Renowned for instilling Japanese history and culture into breathtaking cinematic adventures, Studio Ghibli tests the bounds of storytelling through the art of the animated feature. To the uninitiated, the studio’s work — and by extension, co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s — may appear childish, but for anime aficionados and Ghibli fans alike, they are treasures in film history.
Thankfully, for those new to the influential studio, HBO Max now houses the majority of Ghibli films, allowing you to stream Miyazaki’s whimsical, thought-provoking tales for the first time. Below, we’ve rounded up the best.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Cementing Studio Ghibli in history is its initial project, 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The Ghibli classic is based upon the manga written and illustrated by Miyazaki, the same individual who would not only write and direct the adaptation but become an archetype for 21st-century animated filmmaking. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind tracks a young princess in the throes of a revolution against the Tolmekia, whose persistent terraforming of a jungle teeming with massive insects leads Nausicaä on a quest to instill peace throughout the realm. The film was met with immediate acclaim upon release, praised by critics for its poignant anti-war themes and firm stance on ecological mindfulness.
A year later, given the success of Nausicaä, a tight-knight animation studio would be born. Co-founder and beating heart of Ghibli’s continued success, Miyazaki proved that complicated real-world lessons could be expressed through evocative stories and wondrous art. Despite releasing before Studio Ghibli even existed, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is still cherished as the catalyst for renewing interest in animated feature films and beckoning a promising future for its artistic masterminds.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Drama Stars: Patrick Stewart, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman Director: Hayao Miyazaki Rating: PG Runtime: 116 minutes
Considered among the greatest animated films of all time, Spirited Away takes viewers into the mind of a curious 10-year-old on a quest to save her family from a highly unusual form of imprisonment. The discovery of an age-old amusement park thrusts Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) into a nightmare, wherein her parents have been transformed into pigs. To save them and escape, she must entertain a variety of spirits and creatures populating the area. Likened to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chihiro’s story is as insightful as it is a trip unto worlds fantastical and touches upon everything from Buddhist folklore to Japanese generational issues.
A consistent theme in a majority of Miyazaki’s films is anti-war sentimentalities, which are explored most critically in Howl’s Moving Castle. Released in the wake of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Studio Ghibli’s 14th feature is a direct representation of Miyazaki’s disdain for the Iraq war. The film centers on two kingdoms locked in a heated conflict in a fantasy world, one that meshes the industrial 20th century with the magical abilities of ancient times. Sophie (Emily Mortimer/Jean Simmons), a young merchant, falls into step alongside a stubborn wizard after she is cursed into a witch, yet she soon finds herself aiding in Howl’s opposition to fight for the king.
Miyazaki’s third film with Studio Ghibli became the bearer of yet another onslaught of praise. Not only is My Neighbor Totoro among the highest-grossing anime films of all time, but it is also a perfect representation of how art is just as important as the narrative when it comes to animated filmmaking. The film follows Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei Kusakabe (Elle Fanning), who are welcomed into a new world of intrigue upon moving into a rural country home brimming with spirits. One such spirit, Totoro, captures the attention of Mei, and their relationship becomes a focal point of the family’s new life.
Aoi Hiiragi’s 1989 manga would be given life, sound, and a touch of wonder in Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart. The spellbinding, coming-of-age tale tracks Shizuku Tsukishima (Brittany Snow) as she saunters through Tokyo Junior High School and pages of various library books. Through friendly encouragement, Shizuku’s resolve to develop the perfect fantasy world tests not only her abilities as a storyteller but also her willingness to adapt to criticism. Being director Yoshifumi Kondō’s only film before his death in 1998, Whisper of the Heart remains a testament to his legacy and one of the best offerings under the Studio Ghibli umbrella.
As conflict plays out between man and nature, a quest to save his village drives Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) to the brink of death. Along his journey, the Emishi prince meets a variety of interesting characters, among them the mysterious San (Claire Danes), a woman reared by wolves. Their connection and her ever-growing care for Ashitaka, despite a deep loathing for humanity, becomes the centerpiece of the film, as does the film’s emphasis on environmental protection. San’s ruthlessness, yet ultimate compassion, is also a testament to Miyazaki’s character creation and development, as the initial story was crafted using little more than a few sketches of a princess in the woods alongside a monster.
