Studio Ghibli was officially formed in 1985. Before that time many of the writers, directors, producers and animators that would come to form Studio Ghibli worked together on several anime movies. These movies have much of the charm of Studio Ghibli features and are in many cases now also owned and distributed by Studio Ghibli. Despite their age these movies are of excellent quality, even by today’s high standards, and are by all means worth a watch.
Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro (ルパン三世 カリオストロの城)
A random anime series film that just so happens to have been co-written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. As such, this movie contains far less crudeness and nudity than your average Lupin III fare. This movie also happens to be the general favourite in the anime community out of the six Lupin III movies. This movie follows Lupin III, a famed thief descended from Arsène Lupin, and his sidekick Daisuke Jigen as they escape from a high-profile robbery of a national casino called Monaco. Discovering that their loot is counterfeit, they go in search of the source of these perfect “goat bills” which leads them to the Castle of Cagliostro featuring both a princess and a huge hidden secret. Good times to be had by all, and a more decent story than is usually found in non-canonical anime series movies.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Kaze no tani no Naushika (風の谷のナウシカ)
Now considered Ghibli’s first full-length movie even though it was released a year before the official formation of the Studio, Nausicaa has aged a lot better than most of the other animes from that time. The art, music, and story-line of this anime were all way ahead of its time. The story revolves around the princess Nausicaa and how she gives her absolute all to save those around her from both the aggressive foliage/fungi surrounding them, the neighbouring countries, and the impending threat of giant stampeding insects. One of the best sci-fi animes ever made, and certainly a must-view for any anime fan. You’ll be able to see why this put Ghibli in its formative years on the anime world’s map.
Gauche the Cellist (1982)
Sero Hiki no Goushu (セロ弾きのゴーシュ)
A Pre-Ghibli film with a good measure more heart than many of Takahata’s actual Ghibli movies. Gauche the Cellist is a cute if somewhat sedate movie about Gauche who is a cellist with a local orchestra and how he learns different important cello lessons from random talking animals that visit him every night including a tanuki, a cuckoo, a cat, and a pair of mice to prepare him for an upcoming concert. It’s pretty cute and recommended for both adults and children. Good to watch on a rainy day.
Studio Ghibli – (Hayao Miyazaki/Isao Takahata/Goro Miyazaki)
Ghibli is commonly known as the “Disney of Japan” and is certainly one of the largest anime studios in existence. Most of their movies are great for both adults and kids, the ones that aren’t are noted within their respective reviews.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta (天空の城ラピュタ)
The art direction is this movie is superb, it really brings the Castle in the Sky concept straight out of Gulliver’s Travels and onto the movie screen. The bittersweet robots that inhabit and protect the garden may even end up being some of your favourite anime characters, not because they are amusing, but because of the care and dedication that they exude whenever you see them. Laputa revolves around a boy named Pazu and the girl that floats unceremoniously down from the sky into his life, Sheeta, and how they save both Laputa and the world from corruption. An all-around solid anime movie with classic Ghibli humour and spirit, definitely recommended.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Tonari no Totoro (となりのトトロ)
Arguably the most well-known anime movie ever made, My Neighbor Totoro follows the exploits of two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, and how they learn to cope with their mother being constantly in the hospital through the loving help and guidance of mystical (and fuzzy!) forest spirits, the Totoro (the word Totoro usually just refers to the biggest gray one, but technically applies to all three). This quickly became the defining movie for Ghibli making Totoro their mascot and the “Mickey Mouse of Japan” even though this is the only widely available movie he’s featured in.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Majo no Takkyūbin (魔女の宅急便)
This is one of the more decorated of Ghibli’s movies having won at least 11 major anime and animation awards since it was released. The narrative follows Kiki and her witty cat Jiji as they set out for a town where Kiki can become the resident witch and earn some valuable experience in life. It’s a solid coming-of-age story that follows the hardships and friends that they encounter while Kiki tries to develop her rather lacking witch skills into something more useful for society. As with all Ghibli movies this is not your typical anime fare and definitely worth checking out.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Kurenai no Buta (紅の豚)
Miyazaki loves planes and nowhere is this love more prevalent than in Porco Rosso. Overall, the movie has a playful nature and is good fun for people of all ages. The story follows Porco Rosso, a man who was inexplicably turned into a pig (it never really is explained very well, so don’t bother trying to understand that part), his tricked-out plane, The Crimson Pig, and how he uses it to patrol the skies and fight evil wherever it may be. The catch is where he got the plane from.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Mononoke Hime (もののけ姫)
The winner of 30 major cinema awards, it seems everyone loves this anime except for me. This is by far the most graphic of Ghibli’s movies, with gore and decapitation among other things. Does it end up being an okay movie in spite of its unusually mature content? Yes, it actually does. I commend Miyazaki for being able to craft such a solid and mystical story that one would swear was based on actual folklore, but I still can’t say that this is one of my favourite animes. The story follows prince Ashitaka as he gets caught in the middle of a war between forest spirits (as well as San, or Princess Mononoke, who was adopted by the forest’s wolves) and a mining town called Iron Town while trying to lift a curse put on him by a giant boar demon that was attacking his village. Chances are that you’ll love it, but I find it largely too long and gruesome for repeated consumption, even compared to the more brazenly gory movies featured in this guide.
