Studio Ghibli movies are pure magic.
When I first saw Spirited Away on a high-school sweaty summer date, I knew I couldn’t go back. The unforgettable characters, the gorgeous artwork, the thrills, the dreams, the music–and some of the cutest goddamn cartoon characters the world has ever seen–had me at my computer later that night, looking up other movies by the same director. There’s something about Miyazaki’s love for flight, his emphasis on resolute idealism, his attention to detail, that has made some of the greatest animated films the world has ever seen.
How could you not love these munchkins?
And it’s time to rank them.
Looking for Studio Ghibli recommendations? Look no further! Looking for another opinion to argue with? Look no further! I present to you a ranking of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films.
I started off straight-up ranking them, but soon enough I found it impossible. Surely The Wind Rises is objectively better than Howl’s Moving Castle, but how could I ever rank Howl’s Moving Castle under anything?!? How about choosing between Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service? KILL ME NOW.
Thus: I developed a rating system instead so I wouldn’t have to be tortured for all of the rest of eternity.
Out of 100 possible points
“The Magic”: 50 points
- Imagination- Studio Ghibli films are all about the soaring, glittering imagination. Does the film have a creative, adorable, heart-string-strumming world of ideas, settings, characters, and critters at its core? (/20 points)
- Art- Studio Ghibli art is always top notch, so don’t expect to see much below 10/15 on this scale, but some of Miyazaki’s films have paradigm-shifting artwork–art that forever changed the way animated movies work. (/15 points)
- Music- Joe Hisaishi’s scores are as distinct, memorable, and as beautiful as they come. Again, no low scores here, but some of the films are set to unforgettable masterworks. (/15 points)
“The Means”: 50 points
- Storytelling- Studio Ghibli films, on the other hand, aren’t exactly known for their airtight plots. But plotting, character development, dialogue, and pacing are important parts of movies, and some Miyazaki movies do them much better than others. (/25 points)
- Themes and Motifs- I’m of the opinion that art is for life. Movies that have meaningful ideas that critique societal issues, that suggest how people can live peacefully among one other, or that raise important questions about the workings of the human heart will score higher. (/25 points)
Finally, I’ll tell you how many times I’ve watched each movie, keeping you aware of bias towards movies that I’ve watched more times.
Without any further ado:
#10 (2008) Ponyo- 70/100
“The Magic”- 40/50
- Imagination: 15/20. Ponyo is a magical fairy-tale of a story, about a young boy who befriends a mysterious fish-girl. From adorable children and old ladies to the wonders of the ocean, there’s plenty to charm, but Ponyo doesn’t quite have the overwhelming magic of some of Miyazaki’s earlier films.
- Art: 13/15. The realistic seaside town and the magic of a sea-goddess in the stars alike are gorgeously depicted.
- Music: 12/15. Ponyo has a strong soundtrack, especially “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”. But there’s not quite enough to make one never forget the music.
“The Means”- 30/50
- Storytelling: 15/25. Ponyo has a surprisingly dense plot, but with as many flaws as any Miyazaki movie–the children are almost creepily young for the story and there’s basically no character development, to name just two.
- Themes: 15/25. Uh, what are the themes of this movie? This movie gets its points for depicting a beautiful co-existence with the sea and all the imagination inspired by its magic.
#9 (1992) Porco Rosso- 74/100
“The Magic”- 33/50
- Imagination: 12/20. It’s no surprise that this movie was made to be played on flights full of Japanese businessmen. There’s no shortage of the magic of flight, and the pig conceit is clever, but there’s not a ton to make the heart soar–instead it’s about nostalgia, regret, romance.
- Art: 10/15. Porco Rosso features solid, though not spectacular art. The Mediterranean setting can’t help but to feature some gorgeous moments.
- Music: 12/15. Porco Rosso’s soundtrack is one of the more distinctive ones, although not top-notch from start to finish. It’s got a ton of jazzy flavor, and the absolutely unforgettable “The Bygone Days”. That song makes me cry, straight-up.
