The Best Studio Ghibli Movies And How To Start Watching Them

Japanese animation has marked the childhood of many children in Western countries through anime, such as Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon to name a few. But there’s one Japanese movie studio that managed to enter the Hollywood-dominated scene over the years, and that’s Studio Ghibli.

The studio has received five Oscar nominations since its creation in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki. There are a total of 22 animated feature films and we will cover the most popular ones and the best order to watch them, so you can start your journey of watching all Studio Ghibli movies.

What You’ll See In Studio Ghibli Movies

The founders are still the stars of Studio Ghibli after 36 years, with Miyazaki directing most of the movies and becoming the face of the company. The studio is known for maintaining the 2D animation style until its latest movie Earwig and the Witch directed by Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki, who experimented with the 3D style of animation.

Hayao Miyazaki bases most of his movies on events and people of his life, so you’ll notice a series of common themes in Studio Ghibli movies: the relationship between nature and progress, war, disease, and the process of growing up. 

Most of the protagonists are strong female children, and only two of them are actually princesses in contrast with Disney’s protagonists. Hayao Miyazaki has a unique way of directing, using silent and still images that gives the viewer time to process with the character what is going on.

The soundtrack is also outstanding in almost every movie. The composer Joe Hisaishi has given Studio Ghibli its characteristic music a mysterious and soothing melody that has marked the studio’s identity.

What Is The Best Order To Watch Them In?

We selected the 10 best and most popular Studio Ghibli movies so you can get to know and love the franchise. Netflix added almost all of the studio’s movies in its catalog last year and you can also watch it on HBO Max.

You can watch them in chronological order, of course, but Western viewers may be overwhelmed by the Japanese setting and folklore presented in some of the movies, so we recommend you follow this order to watch them

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

This movie is the best one to start. The setting will be more recognizable by Western viewers as it doesn’t rely on Japanese culture and folklore, while still bringing a lot of fantasy elements.

The story is based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name. Miyzaki used the characters and worldbuilding. If you read the book, you’ll have a completely different experience, because Miyazaki told his own version of the story.

You’ll follow Sophie, a young hatmaker who was cursed and turned into an old lady by a witch. She learns about herself during her journey with the wizard Howl and his moving castle, while trying to break her curse.

This movie may not showcase a lot of Japanese culture, but it holds the Studio Ghibli essence in every detail and soundtrack. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature in 2005 but lost to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki’s Delivery Service stands out by it’s personal storytelling and beautiful cinematography. Like Howl’s Moving Castle, this story isn’t marked by Japanese folklore, but it carries a lot of Japanese customs in a western environment.

Viewers will be awestruck by the calm and relaxing scenes while they witness the struggles of a little witch called Kiki who tries to adapt in a new city in a journey of growth and self discovery.

Despite this movie having fantasy elements, they are very toned down in contrast with Howl’s Moving Castle. The story is very slow-paced, which will give you another facet of the studio.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

By this point, you’re wondering what’s the studio’s mascot, and you’ll be ready to meet him in My Neighbor Totoro. Miyazaki himself said in the 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki documentary that he was never able to create something as great as Totoro again in his career.

This movie is packed with Japanese folklore. You’ll meet a family that moves to the countryside to stay close to the hospitalized mother. While adjusting to the new house, the two daughters meet Totoro, a forest spirit that helps them cope with the situation.

This movie will introduce you to a Japanese fantasy setting involving a sensitive and emotional story. This movie also has one of Studio Ghibli’s iconic scenes that you might recognize in the community.

Ponyo On The Cliff (2008)

Ponyo on the Cliff is one of Miyazaki’s most colorful movies. This one has striking visuals and an interesting story of a fish that turns into a little girl. The Studio Ghibli style thrives in this movie and shows the beauty of human culture while showcasing the damages it causes to the ocean.

This movie is one of the most popular ones having iconic scenes like My Neighbor Totoro. Viewers will be amazed by this unique story, animation, soundtrack, and a hopeful view of humanity’s relationship with nature.

The Secret World Of Arrietty (2010)

Despite being less known compared to other Studio Ghibli movies, Arrietty has a delicate storyline about a little girl named Arrietty and her family that are only a few inches tall. They secretly live underneath a house, surviving on what they can scavenge from the humans.

