There's no film studio more closely associated with the anime genre than Studio Ghibli. Since the company's formation nearly 40 years ago, the studio has released some of the highest-quality anime films ever made, routinely winning critical attention for its beautifully-designed artwork and unique premises that explore real-world issues and concerns, such as environmentalism, feminism, technology, family, and pacifism.
Over the last four decades, Studio Ghibli has consistently managed to deliver some of the highest praised, most entertaining animated films in recent memory, winning top prizes from numerous countries across the world and establishing a far-reaching community of hardcore fans.
Essential Studio Ghibli Movies and Where to Stream Them
With autumn well underway—a time to admire nature and the bright colors of the harvest one final time before winter—we thought we'd take a look back at some of Studio Ghibli's must-watch movies, as well as provide information about where they are currently streaming.
Studio Ghibli's films—especially those of its cofounder and most popular director, Hayao Miyazaki—have long been associated with delivering a fierce message advocating for environmentalism and the dangers of increased deforestation or disregard for nature. No single film better illustrates this recurring theme than Miyazaki's 1997 film, Princess Mononoke.
Set in a fictionalized version of Japan's Muromachi period (roughly 1336 to 1573), Princess Mononoke follows a young prince cursed by a vengeful forest creature, which will eventually kill him if left untreated for too long. Looking for a way to lift the curse, the prince travels west, eventually finding himself in the middle of a conflict between the gods of the forest and a nearby mining colony responsible for destroying the land.
Like many Miyazaki films on this list, Princess Mononoke is commonly ranked as one of the director's masterpieces, with Miyazaki using the film to brilliantly explore the environmental concerns he fervently advocates for, and also seamlessly bridge an epic historical drama with elements of spiritualism, naturalism, and fantasy.
Critically praised in Japan, the film would eventually make its way to the US, with a dubbed version being released shortly afterwards based on a translated script by Neil Gaiman (an author whose work and sensibility as a fantasy writer made for a perfect choice).
The movie unfortunately underperformed at the box office, but subsequent video sales did extremely well, leading to growing popularity and awareness of Studio Ghibli among Western audiences.
Streaming on HBO Max
Similar to the aforementioned Princess Mononoke, the early Studio Ghibli film, Pom Poko, similarly tackles the subject of environmentalism and the importance of respecting nature. While Princess Mononoke might be a little too violent for younger viewers in its depiction of man versus nature, Pom Poko manages to do so in a much more lighthearted, enjoyable way for all audience members.
Uniquely framed from a more nature-centric point of view, Pom Poko follows a group of magical, shapeshifting Japanese raccoon dogs (or tanuki) living underground whose existence is threatened by encroaching humans' land development.
Within Japanese culture, tanuki are fun-loving magical creatures with a love for food and entertainment. In his film, director Isao Takahata manages to perfectly bring the spirit and sensibility of those magical creatures onto the Big Screen, and retain their famous fun-loving nature, antics, and adorable physical appearance.
Studio Ghibli films have long been associated with depicting a pro-environmental message, but this movie also made for an interesting approach and change of pace, centering more on the raccoon dogs at the heart of Pom Poko rather than from the humans’ perspective, as had been the case with Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Like the movie’s later contemporary, Ponyo, Pom Poko also presents a more playful, upbeat storyline everyone of all ages are sure to enjoy (although there are some slightly upsetting parts, too, having to do with the tanukis potentially losing their home), making this movie an ideal starting point for those new to Studio Ghibli or younger audience members.
Streaming on HBO Max
Castle in the Sky
Another of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki's earlier films, Castle in the Sky is a perfect illustration of everything you'd expect in a Studio Ghibli. It's a fun, easygoing adventure story that is visually stunning, funny, and entertaining throughout.
Set in the late 19th century, a young boy stumbles upon a girl who possesses a mysterious crystal that allows her to fly. Believing the crystal may point the way towards a mythical floating city in the clouds, the two set out to find it before anyone else can, including a band of air pirates and a sinister military agent who wants to claim the city for himself.
In a few ways, Castle in the Sky feels like an adventure story reminiscent of Indiana Jones and The Goonies, relying on youthful protagonists racing against the forces of evil to find a fabled legend that only they can appreciate (the antagonists only wanting to strip the place of its natural wonder for profit or for some perverse, evil intent). However, in true Studio Ghibli form, Castle in the Sky also sets itself apart from other preexisting movies, such as creatively using the concept of air travel (including battles and chase scenes through the clouds), crafting a wholly original movie in the process.
The themes may not be as poignant and hard-hitting as they are in some of Miyazaki's other films, although they still contain positive messages about maturation, self-reliance, and respect towards nature, as well as the dangers of greed.
What’s more, Castle in the Sky is also arguably the funniest of Studio Ghibli's movies, thanks largely to the comedic, female airship captain Dola and her band of pirate sons, who provide a ton of genuine laughs. It also has one of Studio Ghibli’s best animated sequences put to the screen, involving an aerial battle in the sky that soon turns into a chase in the middle of a hurricane.
