Rank and File
AN EXHAUSTIVE, COMPREHENSIVE STUDY OF POP-CULTURE ICONS AND ARTIFACTS

Ranking: Every Studio Ghibli Movie from Worst to Best

on May 26, 2020, 12:00pm
view all

With the launch of HBO Max on Wednesday, May 27th, 21 of the 22 Studio Ghibli movies will be available for streaming in the United States for the first time ever in both original Japanese audio with subtitles and English dubs. Due to distribution and licensing rights, Grave of the Fireflies will be unavailable at the time of this writing.

Odds are if you’ve ever watched an anime movie, it was probably one from Studio Ghibli. The brainchild of Hayao Miyazaki has always striven to animate its films by hand whenever possible and limit CGI to a minimum. Not only has this process created a distinct visual style, but it has also served as a rock-solid foundation for a legacy that’s unmatched by any other animation studio besides perhaps Disney. Suffice to say, it’s no surprise that Studio Ghibli and Disney struck up a partnership in the mid-’90s that helped these movies reach American audiences. Their proclivity towards empowered female characters in their filmmaking is also worth noting and celebrating.

There’s perhaps no greater time than now to revisit this wondrous collection of movies. From tales about the triumphs of the human spirit to the inherent magic of childhood to allegories about the well-being of the environment, there’s a little something for everyone, with the tenacity of the individual frequently being the starring role. Each movie on this list has its merits, but if you only want to dip your toe in the water, start with the ones by Hayao Miyazaki. And don’t even get me started on how good the food looks in all of these.


22. Tales from Earthsea (2006)

Director: Gorō Miyazaki

Runtime: 115 mins

As close to high fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons as Studio Ghibli gets, Tales from Earthsea follows Prince Arren who’s on the run towards anonymity after murdering his father due to his uncontrollable rage issues but finds a nomadic wizard that takes a shine towards him. Also, dragons have resurfaced from the periphery of the continent for the first time in millennia. Themes of overcoming self-hatred and notions of immortality loom large. It’s a gorgeous movie with a beautifully exhibited setting, but poorly explained plot points and undeveloped characters prohibit this one from reaching greatness.

What’s for Dinner? A red broth stew that has mushrooms and peas in it with a side of thick-sliced bread and salad.


21. When Marnie Was There (2014)

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Runtime: 104 mins

Twelve-year-old Anna goes to stay with her adopted mother’s kindly family at a seaside town due to her asthma and feeling out of place. While there, she discovers a mansion along the coast that feels vaguely familiar along with a mysterious girl named Marnie who helps her unlock secrets to her own past long forgotten. Much of When Marnie Was There is shrouded in deep mystery that feeds viewers the thinnest of breadcrumbs to lead the way. Its angsty yet hopeful tone are held back by its back-loaded plot that forces the audience to play too much catch-up in its final third.

What’s for Dinner? A giant sashimi sushi platter and prawns plus a huge salad with red/yellow tomatoes and tofu, miso soup, rice, sautéed gourds, and grilled conch.


20. Ocean Waves (1993)

Director: Tomomi Mochizuki

Runtime: 76 mins

Teenagers and angst go hand in hand. Navigating the social minefield that is high school and relationships in those formative years leads to great life lessons but many burning questions. Ocean Waves exemplifies this perfectly, and as the only made-for-TV movie on this list, it wears its melodrama right on its sleeve. Told from the point of view of Taku as he returns from his first year away at college in the big city, the movie serves as road map about the natural frustrations between best friends when a new girl comes between them and the catharsis that comes with leaving home for the first time.

What’s for Dinner? A smorgasbord of sushi, grilled meats on sticks, chicken wings, rice, and beer at a class reunion party.


19. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Director: Gorō Miyazaki

Runtime: 81 mins

Umi is a junior in high school and the de facto matriarch of her household. When senior Shun comes into her life, her notions about life and, especially, love are challenged. From Up on Poppy Hill is equal parts mystery and coming-of-age tale. Umi and Shun’s relationship is the key to unlocking the narrative here, and the roller coaster journey it takes viewers on is as undulating as the movie’s seaside town setting. Umi’s character is a testament to the importance of strong role models and an even stronger work ethic.