Rotten Tomatoes: 93% Genre: Action & Adventure, Science Stars: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton Director: Hayao Miyazaki Rating: PG-13 Runtime: 133 minutes
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a different kind of Miyazaki film, one that showcases the burgeoning life of a young witch (Kirsten Dunst) whose delivery business becomes her only hope for a future in the big city of Koriko. The lessons she learns while adapting to the area and her newfound responsibility become the backbone of the narrative. Miyazaki steers clear of his more prominent anti-war themes to deliver something more in the guise of a Disney feature, which may be due to the fact that Kiki’s Delivery Service marks the first film in a 15-year distribution deal between Disney and Studio Ghibli.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy Stars: Matthew Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, Debbie Reynolds Director: Hayao Myazaki Rating: G Runtime: 103 minutes
On the hunt for a mythic castle in the clouds while on the run from pursuing pirates, Sheeta (Anna Paquin) and Pazu (James Van Der Beek) must ensure the safe return of a mysterious blue crystal at all costs. Their adventures through a sky-ridden world have become a hallmark of the steampunk genre and have even influenced Japanese culture, like many films in the Studio Ghibli canon. Castle in the Sky is technically the first in the studio’s long line of animated classics and has influenced several video games, manga, and other animated features, some of which can even be found among the best animated movies on Netflix.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96% Genre: Action & Adventure, Science Fiction Stars: James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill Director: Hayao Miyazaki Rating: PG Runtime: 124 minutes
The Secret World of Arrietty is a children’s fantasy that surveys the tiny yet surreal world of a Borrower, a fairy-like creature that must steal human belongings in order to survive. The film is based on Mary Norton’s children’s book The Borrowers and not only marks Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s first film as director with Studio Ghibli, but also the first time a non-Japanese musician is featured as a composer for one of its films. Lauded upon release, Arrietty is a tiny escape that blends impeccable sounds and music with the acclaimed animation of Studio Ghibli.
Rotten Tomatoes: 95% Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy Stars: Mirai Shida, Ryūnosuke Kamiki, Kirin Kiki Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi Rating: G Runtime: 94 minutes
Ponyo is a delightful, fish-out-of-water adventure about a goldfish (Noah Cyrus) and her escape from the ocean. Her quest is aided by a human boy named Sōsuke (Frankie Jonas), but Ponyo wants far more than a life on land. Like the Disney classic The Little Mermaid, Ponyo’s hunt for humanity is given unquestionable depths, made all the more splendid by a beautiful soundtrack. Magic and a dash of assorted childhood humor make Ponyo an instant must-watch family flick among Ghibli’s immense catalog.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy Stars: Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett Director: Hayao Miyazaki Rating: G Runtime: 101 minutes
Jiro Horikoshi discovers new life and meaning in one of Studio Ghibli’s best modern offerings, The Wind Rises. The fictionalized portrayal of the Japanese engineer, whose A5M and A6M Zero Mitsubishi fighter planes aided the Japanese Empire during World War II, examines the mastermind through his craft rather than his final product. Although released to immense praise, The Wind Rises was unsurprisingly also met with criticism, much of it centered on the protagonist’s controversial occupation. The film would also be Miyazaki’s last before his sudden return in 2017 as the director for How Do You Live?, which is expected for release in 2023.
Porco Rosso is yet another among the best Studio Ghibli films adapted by Miyazaki from one of his own mangas, called The Age of the Flying Boat. Much like The Wind Rises, Porco Rosso centers on the art of aviation, this time with a pivotal examination of dogfighting. The once-heralded Italian fighter pilot, whose exploits in World War I speak volumes of his valor, must now confront a new identity upon being cursed into the guise of a pig. From then on known as Porco Rosso (Michael Keaton), the ace flyman fights a new war in the sky against air pirates and his archenemy Donald Curtis (Cary Elwes), pilot of the RC3-0.
Despite the animation appearing rather outdated, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is actually the most expensive Japanese movie ever produced. Director Isao Takahata’s modern classic is based upon the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a story Takahata read vigorously as a child. What draws viewers in most is the impeccable watercolor-esque art style of the film, which has long been a topic of discussion, having taken the director nearly eight years to develop and fully bring to life. The end result is Takahata’s magnum opus, a look into the world of a beautiful bamboo cutter with an underlying layer of the divine and celestial.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Genre: Drama, Fantasy Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen Director: Isao Takahata Rating: PG Runtime: 137 minutes