Spirited Away (2001)
Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi(千と千尋の神隠し)
Spirited Away was the first of Miyazaki’s movies to win an Oscar, obviously for Best Animated Film. If Western audiences hadn’t heard of Studio Ghibli before, Spirited Away‘s appearance at the Oscars certainly introduced them to it. The movie follows Chihiro as she and her family get caught in a bizarre spirit world and how she tries to overcome fear and adversity to escape this strange land. Easily one of the weirder animes in existence, but not even close to being the weirdest in this guide. Spirited Away most definitely deserved its Oscar.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Hauru no Ugoku Shiro(ハウルの動く城)
This movie gave some worried anime fans great assurance that Miyazaki was in no way past his prime and still able to bring an enchanting story (originally written by Diana Wynne Jones) to life. This magical anime follows the quest of a girl named Sophie to restore her youth that was stolen by the Witch of the Waste. She seeks out a sorcerer named Howl and his moving castle not knowing what kind of troubles and strange adventures await her. The animation in this movie is gorgeous and it has, in my opinion, the single best soundtrack of almost any anime to date. Definitely worth watching more than once.
Gake no Ue no Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ) (lit. “Ponyo on the Cliff”)
Hayao Miyazaki was challenged to make another movie with the poignancy and magic that was captured in My Neighbour Totoro, and by most accounts with Ponyo he did just that. While not my absolute favourite Ghibli movie, this is certainly one of the better ones. The story in Ponyo tends to be a bit slow even compared to most other Ghibli movies, but as a whole it just pleasantly takes its time instead of truly plodding along. It follows a little goldfish-like girl thing called Ponyo and her sudden transformation into a human after accidentally tasting human blood while healing a cut on a little boy named Sosuke’s finger. The turning point in the story is Ponyo’s love of Sosuke and how that threatens to not only change her life permanently, but also the world at large. There is much to be seen with this movie’s fantastic visual style, slightly different from previous Ghibli offerings with more pastels and simpler shading. Wholly recommended to everyone, this is a must-see Ghibli movie.
The Wind Rises (2013)
Kaze Tachinu (風立ちぬ)
Hayao Miyazaki’s final movie before his retirement is a bittersweet one in many ways. Not only is it a farewell to one of anime’s most celebrated directors, it is also a movie with less universal appeal than most other Ghibli features. The Wind Rises is a highly romanticized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the two main fighter aircraft used by Japan in WWII. It focuses on Jiro’s extreme 1940s Japanese work ethic and how it, along with a love of planes, propelled him to the forefront of his field during the war and how he met his wife in the midst of it all. History buffs will certainly scoff at the movie’s very nonchalant embellishment of Jiro’s life and how it not only views such a tumultuous time through rose-coloured glasses, but draws the vast majority of its poignancy from its entirely fabricated story elements instead of even mildly addressing the deep-seated problems of the time. I, being automatically adverse to most historical features, don’t particularly care about how many of the movie’s plot points Miyazaki made up because they largely just serve to inject some much-needed conflict and excitement into the film’s proceedings. On the whole, The Wind Rises can’t be called a bad movie but it ends up being close to the slowest film that Ghibli has produced in the last couple of decades. I figure that since it was his last hurrah, Miyazaki decided to make a movie for himself where he got to have all kinds of the fancy planes that he enjoys so much doing cool (to plane enthusiasts) things instead of one that would be guaranteed to appeal to audiences worldwide like Ghibli’s classic fantasy fare. While The Wind Rises may feel like a bit of a disappointment to some because of its plodding pace and niche subject matter, I think we owe it to Miyazaki to appreciate his final film for what it is (a story about the value of emotion, focus and commitment to a goal) and be thankful for all of the amazing characters and worlds that he brought to life throughout his illustrious directing career.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Hotaru no Haka (火垂るの墓)
Grave of the Fireflies is the most serious and sullen of Ghibli’s movies. The movie even begins with Seita, the older boy, explaining about the day that he died. The movie follows the last few weeks in the lives of Seita and Setsuko before their untimely deaths in WWII Japan. This is definitely a tear-jerker, and probably the saddest anime movie that I have ever seen. Realistic, touching, and scary, this movie is for anime what Schindler’s List is for live action.
