Updated: Mar 19, 2022
As of the end of my 9th grade school year in 2021, I had never seen a Studio Ghibli movie. I know, I was a disgrace to society. But don't worry, because over the summer, I watched all of them. Please remember these are only my opinions, and you can disagree if you want. There are basically no spoilers in this list, but when I do want to talk about a movie in more detail, I'll let you know so you can skip to the next one.
23. Earwig and the Witch:
A girl who's been living in an orphanage her whole life is adopted by a woman whose house is filled with magic and mystery.
Earwig and the Witch is Studio Ghibli's most recent movie. In my opinion, the animation is horrendous. At times, it looks like a bad video game cutscene or a Powtoon project that was made in forty seconds. The movie lacks the charm and weirdness that all of the other ones have. The plot is pretty generic and sort of reminds me of fantasy books I used to read as a kid, except for the fact that it's not good. The ending doesn't feel like an ending, but rather, it feels more like the pilot for a TV show or the first movie in a series.
22. Tales From Earthsea:
A fantasy adventure very loosely based on Ursula K. Le Guin's book series Earthsea.
The first 20 minutes or so are pretty good; I liked the world and characters fine. After that it started to get a bit confusing, and by the second half I had no idea what was going on. This movie feels like it tries to do what Hayao Miyazaki* does without understanding why he does it. Everything that happened felt random, and when I did know what was going on, it was extremely predictable. It tries to have deep themes about death and existence, but fails to execute them in a way that doesn't feel forced.
*Hayao Miyazaki is the creator of many of the films of this studio. Most of his movies are more high-concept and less like slice-of-life movies, which are the other main things this studio makes.
21. The Cat Returns:
A girl encounters a group of talking cats in her neighborhood that take her to a magical world filled with cats.
I liked the beginning parts when she was trying to deal with the strangeness of the cats that she encountered, but then they added some weird magic stuff that felt like it came out of nowhere. It seemed like it was trying to be like Miyazaki's high-concept stuff, but would've been a lot better if it had been a more slice-of-lifey film about talking cats in a normal human neighborhood. The second half was so bizarre, and not in the charming way like the other movies. I wrote half of this review in the middle of the movie because I needed to take a break from it. The reason this is higher than the previous two is because it has the most amount of not bad parts.
20. Only Yesterday:
A 27-year-old woman, who works and lives in Tokyo, takes a trip to the countryside while reminiscing about her childhood.
For what it was, this was pretty well done. I'm sure it's more enjoyable to people that can relate more to the main character, but I was still able to get enough out of it to consider it worth watching. Compared to the other slice-of-life movies though, it had less emotional moments and fun characters and places, which is why I didn't like it as much. The next 3 or so movies have basically the same problems, so their descriptions will be brief.
19. From Up On Poppy Hill:
Two teenagers work together to try to prevent a historic building at their school from being demolished.
This movie has the same problems mentioned above. (This is a spoiler, so skip to the next one if you plan on watching this). There's a plot line that involves two people falling in love and then finding out they might be siblings. I thought that was a bit weird.
18. My Neighbors the Yamadas:
A series of short stories about a family living in modern Japan.
Cute, but uneventful. The animation was different from the others for some reason; a few times the animation style changed for a little bit out of nowhere, which was weird, but I didn’t mind it. The characters were fun, if not a bit stereotypical.
17. Ocean Waves:
A man recalls his senior year in high school and the crazy antics that occurred.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy this one as much as I did. It wasn't exactly a slice-of-life movie, as the plot was a bit soap opera-y and unrealistic, and had self-aware joke referencing that didn't make it any better. Despite this, I still found it enjoyable somehow, and to be honest I'm not sure why.
16. The Tale of Princess Kaguya:
An animated retelling of an old Japanese folk tale.
This one was slow at the beginning, but I'm glad I kept watching because the emotional moments at the end were powerful. The animation was different from the normal anime style, but I thought it was cool. It was a combination of pencil drawings and watercolor, which fit the movie well. At times, as the main character's mental state became less stable, the animation became less defined and more wild, which I thought was a great use of this different style of animation.