Streaming on HBO Max
Howl's Moving Castle
Director Hayao Miyazaki's personal favorite entry in his filmography (keep in mind, the man has literally never made a bad movie, with some of Studio Ghibli's most famous films being Miyazaki's), Howl's Moving Castle may be one of the the most sentimental and personally empowering movies the studio has ever released, even by Studio Ghibli's standards.
Loosely based on the 1986 British sci-fi novel of the same name, Howl's Moving Castle is set in a magical kingdom in a brutal, destructive war with an opposing country. The main action of the film follows a kindly young girl who is turned into an old woman by a mean-spirited witch. Looking for a way to reverse the spell, the girl ventures out to find an eccentric young wizard traveling in a huge, mobile castle that continually walks through the country.
Made in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the film heavily explores numerous anti-war themes, and was devised by Miyazaki as being as deliberately pacifistic as possible, with the director saying, “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living.” (Thankfully, it isn't nearly as downbeat or gut-wrenching as Grave of the Fireflies’ devastating depiction of war). The movie was also praised for its inclusion and portrayal of older women, tastefully depicting age in a much more positive light.
As with many of Miyazaki's films, Howl's Moving Castle would win or earn nominations for numerous awards worldwide and was praised as one of the most effective anti-war films Miyazaki has released yet.
Streaming on HBO Max
Aviation and flight were always an interest of Studio Ghibli's master director, Hayao Miyazaki, as seen with the aviary themes present in some of his earliest studio films like Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service. Because of this avid interest of his, Miyazakii couldn't have been the better choice to helm Studio Ghibli's 1992 film, Porco Rosso.
Adapted from the 1989 short, watercolor manga, Hikōtei Jidai, that Miyazaki himself wrote, Porco Rosso follows the titular Porco Rosso—a skilled World War I veteran turned freelance pilot who (because of a strange curse) has been turned into an anthropomorphic pig—as he battles air pirates, romantic rivals, and the fascist Italian government in the 1920s' Adriatic Sea.
Despite that heavy-sounding plot, Porco Rosso is a comparatively lighthearted action film, lacking any overwhelming depiction of the rise of a fascist state or brutal depiction of war that you might find in Howl’s Moving Castle or Grave of the Fireflies. It's a fun, simple movie that instead follows the numerous adventures that Porco finds himself in, perfect for all ages and with a painstaking attention to artistic detail, especially in the beautiful designs of every plane that is featured in the movie.
The film might lack the same overt messages as some of the other Studio Ghibli films—such as Princess Mononoke‘s exploration of environmentalism or Grave of the Fireflies‘ clear anti-war stance—but it remains a charming romp of a movie, and one of Studio Ghibli's most underrated films.
Streaming on HBO Max
My Neighbor Totoro
The film that contains easily the most recognizable character in any Studio Ghibli film, the eponymous Totoro of My Neighbor Totoro is likely the most famous animated character of Japanese cinema, comparable in popularity and scope to America’s Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse.
My Neighbor Totoro follows a professor and his two young daughters who move into an old house in the Japanese countryside in order to be closer to the girls’ sick mother. As they settle in their new home, the girls begin regularly interacting with the surrounding spirits of the forest, including a silent, gentle, teddy bear-like giant named Totoro.
Like many of Studio Ghibli's films, the central message behind the film advocates for appreciation of one's surrounding environment, respecting the land, and the numerous joys of living in a rural setting. Additionally, the film also mixes in elements of Japanese Shintoism and animism, or the belief that places, objects, and creatures each possess their own spiritual essence.
Critically acclaimed upon release, My Neighbor Totoro won a slew of awards across the globe, with its positive reception and popularity leading Studio Ghibli to adopt the Totoro character as the official logo and mascot for the studio.
One of the earlier Studio Ghibli films, it also remains the studio's—as well as its director, Miyazaki's—consistently most popular and praised films, with film magazines and websites listing Totoro on several lists of “best films,” and Totoro himself regularly appearing on lists for Best Animated Character of All Time.
Streaming on HBO Max
Studio Ghibli movies are geared towards audience members of every age and demographic, but 2008's Ponyo seems perhaps to be the most child-friendly film the studio has ever produced.
In a very loose retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, a young female goldfish (Ponyo) resolves to leave the ocean and become human. Swimming ashore, she is rescued by a young boy who helps her adapt to living on land as Ponyo explores what it means to be human.
Though Ponyo might be aimed at a younger audience demographic, the film is full of signature Studio Ghibli themes, including pro-environmental messages, as well as the idea of finding one's place in the world and trying to move past predetermined positions others hold you to.
A clever, imaginative blend between The Little Mermaid and Pinocchio (and a movie that seems to serve as a major inspiration for Pixar’s newest film, Luca), Ponyo was praised for its ability to entertain both children and adults, making it perhaps the Studio Ghibli most ideal for younger kids (if you wanted to get them hooked on Studio Ghibli at an earlier age).