“The Means”- 41/50
- Storytelling: 19/25. Porco Rosso is more introspective than most Studio Ghibli films, focused on the namesake character’s history and past. It’s also a historically complex and well-developed plot, as the characters try to live against an Italian fascist backdrop, but it’s hard to get past a relatively boring lead character.
- Themes: 22/25. The theme of nostalgia set to the most nostalgic jazz, set in the stunning Mediterranean and in sleepy night-clubs, is well executed. It also has one of the best iterations of the classic Miyazaki older-younger-sister storyline in Fia and Gina.
#8 (1986) Laputa Castle in the Sky 76/100
“The Magic”- 43/50
- Imagination: 20/20. A magic crystal? A friendly super-weapon robot? A CASTLE IN THE SKY, REMNANT OF AN ANCIENT CIVILIZATION? FREAKING SKY PIRATES? Yeah. It doesn’t get more thrilling than this.
- Art: 13/15. Laputa was the very first Studio Ghibli movie, with a fully-ish staffed team behind Miyazaki’s talents. The result is beautiful. Laputa is the movie that set the standard for good art in all other Studio Ghibli films.
- Music: 10/15. In my opinion, Laputa has some of the less memorable music out of all Miyazaki’s movies. I mean, the theme is amazing in every single way and is guaranteed to give you chills… but… besides that…..
“The Means”- 33/50
- Storytelling: 18/25. Laputa has pretty good storytelling, although it’s somewhat lackadaisical. The plot has holes but is overall well-developed, has a good pace, and plenty of suspense, with likable if not forgettable lead characters.
- Themes: 15/25. Laputa is about the thrills. There are some traces of a watered-down Nausicaa–anti-war and environmental messages–and some beautiful friendships. Miyazaki claims he only aims to “entertain”, and Castle in the Sky is the best example of that.
#7 (1987) Kiki’s Delivery Service- 79/100
“The Magic”- 42/50
- Imagination: 16/20. Kiki takes the witch-on-the-broomstick trope to its most charming extreme. With an adorable cat along for the ride, there’s something especially quaint and nostalgic about the adventures of Kiki. Nothing mind-blowing, but the joy is there.
- Art: 12/15. Like Laputa, Kiki’s Delivery Service features some pretty solid early art, with idyllic townscapes and a great attention to detail.
- Music: 14/15. “A Town With An Ocean View”? Fuck me up. That shit is as iconic as it gets. Also there are some killer-reprises, a great credits song, and several memorable moments throughout.
“The Means”- 37/50
- Storytelling: 14/25. Uh, yeah. Don’t really get me started on this one–the story’s a mess. There’s no buildup, some meh dialogue, and overall makes for a very confusing journey, as fun as it is.
- Themes: 23/25. On the other hand, Kiki’s Delivery Service is an amazing, heartwarming story about growing up. A young girl’s first experience with adventure… with loneliness… with strangers. This is such a rich film for the adolescent experience with the world and all the misery, soul-seeking, and beauty it entails.
#6 (2005) Howl’s Moving Castle- 85/100
“The Magic”- 50/50
- Imagination: 20/20. Yes, our first perfect 50 “The Magic” score. Howl’s Moving Castle has it all: a quaint town full of quirky and memorable characters, stunning landscapes of mountains, lakes, and fields of flowers, a cantankerous crumbling stumbling wheezing and teleporting moving castle, wizards and witches, young love, old love, and all sorts of loves in between. This movie is pure magic.
- Art: 15/15. From all the cozy details of the European town, to the intricacy of the moving castle, to all the subtle shifts in Sophie’s age, the art of this movie, is also magic.
- Music: 15/15. And don’t forget the incredible soundtrack, also, magic. From the timeless “Merry Go Round of Life” to the tear-jerking credits, Hisaishi’s powerful soundtrack fits perfectly.
“The Means”- 35/50
- Storytelling: 18/25. Howl’s Moving Castle is at once tremendously flawed and tremendously well-done: the plot isn’t well explained, leaving a number of gaping holes–especially at the ending, which literally ends happily for more or less no good reason. On the other hand, it features some of the best well-developed characters in all of Miyazaki’s movies in Sophie and Howl, who are as dynamic as it gets–both on the inside and outside.