15. Whisper of the Heart:
A coming-of-age romance about a girl who investigates a mysterious person who has checked out all of the same books as her from the library.
A little unrealistic at times. Not as much as Ocean Waves, but there are a few times that the immersiveness was broken by something that would never happen in real life. Other than that, it's pretty good. The Cat Returns is a spin-off of this, with only one of the same characters. I watched this movie after The Cat Returns, though, and was scared that magic was going to become involved at some point, but luckily that didn't happen.
14. My Neighbor Totoro:
A slice-of-life story about two sisters whose family moves to a rural house in the forest, discovering friendly wood spirits.
Pretty good, but as far as slice-of-life goes, I like their other movies better. The human characters in this weren't as interesting or unique, which is a shame because the creatures are all so great. Totoro and his friends were cute, and the cat bus was so bizarre but I loved it. This is probably one of their most popular (or at least their most recognizable) movies, but I don't think that popularity necessarily correlates with how good it is.
13. The Wind Rises:
A semi-biographical story of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, a man who designed fighter planes during World War II.
The plot is more complex than many others, and it's heavier as well. A bit hard to follow at times, but overall I enjoyed myself while watching it.
12. Pom Poko:
A group of raccoon dogs' habitat is being destroyed to create housing.
This is the most bizarre thing I have ever watched. The animation and characters are fun, but said characters are raccoon dogs with shapeshifting balls (well, all the parts of their body can shapeshift, but they often shapeshift only their testicles. It's really weird). Storywise it's a bit all over the place, but I still enjoyed it, especially the ending. If you can tolerate or ignore (or enjoy, I guess) the occasional close-up shot of animated racoon dog balls, you'll probably like this movie.
11. Castle in the Sky:
A young boy and girl search for a legendary floating island before pirates or military agents find it first.
The world is similar to that of Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, but the movie has its own characters and storyline that make it unique. All of the action scenes are fun, and the titular castle in the sky is such a cool place I wish I could explore myself. The characters are all fun, especially the pirates. The only character who isn't very interesting is the main villain. He's much more two-dimensional than the antagonists in movies that are higher on this list.
10. Howl's Moving Castle:
A young woman is cursed to look 90 years old, and sets off in search of a way to return to normal.
The moving castle looked amazing, and I liked all the character designs. Although, it was unclear how the magic worked and what the stakes were, so it was hard to get invested at some times. It still had a good plot and good characters though; I especially liked Calcifer. This movie had (in my opinion) the best visuals out of all the ones on this list.
The adventures of a 5-year old boy and a goldfish who wants to become a human.
A really fun movie. The characters and world reminded me a lot of Dr. Seuss in their creativity and uniqueness. (Skip to the next one if you haven't watched this because there are some spoilers coming up). Ponyo sort of creates a hurricane that could have killed thousands of people and faces no responsibility for this? It's not even mentioned that she was the one who caused this. Overall though, as long as you ignore the fact that Ponyo almost commited genocide, the movie is a great time.
8. Kiki's Delivery Service:
A young witch turns 13 and takes a customary year living in a different city on her own.
An enjoyable time. All of the different characters she met were fun. It felt like a lot longer than an hour and forty-four minutes, but in a good way. Once it got to the climax, it was pretty predictable and unrealistic, therefore not very suspenseful, but that's not a big complaint.
7. Grave of the Fireflies:
A brother and sister with no parents struggle and fail to survive during World War II. (I know this sounds like a spoiler, but they die right at the beginning of the movie, and then it goes back).
Sad, as I expected it to be. By the end, it really feels like the main characters have no options for ways to survive. I kept telling myself that maybe, just maybe, they would somehow make it out okay, even though I knew they wouldn't. Overall, a powerful film that you should definitely watch if you want something emotional.
6. The Secret World of Arrietty:
A group of four-inch tall people live secretly inside a human house, until one of the family members is discovered by a human.