Miyazaki wrote the script based on Mary Norton’s classic novel The Borrowers. Everything changes when Arrietty gets too ambitious and a boy sees her becoming interested in her world.

The attention to detail given to the scenery is incredible. Arriety and her family’s size act as a metaphor to how we view and treat others that are different. Even considering Japan’s history with colonization, do we see them with equal worth in spite of their size, or are we superior because of our greater power? Should we help, or dominate?

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away might be Studio Ghibli’s and Miyazaki’s most famous movie followed by My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. Spirited Away received a Best Animated Feature Oscar award in 2002, making it the first and only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film to win the award, but Miyazaki didn’t attend the ceremony.

The movie tells the story of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl who is moving away to a new town, but her parents get lost in the way and enter a mysterious place where Chihiro’s adventure to save her parents begins.

Despite being the most famous movie, Spirited Away’s Japanese setting, culture and references might be overwhelming for Western audiences, but if you followed this list’s order, this shouldn’t be a problem for you. You’ll be able to enjoy the story line and beautiful direction without getting lost or confused by the Japanese folklore.

This movie is definitely the most iconic in the community and resonates with younger viewers because of its themes of growing up, being independent and developing self confidence. All while enjoying what’s best of Studio Ghibli’s style.

The Wind Rises (2013)

After watching all of these movies, you’ll get a sense of who Miyazaki is as a director. The Wind Rises is his latest released film and was considered to be his last before he retired, until he gave up on retiring in 2017 to direct a film for his grandson.

This movie was a challenge for Miyazaki, he had to depict his love for airplanes, but address the fact of the air machines being used in war. That and he had to figure out how to respectfully represent the tragedy of an earthquake when Japan suffered from the same problem while in production. 

What transpires in this movie is based on the life of “Zero Fighter” designer Horikoshi Jiro, who designed the Mitsubishi A5M fighter aircraft used in World War II. The movie tries to touch on the nuances of those involved in the war chain of production, but focuses on the individual view, instead of the whole picture.

It’s one of the few Studio Ghibli movies targeted solely at adults instead of children. This feels like a more personal project for Miyazaki than his other movies. It also received an Oscar nomination, but lost to Frozen.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke is another Studio Ghibli movie targeted for adults. It’s also about war, but between mankind and nature, progress and tradition. It tells a more complex story than Wind Rises, filled with fantasy and Japanese folklore.

The story is set in the late Muromachi period of Japan (approximately 1336 to 1573 CE) and follows a young Emishi prince named Ashitaka and his journey to stop a struggle between the humans exploring the forests’ resources and the forest gods angry and poisoned by the exploration.

Miyazaki isn’t afraid of showing action and blood in this movie and questioning the limits of human progress. It’s one of his masterpieces with stunning visuals, great storytelling, and a message for the next generation.

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an art statement. The current animation era is dominated by the 3D style, but this movie breaks boundaries by not only being 2D, but being entirely in the traditional Japanese shodo style, which creates both delicate and rough lines using ink, and watercolor style. 

The story is based on the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th-century Japanese literary tale. A bamboo cutter finds a little baby inside of a bamboo shoot and takes her into his family to raise her as her daughter. He believes her to be a deity destined to be a princess, and so Kaguya’s story develops as she is put under Japanese medieval social pressures.

This movie’s different from other Studio Ghibli ones, but still holds the essence in it. The storyline might be a little slow, but it’s a great way to learn more about Japanese culture while experiencing one of the greatest animated movies ever made.

Castle In The Sky (1986)

This is Studio Ghibli’s first official movie. The reason why it’s the last one on the list is that it’s interesting how you can identify all the previous listed movies characteristics in Castle in the Sky. In a way, this movie defined the studio’s identity right from the start. 

A mysterious girl falls from the sky in a small mining town holding a glowing rock in a necklace. She meets a young boy, and together, they leave in search of the legendary Laputa, a whole city in the sky.

After watching all of these nine Studio Ghibli movies, it’s wholesome to realize they stayed true to their essence from the first movie from 1986 to their 2014 one. Gorō Miyazaki, for example, tried to make a 3D Ghibli movie released in 2020, and the results showed that this technique is not up to what the studio proposes.

The story encapsulates the main themes addressed by Hayao Miyazaki over the years, showing that he has a clear view of his art and what he wants to say to those willing to hear.