989). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky. (1986). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Spirited Away. (2001). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

My Neighbour Totoro. (1988). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Only Yesterday. (1991). Directed by Isao Takahata. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Pom Poko. (1994). Directed by Isao Takahata. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Ponyo. (2008). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Princess Mononoke. (1997). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya. (2013). Directed by Isao Takahata. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

When Marnie Was There. (2014). Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Whisper of the Heart. (1995). Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

The Wind Rises. (2013). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

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