By far my favorite of their slice-of-life movies. A good time without any super dramatic or intense moments. As always, the animation is amazing, especially the sets in this one. Arrietty's house is creative and interesting to look at.
5. Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind:
A pacifist warrior and princess attempt to protect her planet and the environment from two warring nations.
Good all the way through. The only thing wrong with it, is that the music is weird and never fits the scene. The animation isn't as good as the others either, but that's because it's much older. All of Miyazaki's worlds are so fleshed out and detailed, but this one was my favorite. It felt like a real place with real history, politics, ecosystems and people. The perfect place for a grand adventure, and a grand adventure do we have. Each character feels like a real person, with real wants and desires that come into conflict with another in interesting ways (Spoilers ahead, you know what to do). I thought it was lame how the princess got revived at the end. The fact that the ohms could do that was kind of random. You could argue that it doesn't matter, cause she was willing to sacrifice herself anyway, but I thought that it made the ending a lot less impactful.
4. Porco Rosso:
A veteran World War I pilot is now a bounty hunter cursed to look like a humanoid pig in 1930's Italy.
I'm torn on this one. There are a lot of things I liked about it, but a lot of things I didn't. The first hour was extremely enjoyable. I loved the Italian vibes to the whole thing, and Porco was a fun character. If the movie had kept up like that, I'd have put it at the number one spot. I thought that it sorta got worse after that. (There are gonna be some spoilers for this one coming up so skip it if you don't want them).
At one point, a 17 year old girl kissed a much older man, which was pretty… uncomfortable? Plotwise, the ending wasn't super satisfying in my opinion. I thought Porco and the rival guy were going to have to set aside their conflict and work together to fight the police, but the police ended up not making a difference in anything. They could have been completely removed from the end without anything having been affected. Overall, I would still highly recommend this movie.
3. When Marnie was There:
After being sent to stay with her relatives in the countryside, 12-year-old Anna befriends a mysterious girl named Marnie.
This movie made this whole article worth it. All the other movies I would have probably watched eventually, but this one I would have never watched on my own without a reason. I thought I was going to find it boring, but I was incredibly wrong. The two central characters are super fleshed-out and realistic, and it makes everything that happens to, and between them, really investing. The only problem (major spoiler alert) is that the movie kinda queerbaits you (or it did to me, at least). It 100% seems like Marnie and Anna are in love, but then Marnie turns out to be the spirit of her grandmother or something. Yeah, this movie falls apart a little at the end now that I think about it. Still, that's not to say the ending is terrible, and this is one of my favorite movies from the studio.
2. Spirited Away:
After moving to the suburbs, a girl finds her way into a world of spirits, gods, witches and magic.
My expectations for this movie were pretty high, and I don't think it quite lived up to them. It was great, 2nd best in fact, but I think it's a bit overhyped. The characters and world were so rich and detailed, and the scene at the end where Chihiro and Haku are flying in the air is beautiful. It's just not quite as good as one other of their movies.
1. Princess Mononoke:
While on a journey to find information about a curse, a young man finds himself in the middle of a war between a mining colony, and the spirits and gods of the forest.
I loved this one; it felt like an epic adventure. Probably because it is an epic adventure. This has all of the good aspects I mentioned when talking about Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind, as well as the things that it doesn't, like good music and animation. The magic and spirits were explained pretty well. I felt like I could grasp what was going on and what was possible in terms of magicy stuff, as opposed to Howl's Moving Castle or even Spirited Away at some points. When I could actually understand this stuff, I was able to immerse myself and be much more invested in the characters and world. The themes of pacifism and environmentalism were best conveyed in this movie out of all of Miyazaki's works, because it was a bit darker and more violent. This made threats more intimidating, and in perilous scenes, it actually becomes suspenseful whether characters (or nature) will get hurt, because sometimes they do. It's hard to make a movie where the viewer actually thinks that the main character might get hurt or even killed, but this one manages to pull it off.
All of the movies in this article can be streamed on HBO Max, except for Grave of the Fireflies, which you'll have to find a DVD copy of (I was able to check one out from the library).