Opinion | Ghibli Movies Ranked

Studio Ghibli films have become world-renowned, thanks to their whimsical plots, beautiful themes, ahead-of-their-time animation, and inescapable feelings of nostalgia, all woven together with meticulous artistry and storytelling. As I re-watch these movies that made my childhood, I find that they are still as relevant and entertaining to me as ever. The films are special because they can genuinely be enjoyed by adults and children alike, and watching them now, I find many new meanings and easter eggs. Common elements I’ve observed are the beauty of nature, aviation with a fantastical twist (especially in Miyazaki-directed films, who fun fact, always include a scene where the characters are flying), and characters’ coming-of-age.

Some general criteria I kept in mind while constructing this list were how movies sized up in having an interesting plot, well-developed and multi-faceted characters, and world-building that fully utilizes what can be done with animation. Also, note that I have several movies with the same numerical rating. This just indicates that I place them on the same tier of overall quality and the only distinction in the ranking is my personal preference.

I had an extraordinarily hard time choosing, but I spent a weekend reviewing every Ghibli film I’ve ever seen in order to present to you…
Kana’s comprehensive ranking of Ghibli films:

Note that the synopses in quotation marks are taken from Rotton Tomatoes.

1. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind 10/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Action-adventure. Man vs. Nature.

Synopsis: Nausicaa is the princess of a small wind-powered valley in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by large insects and forests that generate spores, making air outside their settlement toxic. There is both an ongoing war between humans and the environment (the insects) as well as one that the valley people get roped into between other nations. Nausicaa is firmly against violence, against both insects and humans, and is on a mission to prevent the destruction of the already crumbling human societies and the planet.

Personal Notes: I love everything about this movie. It has a strong female lead, an anti-war message (I always thought the Kyoshinhei Warriors were a metaphor for nuclear power), and is thought-provoking. I think Nausicaa is a role model for a lot of young girls, myself included; she loves nature, without fearing or trying to control it, and is a selfless and compassionate leader.

Fun facts: It’s based on a manga that goes into much more detail than the movie — definitely worth checking out. It’s the original Ghibli film from 1984 and was technically made before the studio existed, which is hard to believe, considering the quality of the animation.

Nausicaa Graphic Novel Panels (Art by Hayao Miyazaki)

2. Princess Mononoke 10/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Action-adventure. Man vs. Nature.

Synopsis: Ashitaka is on a quest to find a cure for a curse put on him by a demon when he comes across Iron Town, a matriarchal mining town at war with nature gods of the neighboring forest they are trying to cut down. In the forest, he meets San (aka Princess Mononoke), a human girl raised by a family of wolves in the forest. San is a warrior who fights ruthlessly against Lady Eboshi, the unrelenting leader of the town, and Ashitaka gets caught up in the middle of this battle.

Personal Notes: It’s kind of graphic for a Ghibli movie so be warned. There are multiple villains with the same selfish goal, but very different motives and personalities. It makes the characters more layered and there’s not such a clear distinction between good and evil. This is especially prevalent with Lady Eboshi, a fierce feminist trying to save her people with technology, but simultaneously a violent destroyer of nature. I like to say it’s Nausicaa in a different font, as Nausicaa is a pacifist, and San most definitely is not.

3. Kiki’s Delivery Service 10/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Coming-of-age. Adventure. Magic.

Synopsis: 13-year-old Kiki leaves home on a broomstick with nothing but a bag, a radio, and her cat, Jiji, to pursue her witch training in a town by the sea. She is faced with many unexpected obstacles while learning to live independently, navigate her social life, and manage her job as a flying delivery girl for a bakery.

Personal Notes: Contains many funny and relatable characters; Jiji, the dad, Tombo, and most definitely Kiki herself. It’s fun and lighthearted while encapsulating the many complex, bittersweet feelings and experiences of growing up. And Jiji’s voice and dialogue are what I imagine my dog would sound like. Amazing soundtrack; “Rouge no Dengon” and “やさしさに包まれたなら” by Yumi Matsutoya are so good.

4. Spirited Away 10/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Action-adventure. Coming-of-age. Magic.

Synopsis: After taking a wrong turn down a forest road, Chihiro and her parents discover an old tunnel leading to a seemingly abandoned amusement park with shops full of delicious food. Chihiro’s parents eat the food and transform into pigs. Night falls, and the entrance to the tunnel becomes blocked, trapping Chihiro in this supernatural realm where she encounters many odd beings and creatures. To survive in this world, she begs for work at the grand bathhouse for spirits and signs her name away to Yubaba, becoming an indentured servant with only a fragment of her name in hopes of figuring out a way to free her parents.