- Themes: 17/25. The themes are there, but underdeveloped. Sophie coming to the moving castle is a story of how to find a family and make a home, the greater war-plot is a pacifist outcry, and Howl-Sophie is as much of a bare-bones love story as it gets, but you can’t help but thinking that all three could make more sense.
#5 (2013) The Wind Rises- 86/100
“The Magic”- 39/50
- Imagination: 13/20. The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s most realistic movie by a mile. Despite its grounding in the brutal realism (earthquake, plagues, and wars) of Japan’s first half of the 20th century, it still has some room for soaring dreams, and the enigmatic and twinkling German spy, Castorp.
- Art: 14/15. Miyazaki didn’t go out with an unforgettable artistic bang, but that doesn’t make the movie any less gorgeous. It has the most elegantly and carefully drawn aircraft of all Studio Ghibli moves, and some beautiful landscapes.
- Music: 12/15. Hisaishi’s score is excellent, though not nearly as iconic as some of those for earlier films. Relying on accordion and some guitar for an early 20th century flavor, it certainly has its own unique quality.
“The Means”- 47/50
- Storytelling: 24/25. On the other hand, The Wind Rises has some of best and most subtle storytelling of all Studio Ghibli movies. From brutal realism, to carefully unpacking the psyche and dreams of Jiro, to a delicately told love story and flawless interweaving of historical events, hats off to Miyazaki for finishing on such a strong storytelling note.
- Themes: 23/25. The themes are also fairly well developed. There are questions about violence and history (the future violence Jiro’s beautiful planes will be used for in WWII is left as a hanging question) and beautiful depictions of family and love, making The Wind Rises one of Miyazaki’s deeper films.
#4 (1982) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind- 87/100
“The Magic”- 42/50 *Note: This isn’t technically a Studio Ghibli movie, but I included it anyways.
- Imagination: 20/20. Nausicaa set the standard for all future Ghibli movies. This movie is unforgettable: from Nausicaa’s elegant flying machines, to the apocalyptic toxic forest, to the legendary sword of Uncle Yupah, to Nausicaa’s pure idealism, the ways that Studio Ghibli movies inspire the mind to fly free–they started here.
- Art: 11/15. As one of the earliest Miyazaki movies (and in fact pre-Studio Ghibli), the art is not quite up to snuff with some of the later films. There are gorgeous scenes and landscapes, but the same resources were not yet at Miyazaki’s disposal.
- Music: 11/15. Nausicaa features one of Hisaishi’s more experimental scores, with techno beeps and bloops interspersed with the classic, soaring Ghibli soundtrack: again, a theme that set the standard for all future Ghibli themes.
“The Means”- 45/50
- Storytelling: 20/25. Nausicaa, based on a long and elaborate fantasy manga by Miyazaki, accordingly has a wonderful cast of characters, elaborately imagined settings, a solid plot, and excellent character development. However, the ending of the movie is forced and makes no sense, because it cuts short 5.5 manga volumes worth of plot–so I had to take off five points.
- Themes: 25/25. Oh man. All the classic Miyazaki themes begin here. Environmentalism, pacifism, older sister-younger sister, the relationship between humans and animals, the wonders of flight… Full marks, no doubt about it.
#3 (1988) My Neighbor Totoro- 88/100
“The Magic”- 47/50
- Imagination: 20/20. One of the most adorable movies of all time, Totoro wins a perfect score for its unforgettable cast of Totoros–and of course, Cat Bus. My Neighbor Totoro is the adventure every little kid really wants to go on.
- Art: 13/15. Totoro features beautiful scenes and landscapes, fantastic visuals at the moments of transformation, and more subdued instances of brilliance, like the famous rendering of Totoro and Satsuki at the bus station.
- Music: 14/15. “The Path of the Wind”. “My Neighbor Totoro.” Jesus, how can you get any more iconic? (Oh wait, you can. See below). Needless to say, My Neighboro Totoro set a new standard for Studio Ghibli scores, only to be surpassed, somehow, by the next two movies.