What’s for Dinner? Curry udon noodles, a sandwich, and a bento box filled with rice, sausage, tomato, tofu, and some spinach.


18. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

Director: Isao Takahata

Runtime: 104 mins

One of Isao Takahata’s two films that deviate from the standard Ghibli styles, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a slice-of-life comedy about the wacky hijinks of a three-generation household. The Yamadas play hard but most importantly love hard. The film eschews the traditional long-form narrative format and opts for an episodic-like approach. Each of these chapters imparts more wisdom about who the family are as people as well as the history of what got them to where they are now. The pencil and watercolor-esque animation lends itself to a comic strip come to life.

What’s for Dinner? Dumplings with tea, rice, and soup.


17. The Cat Returns (2002)

Director: Hiroyuki Morita

Runtime: 75 mins

The only sequel on this list, The Cat Returns dares to ask what happens if you’re a human that saves a cat from being run over by a truck and he unknowingly turns out to be the prince of all cats. The answer is a marriage proposal and a forceful invitation to the kingdom of cats. A lot of the movie rides on the notion of karma and the ideas of marriage as an identity during times of uncertainty in one’s life. If you throw in a little Robin Hood with some Greek mythology, The Cat Returns makes perfect sense.

What’s for Dinner? A royal banquet of lobster, fish, shrimp, roasted turkey, octopus, roasted rats with tomatoes in their mouths, wet cat food tins, dry cat food, soy sauce, and wine.


16. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Runtime: 94 mins

This Japanese take on The Borrowers finds teenager Arrietty and her family of tiny people trying to coexist with the regular-sized humans of the house they all cohabitate. The movie’s most fascinating aspect is its sense of scale. What might seem commonplace to a regular person like rain or dropping a sugar cube on the ground might be a nearly insurmountable task for the tiny people. Much of the movie revolves around Arrietty’s coming of age and learning to trust a human teenaged boy named Shô despite her parents staunch warnings. This teenage rebelliousness is a common theme inherent in many of the Studio Ghibli works.

What’s for Dinner? Beef with a sauce, steamed broccoli, noodles, rice, and red wine.



15. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Director: Yoshifumi Kondou

Runtime: 111 mins

Who did you want to be when you grew up? This question coupled with teenage insecurity looms heavily as a high schooler. Searching for a sign and purpose in her young life, 14-year-old Shizuku is a bookworm who becomes obsessed with tracking down the boy whose name appears on the library checkout card of every book she finds. Along the way she finds love and her hopeful calling in life; however, she realizes that determination is not the only key to success. Whisper of the Heart takes the viewers on a journey to a time when callings in life are first discovered. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has never sounded so sweet nor imparted so much purpose.

What’s for Dinner? Ramen with a soft-boiled egg, carrots, and various other vegetables.


14. Only Yesterday (1991)

Director: Isao Takahata

Runtime: 118 mins

City-life versus country-life comes into play for Taeko, who reflects on her youth living in Tokyo while she works on a farm during the summer in her mid-20s. Only Yesterday juxtaposes past and present life lessons while also examining the notion of the grass being greener on the other side. There’s a wonderful dichotomy to the memories recollected with how the animation is ill-defined along the edges and fades into the white background compared to the much more defined current day. Are those days rose-tinted, or is the message the only thing that truly matters? The answer lies in Taeko finding what she truly wants in life to be happy.

What’s for Dinner? Big wedges of juicy watermelon, some not-quite-ripe pineapple, and bananas, which Taeko’s family calls “the king of fruit.”


13. The Wind Rises (2013)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 126 mins

Hayao Miyazaki merged two of his greatest loves with The Wind Rises, animation and flying. Based on a somewhat fictionalized version of Japanese aerospace engineer Jiro Horikoshi, the film follows Jiro’s life from adolescence and dreams of designing airplanes to his ultimate realizations as an adult along with a mountain of trials and tribulations along the way. It is Miyazaki’s most reality-based movie but the inner-drive and passion Jiro exhibits borders on superhuman. It is a love letter to following your dreams to the fullest and the truly great heights that can be achieved when done.