Personal Notes: I mean…it got an Oscar and made Ghibli famous beyond Japan for a reason. I think it is a fusion of all the best aspects of a Ghibli and it truly pushes the boundaries of hand-drawn animation. The plot is perfection, coming full circle at the end. My favorite character is the iconic no-face; a mysterious spirit who just wants a friend. Empty and lonely, he wants a voice, but with none of his own, he must consume others and imitate them. There are many allegories to the danger of greed, as well as themes of loneliness, and the power of friendship.

5. My Neighbor Totoro 10/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Appreciation of nature. Childhood. Nostalgia.

Synopsis: Satsuke and her younger sister, Mei move into a house in the Japanese countryside with their father while awaiting their hospitalized mother’s recovery from an illness. The sisters come across acorn-collecting forest spirits in the garden of their new home and later befriend the big cuddly forest spirit Totoro as they explore the surrounding forest.

Personal Notes: A classic and my mom’s favorite, you must watch this if you’ve never seen a Ghibli film before. The Shinto belief that everything in nature has a spirit shines throughout, it makes one appreciate nature and the imagination of youth. Being the first Ghibli film I saw as a toddler, the feeling of nostalgia it evokes is unmatched.

6. Howl’s Moving Castle 10/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Action-adventure. Romance. Fantasy and magic.

Synopsis: Sophie leads an uneventful life as a hatmaker until a witch casts an aging spell on her in a jealous rage. She sets out to try and break the spell and crosses paths with the wizard Howl, taking up shelter in his magic castle that walks around and can teleport between warring kingdoms. As Sophie navigates a new world of magic and adventure, she finds her true family in this outcast group comprised of a scarecrow, a sassy fire demon, a narcissistic sorcerer (Howl), and his young apprentice.

Personal Notes: I love this movie because it juggles a huge anti-war message with humorous dialogue, and a love story, all while delivering the fantastically wild Miyazaki visual sequences and meticulous world-building. A funny quote by Howl after his hair is accidentally dyed is, “I give up. I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful.”

7. Pom Poko 9/10
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Man vs. Nature. Comedy.

Synopsis: Playful and lively shape-shifting raccoons consolidate in efforts to save their forest home from the bulldozers of greedy land developers. While the raccoons have spirit, getting creative with their methods of pest (human) removal, their actions become more and more desperate as they see their livelihood slowly being chipped away at.

Personal Notes: This movie is a lot more sophisticated and dark than what I think most people imagine. Criminally underrated. Fun-ish fact: my mom feels guilty watching this because New Tama (the actual land development that resulted from the destruction of the raccoon’s forest) was where she grew up. One thing I’ll note from hearing critiques on this: Americans need to get over the animated raccoon balls — it’s a Japanese cultural thing. In the film, the raccoons use their “Kintama” as they do in traditional folktales and children’s songs to do magic. It may seem weird to people who didn’t grow up hearing these stories and songs, but it’s not a reason to put down the movie.

8. Only Yesterday 9/10
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Nostalgia. Moving beyond the past.

Synopsis: A 27-year-old working woman facing pressure to marry and “settle down” by her family takes time off to travel to the Japanese countryside, where being a Tokyo girl, she always wanted to live. As she takes up work on an organic farm, she reminisces in flashbacks about her 5th-grade self and what life could have been. Lost in the past, it takes this much-needed trip into nature and the people she develops close bonds with to pull her back into the present.

Personal Notes: Nostalgia for Japan hits from the get-go; randoseru backpacks, kyushoku lunches they’d force you to finish, bullet trains, stubborn Babas, onsen, and ridiculously expensive fruit. The flashbacks to her elementary school days brought back memories from my time at a school in Japan in 2nd grade. The facial expressions were amazingly evocative for animation. The scenes with her first crush are absolutely adorable. I think this film is the epitome of girlhood, with great dialogue and lots of moments of silence that speak for themselves. This movie beautifully executes realistic adult drama centering on a woman’s experience, which is not a genre traditionally in the realm of animation (or ever at the time).

My one criticism (SPOILER ALERT): the movie starts off detailing the pressure she faces to marry and settle in, blah, blah, blah — and I thought she would go to the countryside, find personal fulfillment and be happy on her own, but the ending implies she only went back to the farm to marry a man, which I think is taking a big step backward from the strides taken in the film.

9. Whisper of the Heart 9/10

Directed by: Yoshifumi Kondō

Young love. Perfectionist Artist Trope.