“The Means”- 41/50
- Storytelling: 23/25. My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t get enough credit for the realist backbone of a fantastical plot. The sublime and the mundane are masterfully intertwined in an adventure tale with the most likable kids you’ll ever meet–plus some plot twists that nearly break your heart along the way.
- Themes: 18/25. The themes are there, but underdeveloped. Imagination let loose in the countryside is a big undercurrent, as is health and family, but they could stand to be more fleshed out.
#2 (2001) Spirited Away- 96/100
“The Magic”- 50/50
- Imagination: 20/20. Here it is: one of the best animated films of all time, and somehow pulling in at number 2. How is that possible? Well, certainly through no fault of the movie’s shimmering, twinkling turn through a magic bathhouse full of spirits, witches, and dragons. Spirited Away also has possibly the best cast of characters of any animated film: Haku, Lin, Kamaji, No-face, Turniphead…
- Art: 15/15. Flawless in its artistic beauty, Spirited Away inspired the style of a whole generation of anime to follow.
- Music: 15/15. This movie’s soundtrack literally brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Brilliant from start to finish, Spirited Away’s score is Joe Hisaishi’s masterwork, undefeated, inspired, shining.
“The Means”- 46/50
- Storytelling: 24/25. Spirited Away has something that’s not quite like a regular story, but it’s so beautiful and fun that we accept it. It all may have been a dream, but the thrilling adventure is linked by Chihiro’s desire to find her parents. It also has excellent character development, great dialogue, and truly iconic scenes (anything with No-Face, really).
- Themes: 22/25. The messages behind Spirited Away seem underdeveloped or at the least subtle, but they’re certainly present. Miyazaki throws in a strange environmental message thrown in at the end with Haku’s origin story, but the whole plot is laced with powerful messages of love, family, and growing up–and of course, the ultimate moral: never overeat free food.
#1 (1999) Princess Mononoke- 97/100
“The Magic”- 49/50
- Imagination: 18/20. Here it is–the best Studio Ghibli movie, and, in my opinion, the greatest animated movie of all time. #1 doesn’t pull in a perfect “The Magic” Score, but that’s only because Princess Mononoke is a story so grounded in historical accuracy. It was researched to be accurate down to the smallest detail, but still features incredible landscapes and creatures that make the imagination soar–most notably the lovable kodama, and the mysterious, elegantly rendered, and heart-stopping Spirit of the Forest.
- Art: 16/15. Listen, it is impossible to understate how groundbreaking the art of Princess Mononoke is. Not only is the movie stunning, with unforgettable battle scenes, sweeping vistas, and even drops of dew, but the movie was the among the first ever to combine hand-drawn animation with CGI, making it a true pioneer in the field. More attention was paid to the art in this movie than you will pay to anything in your lifetime. For redefining the possibilities of animation, I award the Art of Mononoke 16 out of 15 possible points–breaking a tie with Spirited Away.
- Music: 15/15. Yeah, the music in this movie is just as good as Howl and Spirited Away. From the heart-stopping “Journey to the West” to the tear-jerking “Ashitaka and San”, Hisaishi created a true work of art with this one.
“The Means”- 48/50
- Storytelling: 23/25. Princess Mononoke’s only flaws are its length, and to some extent, the character growth of Ashitaka. The plot is complex but perfectly executed, the suspense and payoff are huge–this movie has one of the most deliberate paces of any movie I have ever seen. The cast of side-characters is also really fun, especially the wolf and boar-clans and the villagers in Eboshi-town.
- Themes: 25/25. Princess Mononoke is in fact a superior execution of every idea so brilliantly introduced with Nausicaa. The environmental message and the conflict of nature/civilization is sublimely undertaken. A deft knowledge of history is used to enhance the depiction of modernization and violence against the Northern clans of Japan. Lady Eboshi is one of the most complex characters of modern cinema, raising countless provocative moral questions. And the love story of Ashitaka and San is the most subtle romance of all Studio Ghibli films. Truly deserving of a perfect score on this account.