For years, Studio Ghibli’s work has made inroads with American audiences, breaking down language barriers and Western-centric tastes to create a devoted and passionate following. This is similar to the success of the anime, Studio Ghibli’s close cousin.
Because some of Hayao Miyazaki’s work is better than anything Disney has to offer, these animated films have a chance to take over and win over a new generation of young viewers. After all, some of Miyazaki’s work is better than anything Disney has to offer.
A total of 20 films from Studio Ghibli’s catalog are now available on HBO Max, with The Wind Rises debuting in the autumn. It’s a daunting number for those who don’t know where to begin—and, truthfully, some of the films are best enjoyed after you’ve been fully indoctrinated into the Ghibli universe. When it comes to The Tale of Princess Kaguya or Porco Rosso, newcomers might not be as taken by the comedy as longtime fans are.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to watch the movie in its original Japanese language with subtitles or in the English dub. In general, I watch new anime with subtitles, but my Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle will always be sultry inflections from Christian Bale.
The following is a recommended viewing list of the studio’s most enduring works.
Spirited Away (2001)
Studio Ghibli’s crown jewel, Spirited Away, is no accident. It’s captivating right from the start, transporting the viewer across a mysterious border to a spirit world full of wonders and perils.
With each new room or character encountered, the plot unfolds like a matryoshka doll of gifts, promising a new set of curious wonders to discover. While all Ghibli films are family-friendly, Spirited Away, with its rich characters and story, may be the most well-suited to appeal to audiences of all ages.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
On the other hand, Princess Mononoke is genuinely frightening. Environmental themes are prevalent in nearly all of Miyazaki’s work, and this film is no exception. The forest gods are on the offensive against a mining colony that threatens their natural habitat, and Princess Mononoke is leading the charge.
The visuals are stunning—pretty close to what the Romanticists envisioned—and the overall impact of the film is unforgettable. This was the first time I saw it, and the forest spirits still appear in my dreams now and then.)
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Prior to saying anything else, I’d like to admit that Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite film. When I was in sixth grade, I’d put this DVD in and press play. Even now, nothing soothes me like the soundtrack’s lilting melancholy. No one will be as enchanted by this film as I am, but you can count on an enchanting ride from me.
The story follows a shy young milliner who crosses paths with a vengeful witch and finds herself transformed into an old woman, adapted from the beloved novel by Diana Wynne Jones. As it turns out, she’s been taken in by the womanizing, delinquent wizard Howl.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, another powerful allegory about climate change and war, is set in a kingdom besieged by warring nations and monsters from a toxic jungle nearby. Nausicaa’s adventures take her farther from home, and the world-building gets more interesting as she goes.
Castle In The Sky (1986)
Two young people stumble upon a crystal and wind up in a magical floating city that has long since begun to deteriorate, but there is still plenty of magic to be found among the ruined buildings.
Much of what makes Miyazaki famous is present in Castle in the Sky: fantastical worlds, a spirit of exploration, and a belief in the potential of children.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
To some Miyazaki fans, putting Totoro this low on the list may seem sacrilegious, but it’s the truth of the matter for me as a Ghibli fan. There are some of the studio’s most beloved characters in this film—I’m writing this in my Catbus slippers, after all.
However, I believe that My Neighbor Totoro’s lack of enchantment was due to the fact that I discovered it much later in life, after I’d already grown to appreciate films like Princess Mononoke. But if you’re watching with children, you might want to move this one up the list.)
Unlike the classic Disney version of The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a lighthearted retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. The mermaid’s underwater world and the small town she finds herself in are both fantastical. It’s there that Ponyo discovers the joys and challenges of having a family, as well as the joys and dangers of growing up.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
An additional beloved family film is Kiki’s Delivery Service, directed by John Hughes (though, like all Studio Ghibli films, it remains endearing well into adulthood). The young witch Kiki has been fending for herself for a year, and she even runs her own delivery service. She has all the makings of a heroine—lucky and determined—and her cat Jiji is a great sidekick.