Synopsis: Shizuku, a bookworm who dreams of becoming a writer when she grows up, spends her free time remixing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. She notices that all of her summer reads have previously been taken out by a Seiji Amasawa. Seeking excitement she has only read about, she chases after a large cat that leads her to an antique shop holding the Baron (her muse) and crosses paths with this mysterious boy who reads all the same books as her. It’s a classic young-love story following playful and snarky enemies-to-lovers. They’re a cute pair of passionate artists that feed off of each other’s creative energies and push each other to pursue their dreams. They both have high standards for their crafts, but with a little help from the antique dealer, they learn that being perfect right from the get-go is not the goal.

Personal Notes: As a bookworm and artist myself, this movie hits just right. It’s cute (and sometimes corny) and has a great soundtrack. I love the easter eggs, the Baron’s backstory, the country road remix, the trope, and the mysterious cat “Muta” from The Cat Returns.

10. Princess Kaguya 9/10
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Folktale. Coming-of-age.

Synopsis: A tiny girl from the moon is found inside a bamboo stalk by an old man with a wife and no kids. She ages at a rapid rate and befriends the kids of the countryside, getting into mischief and playing freely in nature. However, believing that the girl was a gift sent from heaven, the old couple decide to raise her as a noble princess in the capital, forcing her to conform to ladylike behaviors and rigid rules. Given the name “Princess Kaguya,” she orders her many suitors to prove their love by completing a series of near-impossible tasks. She dreads the day the moon people will take her back from the earth and make her forget human feelings of sorrow and love.

Personal Notes: I always read this Monogatari story as a child and remember being excited to see it adapted as a Ghibli film in 2013. The animation style is different from most Ghibli movies but nonetheless beautiful. I love the song she sings throughout the movie, “Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, flowers, and trees, Teach people how to feel,” and how she sings about the human experience missed out on by the flawless people from the moon.

11. Grave of the Fireflies 9/10
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Solemn. Historically-based.

Synopsis: A teenage boy becomes the caretaker of his younger sister after a firebombing during World War II destroys their home and kills their mother.

Personal Notes: “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” You will cry. A film about the strength of the human spirit, though sometimes, it’s not enough to save us. I highly recommend watching it at least once.

12. The Secret World of Arrietty 8/10
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Adventure. Fantasy.

Synopsis: A family of little people, Arrietty and her parents live in the underworkings of a suburban home, unseen by its inhabitants. Like others of her kind, they follow one rule “Don’t let the humans see you.” They make periodic ventures beyond the safety of their home under the floorboards to “borrow” little bits of supplies from the humans. A secret friendship forms when Sho, a bedridden human boy with a heart condition sees Arrietty, but their relationship becomes dangerous for Arrietty’s family when the nosy housekeeper discovers their secret.

Personal Notes: Maybe the best instrumental soundtrack out of all of them, it scratches the brain. Sho’s song, “Arrietty’s Song,” “The Wild Waltz,” “Spiller,” and “Sho’s Lament” — all masterpieces that Cecile Corbel put her soul into.

13. Ocean Waves 7/10
Directed by: Tomomi Mochizuki
Coming-of-age. Romance. Nostalgia.

Synopsis: After seeing an old classmate on a train platform, Taku remembers his interactions with her, setting motion the entire movie, set mostly in his past. It all started with two best friends in the city of Kochi and the series of events following the arrival of the beautiful and cold transfer student Rikako.

Personal Notes: Purely on the list this high because it’s an entertaining comfort movie.
The main character, Taku, is so lovable but I think they could have made Rikako have some redeeming qualities as she is definitely the most unlikable female lead in the Ghibli universe. I wish she had a more developed character and personality. I can’t explain why I loved this movie despite its faults, but it’s romantic and nostalgic. I enjoyed the soft color palette and the mundane details of everyday life are made extremely visually pleasing through animation. Teenage tom-foolery, first love, friendship dynamics, and another killer soundtrack.

14. The Wind Rises 8/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Miyazaki’s “Swan Song.” Historically-based. Romance.

Synopsis: A boy with a love of flight and vivid dreams grows up to be a Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the A-6M World War II fighter plane. Follows his actual life story and passion for planes, with fictional twists, such as his relationship with Naoko.

Personal Notes: Miyazaki’s love for aviation shines through. A heartfelt and well-rounded film. One thing: I understand it’s a different time period but him meeting Naoko while she was a full-on child and he was a college student is weird. “Hikoki Gumo” by Yumi Matsudoya is such a beautiful song featured.

15. Ponyo 7/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Young love. Adventure.

Synopsis: “During a forbidden excursion to see the surface world, a goldfish princess encounters a human boy named Sosuke, who gives her the name Ponyo. Ponyo longs to become human, and as her friendship with Sosuke grows, she becomes more humanlike. Ponyo’s father brings her back to their ocean kingdom, but so strong is Ponyo’s wish to live on the surface that she breaks free, and in the process, spills a collection of magical elixirs that endanger Sosuke’s village.”