Like every Miyazaki film, it is lovingly designed and visually impressive to look at, including a standout sequence where Ponyo's father sends a mass tidal wave to retrieve his daughter and bring her back to the sea.
Streaming on HBO Max
Kiki's Delivery Service
With the exception of Totoro, there's never been a more iconic Studio Ghibli protagonist than Kiki of Kiki's Delivery Service. Her general cheerfulness and good nature make her easily one of the most likable main characters in all of anime, and one you can't help but root for during the entire film.
In what is an admittedly plotless story, Kiki is a young witch who relocates to a coastal city and begins using her powers to run a small delivery service. Not much happens in the way of story, but like many of Studio Ghibli and the movie's director Hayao Miyazaki's best films, it relies on an important central message, namely related to independence and self-reliance.
One of the earlier Studio Ghibli films, the movie possesses the same sense of lighthearted storytelling, characters, and visual design that would make the studio into a household name. A coming-of-age story in every sense, Kiki's Delivery Service features the main character growing up into maturity, relying less on the adults around her and more on herself.
It's a great message full of empowerment, with Kiki possessing the personality and hero’s journey-type story that numerous Studio Ghibli characters would subsequently parallel: initially, she's very confident, yet deeply irresponsible, faces a crisis that only she can overcome and that teaches her some humility, and ultimately learns to improve herself as a result.
That may sound like a recipe for a boring, by-the-books cautionary tale about learning responsibility, yet in Miyazaki’s capable hands, he manages to portray the story as an adventurous, charming adventure full of magic, wonder, and endless fun—all things you’d expect to see in a Miyazaki film.
Streaming on HBO Max
Grave of the Fireflies
Easily Studio Ghibli's most upsetting movie, Isao Takahata's unbelievably depressing anti-war film, Grave of the Fireflies, is guaranteed to be the most hard-hitting, difficult-to-watch animated film you'll likely ever see.
Set at the tail end of World War II, two young children (the teenaged Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko) struggle to survive amid the devastation of bomb-ravaged Japan, through the country’s subsequent attempts to rebuild itself following the end of the war.
A tragic film by every definition of the word, Grave of the Fireflies is commonly seen as one of Studio Ghibli's finest pictures, especially for its unforgiving depiction of wartime struggles faced by civilians, and the chaotic, destructive alienation that sees the innocent suffer the most.
Unlike many of Studio Ghibli's other films, Grave of the Fireflies is a much more somber film unflinchingly handling very serious, grim subject matter, leading it to its eventual appraisal as one of the greatest war movies of all time.
An unbelievable achievement not just of Japanese anime, but of animation in general, it's not a movie one should approach lightly or watch with children—the first scene features the main character succumbing to starvation as strangers nonchalantly pass by, refusing to even look at him, never mind help.
It's a movie impossible not to tear up while watching this film, but it's one you absolutely should see, not just as an anime fan, but as a human being as well.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online
Twenty years since its release in 2001, Spirited Away remains Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki's most popular and critically acclaimed film. Commonly seen as Miyazaki's masterpiece (we know we’ve said that multiple times so far, but this time we’re really serious), Spirited Away is the culmination of the director's primary interests and aesthetics, full of heartfelt messages about hope, maturation, and self-reliance.
Spirited Away follows a young girl and her parents driving to their new home, when they end up taking a short cut and entering a strange world inhabited by spirits, witches, and ancient gods. When her parents are cursed and turned into pigs, the girl must work at a supernatural bathhouse in order to free her parents and safely return to the human world.
A film that explores far-ranging topics like environmentalism, spiritualism, fantasy, and consumerism, Spirited Away feels like a modern retelling of Alice of Wonderland crossed with the fantastic work of Neil Gaiman. It's a movie brimming with Miyazaki's unique vision and artistic style, and a sense that literally anything could happen at any given time.
The first and only non-English, hand-drawn film to date to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Spirited Away was also the highest-grossing film in Japanese history for nearly two decades (until it was surpassed by 2020's Demon Slayer). In the following years, it would also win numerous other awards and prizes, including being listed second on The New York Times‘ “25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far” in 2017.
Streaming on HBO Max
For over three decades, Studio Ghibli has given the world some of the most incredible animated films of all time, and is responsible for introducing anime to an entire generation of people all over the world.
Since their formation in 1984 and their first release, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (another great film), Studio Ghibli has consistently managed to deliver some of the most remarkable anime films ever released, populated by innovative artwork, characters, settings, storylines, and bursting with pure imagination and creative vision.
Whether you're watching their films through subtitles or its various dubbed versions (featuring a far-ranging cast of talented actors like Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Phil Hartman, Kirsten Dunst, Billy Bob Thornton, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, and many, many more), audiences everywhere are sure to love Studio Ghibli's films, as well as its numerous heartfelt messages advocating for self-empowerment, respect towards nature, and its anti-war themes.
For other Studio Ghibli movies that we highly recommend viewing, we also loved The Wind Rises, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Cat Returns, and The Red Turtle.