Only Yesterday (1991)
Omohide Poro Poro (おもひでぽろぽろ)
Buy on Blu-ray: Amazon
This is an interesting one. Only Yesterday follows a woman named Taeko and how she comes to grips with reality through constant flashbacks to her past. Her past self even literally follows her around sometimes in a rather eerie manner. The movie’s tone overall is a lighthearted one and is rather shojo (girly). It deals a lot with Taeko’s relationships and her life-long search for a loving husband. With this in mind, the anime is enjoyable and worth the time, but I’d suggest developing a bit of a taste for Ghibli movies before you take this one head on if you’re a bit wary.
Pom Poko (1994)
Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ)
Pom Poko is a great movie. Good for kids as long as you don’t mind the males having cartoony testicles (which, believe it or not, contribute to the plot several times under the moniker of “raccoon sack” in the English version). The plot follows a clan of shape-shifting tanuki (raccoon-like animals native to Japan) as they battle against humanity, as well as other tanuki. In addition to battles, the movie showcases their lives in times of peace, the mating season, and what happens while their habitats are slowly being demolished by people to build more houses. Much, much more unusual than what Western society normally considers a basic cartoon movie, but brilliant all the same.
My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん)
Certainly the most stylized movie to ever come from Ghibli. It is also in my opinion Isao Takahata’s best work (even though most people will claim his magnum opus is Grave of the Fireflies). The style of animation changes drastically at random points in the film, but serves to emphasize the mood as opposed to being plainly distracting. The movie follows the amusing day-to-day exploits of the quintessentially Japanese Yamada family, and is split into a few smaller episodes by the recitation of traditional Japanese haikus that relate to the episodes’ content. One of the best family anime movies around, and heart-warming to watch at any time.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (かぐや姫の物語)
It took nearly a decade and a half, but Isao Takahata returned to the director’s chair for another visually striking anime feature, this time based loosely on the Japanese folk tale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. The Tale of Princess Kaguya shifts the focus of the classic narrative from explaining the name and volcanic actions of Mount Fuji to the joys and pains experienced by Princess Kaguya during her life on earth. Clocking in at a hefty 137 minutes, The Tale of Princess Kaguya narrowly dethrones Ghibli’s last princess film (Mononoke) as their longest feature to date. Having so much less action and a leaner story than Princess Mononoke doesn’t do The Tale of Princess Kaguya any favours and the movie buckles under the weight of its unnecessary length noticeably in its first half, but manages to pick up a bit toward the end. In spite of having the finest pedigree, an excellent visual style mimicking that of traditional Japanese “ukiyo-e” woodblock paintings, and the incomparable Joe Hisaishi helming the music production, The Tale of Princess Kaguya fails to extend itself much beyond mediocrity and is easily Ghibli’s largest misstep since Tales from Earthsea. By all means clear your entire evening and check this movie out if only to see one of the more original art styles featured in a full length anime movie, but be prepared for an astoundingly slow first half, one of Hisaishi’s most forgettable scores, and a general feeling that you should have just rewatched Pom Poko, My Neighbors The Yamadas or Grave of the Fireflies instead.
Tales from Earthsea (2006)
Gedo Senki (ゲド戦記)
Tales from Earthsea was the first Ghibli movie to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. It ended up being an alright (if somewhat pedestrian) movie, especially considering that Hayao reportedly did not even consider Goro ready for the responsibility of directing a Ghibli feature film. The story follows a boy named Arren who killed his father and stole his sword. Arren ends up getting caught in the crossfire of an age-old war being waged between a powerful wizard and a powerful witch. The story more or less plods aimlessly along throughout the movie, especially so when compared to Hayao’s masterpieces. This movie didn’t even hit North America until 2011, and then only on DVD in spite of Disney’s recent Blu-ray distribution craze, which kind of shows that even they acknowledge this movie’s mediocrity. With that said, Tales from Earthsea is still just worth the watch, if only to see Studio Ghibli’s beautiful art and to appreciate how far Goro Miyazaki has come as a director.