What’s for Dinner? Mackerel with sauce, miso soup, eggs, and rice.


12. Ponyo (2008)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 100 mins

Mix one part Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid with one part Hayao Miyazaki, and what do you get? Ponyo. An allegory about the effects humans have on the ocean, which imagines what would happen if you personified aquatic life and its ecosystem as a person and had her befriend a little boy. The movie’s overwhelming blue color palette stresses its underlying concern about pollution and preserving its inherent beauty. It also serves as a heartwarming look into the nature of young childhood and the importance of forming bonds at that age.

What’s for Dinner? A ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with potato chips and Orangina to drink.


11. Pom Poko (1994)

Director: Isao Takahata

Runtime: 119 mins

In a world where tanuki (Japanese raccoons like Tom Nook in Animal Crossing) are able to shape-shift into anything, Pom Poko follows a group of them who seek to understand the humans who are deforesting and developing their home into a city. Much of this movie relies on knowledge of traditional Japanese folklore that the species are too lazy and bashful to pose any kind of threat, but the raccoons here decide to fight back. Pom Poko best exemplifies every trait that Studio Ghibli is best known for. Magic and anthropomorphic animals? Check. The environment resisting human’s effects on it? Check. A silly and delightful tale, the movie will teach you more about the mystical powers of raccoon scrotums than you could ever ask for.

What’s for Dinner? A straight-up trash bag filled with McDonald’s cheeseburgers.


10. Castle in the Sky (1986)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 124 mins

With its heavy steampunk aesthetic, Castle in the Sky is Studio Ghibli’s most straightforward action-adventure movie. Sheeta is a young, orphaned girl who is wanted by air pirates, who, more importantly, seek the necklace she’s wearing that contains a crystal said to be from a lost civilization that lived in a castle amongst the clouds. Themes about the industrial war machine and tenuous trust in bureaucratic entities play heavily too. What is home and what does it mean to go home are all important questions the movie asks.

What’s for Dinner? A fest with a spiral ham, turkey, cheese, apples, lobster, sausage, and wine.


09. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Director: Isao Takahata

Runtime: 137 mins

When a bamboo cutter from the mountainside finds a baby in a magically glowing bamboo shoot, he quickly sets out to create the perfect life for her with his wife. “Princess” ages at in incredible rate to a teenager in a very short period of time. The bamboo forest continues to gift her father things like gold and fine clothes, which he interprets as how she should live her life and soon rips her from the rural life she loves so much to live in the capital that he believes she is meant for. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ponder with the notion of nature versus nurture, about the life someone wants for themselves versus the life a parent or guardian may vicariously want for their child. The movie’s soft water-color palette lends a dreamlike quality that amplifies its message about reality and the idyllic.

What’s for Dinner? Beef with rice and sake.


08. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 103 mins

Hayao Miyazaki meditates on coming of age and finding a purpose in life here. Kiki is a 12-year-old, which happens to be the age that witches go out on their own into the world to begin their training. With her trusty black cat at her side, she discovers that her skill is flying and begins a courier service run out of a bakery in the town she settles in. Kiki’s Delivery Service is delightful and joyous. It recognizes that coming up in life is full of trial and error but youthful exuberance lessens the burdens of the latter. Like a bird soaring to new heights, Kiki finds her wings along the way.

What’s for Dinner? A herring and pumpkin pie with crust shaped like a fish that has olives on top.


07. Porco Rosso (1992)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 94 mins

Porco is an Italian World War I ace who has been transformed into a pig that lives his days as a bounty hunter tracking down pirates. His only loves in life are his plane, flying, and his solitude. Porco Rosso is an enigma in that it challenges that things are not what they always seem. It’s easy to assume a man who’s a pig would be chauvinistic, boorish, and selfish, especially considering the movie’s setting in time; however, the man that Porco really is is quite the opposite. Inner beauty is the movie’s central theme with a side slice about adjusting back to regular life after the war.