Personal Notes: Everyone loves this movie, and I agree that it’s stunning and I love the underwater world; beautifully animated. But to be honest, since I was little, I’ve always fallen asleep when I watch it. I think it’s just a little slow at times, but a great kid’s movie and the favorite of many.

16. Laputa: Castle in the Sky 7/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Action-Adventure. Fantasy.

Synopsis: “Young orphan Sheeta and her kidnapper Muska, are flying to a military prison when their plane is attacked by a [family] of air pirates led by [their mother] Dola. Escaping from a mid-air collision via a magic crystal around her neck, Sheeta meets fellow orphan Pazu and the pair join forces to discover the mystical floating city of Laputa while pursued by both Muska and the pirates, who lust for the city’s myriad treasures.”

Personal Notes: Another fan-favorite. While I appreciate the stunning world Miyazaki created, I don’t think it’s explored enough. The castle in the sky remains as much of a mystery by the end of the film as at the start.

17. Up on Poppy Hill 7/10
Directed by: Goro Miyazaki
Coming-of-age. Romance.

Synopsis: Yokohama high schoolers make a collective effort to save The Latin Quarter, which hosts a diverse variety of high school clubs, including a student-run newspaper, from being demolished. The film follows the lives of Masami, a hardworking student, and home-keeper while her mom studies overseas, and Shun, a passionate leader of the Latin Quarter and newspaper. They work together to preserve the clubhouse, and develop feelings for each other…and then things take a weird turn.

Personal Notes: Okay, not bad Goro (Hayao Miyazaki’s son who is the common factor of less favored Ghibli films). Aside from the (BIG SPOILER ALERT) incest scare, I loved this movie. A comfort film for sure, with a great soundtrack. I listen to “The Breakfast Song” every morning.

18. Porco Rosso 7/10
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Action-Adveture. Romance. Loosely historically-based.

Synopsis: “World War I flying ace Marco Pagott mysteriously turns from a man into a pig after all his comrades die in battle. Now known as Porco Rosso, the pilot continues fighting air pirates while, on the ground, flirting with a gorgeous club singer. After an attack by a brash American pilot, Porco meets [the 17-year-old mechanic] Fio, who repairs his plane… and sees him for who he really is.”

Personal Notes: I watched it one more time recently since the first time I watched it, I fell asleep at parts. It’s definitely a film you may not get on the first watch. To be sure, it is a really good movie, just not for me. Miyazaki is a geek for aviation, and this takes up a lot of the film. The air pirates are so funny. The pig is sexist, and it doesn’t really explain why he was transformed into one.

19. The Cat Returns 6/10
Directed by: Hiroyuki Morita
Adventure. Magic. Talking cats.

Synopsis: “High school student Haru rescues a cat that was about to be run over by a truck and discovers the cat is actually a prince named Lune. Out of gratitude, Lune’s father, the Cat King, asks her to marry Lune. Haru is brought to the Cat Kingdom, where she starts to develop feline features. When she is prevented from leaving, the Baron and Toto, two statues that have magically been given life, provide assistance in gaining her freedom.”

Personal Notes: The animation is kind of janky and different because it’s not Miyazaki-drawn. The world-building is not quite up to par with him as well. I love the connection it has to Whisper of the Heart; Muta and the Baron are in it.

20. When Marnie was There 5/10
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Synopsis: Anna, showing signs of depression and social detachment, is sent by her mom to her aunt and uncle’s house in a town by a marsh for a change of scenery. There, she explores an abandoned mansion and has vivid dreams centering around a mysterious blonde girl only she can see. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish her visions from reality.

Personal Notes: I watched this one recently because I wanted to give Ghibli films not directed by Miyazaki a chance. I’m glad that I did this because I discovered gems like Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves, but this one just wasn’t it for me. I can see how it may problematically lead audiences to believe that it is following an LGBTQ relationship–right up until the end. I was disappointed because all signs pointed to it being the progressive film that the studio needed to catapult from the past to the present.

Well, that’s it! I left My Neighbors the Yamadas, Tales of Earthsea, and Earwig and the Witch off of the list because I haven’t seen them, and I’m so sorry but I’m never watching the last one. CGI Ghibli films are not the move.

With all of this being said, most of the films on the list are unique masterpieces that are worth your time watching. Whether the films are on the list or not, I strongly encourage you to come to your own conclusions after watching them.

Additionally, I urge you to check out all of the film’s soundtracks on Spotify–it’s great study ambiance music and Joe Hisaishi is a legend. Final tip: the largest selection of Ghibli films is on HBO Max.