From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Kokuriko-zaka Kara (コクリコ坂から) (lit. “From Coquelicot Hill”)
I went into this movie with a heaping helping of skepticism based both on the fact that Goro’s previous offering was lacklustre and that I generally dislike period movies of most descriptions, but Goro’s second feature film definitely outshines both of its immediate predecessors: Goro’s directorial debut Tales from Earthsea and Ghibli’s preceding release The Secret World of Arrietty. I ended up being pleasantly surprised on all counts with From Up on Poppy Hill and can confidently say that this is one of Ghibli’s better movies (likely thanks in no small part to Hayao Miyazaki’s involvement with the screenplay). The movie, set in a harbour town in 1963 post-war Japan, follows a high school girl named Umi as she learns to come to terms with the death of her father, has a particularly complicated relationship with the school heartthrob Shun, and works together with him to save an historic building on their school-ground called the Quartier Latin. A light-hearted slice of life movie at its core, From Up on Poppy Hill‘s impressive scenery, catchy music, engaging story, and personable characters put it toe-to-toe with the finest anime family features. It should certainly serve to entertain you thoroughly even if you normally have an aversion to shojo or period anime films.
I Can Hear the Sea / Ocean Waves (1993)
Umi ga Kikoeru (海がきこえる)
This movie directed by Tomomi Mochizuki felt very, very long when I first watched it. It isn’t necessarily a bad kind of long, but the plot does peter out fairly early. What plot there is follows the particulars of a love triangle between two high school buddies named Taku and Yutaka and an attractive yet manipulative and arrogant transfer student named Rikako. You’ll be hard-pressed not to end up seething with hatred for Rikako’s constantly deplorable behaviour, but the impressive thing is that after everything you’ll still want to see her relationship work out. This anime is worth the watch, but only after you’ve exhausted the other Ghibli movies in this list (with the possible exceptions of Princess Mononoke and Tales from Earthsea).
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Mimi o Sumaseba (耳をすませば )
Whisper of the Heart is a coming of age love story at its core and a really good movie. It was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, a Ghibli employee who was expected to join the directing ranks of Miyazaki and Takahata, but tragically died of a brain aneurism in 1998. It has everything you could want from an anime: a funky antique shop, a fat cat, and stringed instruments. This is a decidedly shojo movie, but I don’t think that that should deter anyone from watching. There’s no action, per se, but the story following a girl named Shizuku Tsukishima as she finds out about a mystery person that always seems to have checked out library books she enjoys before her is masterfully woven and portrayed. As one of the most well-made Ghibli movies, it makes you sad to think that there could have been more like it had Kondo not met an untimely death, but also thankful that he was able to share this movie with the world before then.
The Cat Returns (2002)
Neko no Ongaeshi (猫の恩返し)
Hiroyuki Morita’s first and only directing credit, The Cat Returns, is probably the only Ghibli movie that I would liken to a traditional Disney film. While it still has charming Ghibli undertones, this movie plays out in a rather formulaic (though fantastical) manner and seems to allude greatly to Alice in Wonderland. With that said, it is still an awesome movie, with cats sooo cute that you have to see them to believe them. The story follows Haru, a kinda half-clumsy misfit teenager, who can only dream of being with a guy she likes. The titular Cat, Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, who was featured in Ghibli’s A Whisper of the Heart, returns to help Haru out. They then travel to the Cat World and have mystical adventures, etc. While this is probably the most innocuous and ordinary of Ghibli’s movies, it’s still very much worth the time to watch it.
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Kari-gurashi no Arietti (借りぐらしのアリエッティ) (lit. “The Borrower Arrietty”)
The first movie to be directed by Studio Ghibli’s youngest director (at age 37) Hiromasa Yonebayashi is a bit of a melancholy one. With beautifully painted scenery and expressive motion, The Secret World of Arrietty features what is truly the pinnacle thus far of Ghibli’s renowned animation. To bring the audience further into the world of Mary Norton’s Borrowers, this movie also features exaggerated depth-of-field and sound effects. Sounds that one would normally consider mundane, like the ticking of a clock or footsteps in the hall are given particularly booming, resonant qualities and objects in both the fore- and backgrounds are regularly blurred to both shift focus where it is required and accentuate the relative size of the world that Arrietty inhabits. The story follows a family of Borrowers (little people that live in our houses between the walls and under the floorboards and borrow little things like thimbles, pins and food that won’t be missed), Arrietty and her parents, as they try to live unnoticed alongside a couple of older ladies and one of their 14-year-old nephews, Shō who is awaiting much-needed heart surgery. Depending upon your viewpoint, you could see the movie as being either pessimistic or optimistic, but the plot, while moving even more slowly than pokier Ghibli movies like Tales from Earthsea and Ponyo, is certainly worth the ride along with the gorgeous animation and audio. A family movie at its heart, this movie is recommended especially for more optimistic viewers due to its uniquely ponderous handling of its material, but will give anyone willing to watch both a good time and something to think about when its over.