Over three decades ago, an animation studio was founded in Japan by two masters of animation, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. In an era where most animation studios depended on television to make profit, Miyazaki and Takahata pledged that their animation would be devoted to theatrical productions. Their studio was named Studio Ghibli, and the rest is history.
More likely than not, you have already heard of Spirited Away, one of Studio Ghibli’s most acclaimed works and arguably one of the most successful films in Japanese history. Or maybe you have glanced at some My Neighbor Totoro merchandise while perusing through a Hot Topic. Either way, you’ve seen some mention or reference to a Studio Ghibli film (or two, or three, or twenty).
Studio Ghibli’s ability to produce compelling stories, beautiful scores, and award-winning animation has made it one of the most influential and dominating forces in full-length animated features. With over 22 works accredited to its name, Studio Ghibli has a variety of films to offer that will awe and inspire any viewer. Almost every film is set in a world of fantasy and wonder, and it is because of this expansiveness and creativity that I have been so drawn to these movies throughout my life.
That being said, here is a list of my top five Studio Ghibli films, and why I think you should be more than willing to give them a try. Mind you, ranking these movies is like choosing your favorite child: cruel and painful. So, without further ado, here are my top picks:
#5 – Ponyo (2008)
Ponyo is an adorable tale of adventure and young love. When a princess of the sea befriends a human boy, she breaks almost every rule of her underwater home to become human herself.
As a better rendition of the Little Mermaid archetype, it is honestly one of the cutest and most innocent movies that I have ever watched. It is just too pure, and I love how beautifully the ocean and its creatures are drawn and animated. The English dub also boasts the voice talents of Liam Neeson, Betty White, and Tina Fey.
I put Ponyo in fifth place because of its moments of slow pacing, as well as because of the simplicity of the story compared to the other films on this list.
#4 – Spirited Away (2001)
This tale follows the story of a young girl getting trapped within the spirit world. She must overcome her fears to save herself and her parents-turned-pigs from the evil witch of the bath house.
Spirited Away is by far Studio Ghibli’s most successful film. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2003. I thoroughly enjoy how expansive and immersive the world of the movie is. The animation is dizzyingly detailed; the amount of work that went into portraying the lavishness of the bath house as well as the backgrounds is incredible. The story is compelling and layered; whenever I watch it, I relate to Chihiro as she struggles and grows.
I rank this movie at number four because even though it is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen, the pace of the movie itself is slow and if you are not used to movies that do not follow the traditional Western narrative, you can get lost.
#3 – Porco Rosso (1992)
Porco Rosso is definitely more adult than its Ghibli counterparts. Set in an alternative timeline of the 1930s in the Mediterranean, the movie follows the exploits of a daring former World War I pilot-turned-pig as he struggles to make a living in a war-ready world.
Porco Rosso is different in the sense that it is geared more toward adults than children. Throughout the film, Porco, the protagonist, is antagonized for being a pig in a human world, and for acting out as a womanizing, greedy, middle-aged man. The movie questions what it means to be past your prime, to have not been the best person that you could have been. There is also a great deal of physical violence and gunplay throughout the film, which is not a commonality from Studio Ghibli.
This movie makes it into my top three because of how likeable the characters are, and how seriously yet comically the story is presented.
#2 – Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was my first Japanese animated movie. Though it was released a year before Studio Ghibli’s existence, it was directed by Miyazaki, produced by Takahata, and is often included as one of Studio Ghibli’s original works. The movie revolves around a princess and her village struggling to survive against warring kingdoms and giant insects in a post-apocalyptic world.
I remember being thrilled as an eight-year-old with the expansive sci-fi world and the heroic deeds of Princess Nausicaä. I just loved her character; Nausicaä was badass but also kind at the same time. Not to mention her fox squirrel reminded me of an Eevee, one of my favorite Pokémon. Again, the animation is just breathtaking with incredible attention to detail, as can be seen with the setting of the toxic jungle. The characters are lovable and distinct, and I honestly could watch this movie again and again.
This movie is number two for its voice acting (Sir Patrick Stewart and Uma Thurman AND Mark Hamill), its complex story, and its fantastical score.
#1 – Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite of the Studio Ghibli titles. Set in the early 20th century where both technology and magic exist, this is the story of a woman who befriends a wayward wizard after she is cursed with old age by a witch.
Lightly based on a novel by the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle is the perfect blend of fantasy, adventure, love, and self-growth. It is definitely one of Studio Ghibli’s most whimsical tales and has a similar pureness to Ponyo. I love how magic is used throughout the film, and how politics are portrayed to function (almost realistically) in a world of magic. I also enjoy the unadulterated grit and spunk of the protagonist Sophie and how she is constantly striving to make the best of things, rather than waiting to be saved. I think it is important that Howl’s Moving Castle puts a such a great emphasis on being able to trust others and having healthy friendships, rather than in the concept that falling in love will save you. What else can I say? Howl’s Moving Castle is funny, it is solemn, it is heart-warming, it is everything.
This film is my number one choice because of the innocence of its story, the complexity of the world that it is set in, the concepts it promotes regarding self-worth and friendship, and because of its distinct and memorable characters.