What’s for Dinner? Spaghetti with marinara and red wine.


06. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Director: Isao Takahata

Runtime: 89 mins

**Not Available on HBO Max**

A boy and his young sister must navigate life together roaming the country as their home is taken from them during the firebombings of Japan during World War II. By far and away, this is Studio Ghibli’s bleakest movie. The bond between the two siblings is enrapturing and heart-wrenching as they endure constant obstacles living in war-torn Japan. It serves as a constant remainder that at the end of the day, it’s the people around you that matter most in life and not the trappings. Grave of the Fireflies is a movie you’ll be glad you watched but probably will never want to revisit again.

What’s for Dinner? Pickled plums, herring, potatoes, eggs, and butter.


05. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 119 mins

In the world of Howl’s Moving Castle, magic and technology coexist and are weaponized against one another during wartime. The movie centralizes on Sophie, a young hatter who is placed under a spell to make her appear as an elderly woman by a spiteful witch. With nowhere else to go, she befriends the young wizard Howl who accepts her as his cleaning woman in his fantastical walking castle. The movie has some of Studio Ghibli’s most colorful characters. It also reexamines the ideas of inner versus outer beauty as seen in Porco Rosso but with the notion of vanity in mind this time.

What’s for Dinner? Fried eggs, thick-cut bacon, bread, cheese and eggs. (optional Binging with Babish link if you want to make it at home or hyperlink it here)


04. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 117 mins

The unofficial first Studio Ghibli movie remains one of Hayao Miyazaki’s finest. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity is pushed to the outskirts of the land due a Toxic Forest overtaking everything else and overrun by giant insects, Nausicaä is every Disney princesses’ badass dream combined. Drawing some heavy inspiration from Dune among others, the movie contemplates humanity’s place in the world alongside nature and the responsibility to maintain that delicate balance. The movie is inherently anti-war and contains a powerful message about the dangers of that and greed that remains relevant even thirty-five years after its release.

What’s for Dinner? Chico nuts, a fictitious food that tastes weird but is good for you.


03. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 86 mins

Few movies encapsulate the sense of childlike wonder and awe in the world as well as My Neighbor Totoro. Although it is rather devoid of conflict, its purpose has always been about the belief in the power of make-believe and at what age we lose this facet in life. The movie stresses family togetherness and the bonds inherent between siblings. Totoro and his mini-iterations not only strengthen this bond but also strengthen their unity to the world around them, helping the two young protagonists feel at home during a time of great upheaval in their lives. It’s the kind of movie that has layered meaning to it depending on what stage you’re at in your own life.

What’s for Dinner? A lunchbox full of fish, rice, sauce, and tomato.


02. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 134 mins

Driven from his village by a curse he contracted while saving it from a forest demon, Ashitaka roams the land searching for a cure and gets caught between an iron-making community and the forest denizens its ravaged. Princess Mononoke is Studio Ghibli at its most mature. Interweaving a storyline that involves humans, nature, and gods, it is a movie steeped in tribalism and a strong ecological viewpoint. The movie does not glorify violence but rather contextualizes it as a natural outcome that occurs while defending one’s own in-group. Princess Mononoke makes for an enrapturing viewing with its tightly written story, gorgeous animation, and moving score.

What’s for Dinner? Dried fish, sliced beef, rice, and edamame.


 01. Spirited Away (2001)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 125 mins

The movie that won Studio Ghibli its Academy Award, Spirited Away is its most complex work. The film carries many strong themes and chief among them is the transition from childhood into adulthood, Eastern versus Western culture, and commentary on contemporary Japanese culture. Its main character, Chihiro, serves as the perfect foil to navigate each one of these facets as well as guide the viewer along the movie’s symbolically rich and spiritual journey. Even taken at just face value, the movie makes for a compelling watch and just one of the many reasons why Spirited Away remains Hayao Miyazki’s defining masterwork.

What’s for Dinner? Massive plates stacked high with fish, Cornish game hens, rice, crab, sausage, french fries, and rolled meats with sides of mustard and soy sauce. Pigging out on this has its consequences however…

view all