Studio Ghibli has released so many quality films over the years that I had a hard time limiting myself to five films for this list. After some deliberation, I was finally able to whittle it down to the five films that I included on this list. In full disclosure, I have to admit that at the time I compiled this list, I had not yet seen The Wind Rises, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, or When Marnie Was There.
5. Only Yesterday (1991)
This is the second film that Isao Takahata directed for Studio Ghibli, and it has the distinction of being the only Studio Ghibli feature that has not yet received a home video release in North America even though Disney holds the distribution rights for the title. I was finally able to see Only Yesterday about two years ago, when my husband bought the Hong Kong Blu-ray release of the film that includes English subtitles for me as a gift.
Only Yesterday is a great film, but I can see why Disney has passed on releasing it after I watched it. The main character is an office lady in her late twenties named Taeko Okajima, and she takes a trip into the country to help the family of her elder sister’s husband with the safflower harvest. While Taeko is on her trip, she begins recalling memories of when she was a 10-year-old schoolgirl in 1966. Over the course of the film, Taeko’s memories of her 10-year-old self are intertwined with what’s happening to her in Yamagata, and Taeko finds herself questioning not only her feelings, but also what she wants in life. Between having an adult as a main character, as well as some of the topics that are included in Taeko’s memories, Only Yesterday just doesn’t fit with the other Studio Ghibli films that Disney has dubbed and released over the years.
I was in my later thirties when I watched Only Yesterday, so I could relate to Taeko and understand where she’s coming from. I also enjoyed the story and thought that Takahata took quite the chance by producing and releasing an animated film that is a realistic drama written for adults.
4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro is set in the 1950s. Two girls named Satsuki and Mei are the protagonists of the film, and they move into an old house in rural Japan with their father in order to be closer to their mother, who is staying in the hospital due to illness. One day, Mei plays outside and sees a creature with two white, rabbit-like ears. She follows the creature under the house, and discovers two magical creatures; the creatures lead her through a briar patch and into the hollow of a large tree. Mei meets and befriends a bigger version of these spirits, and the big spirit identifies itself through a series of roars, which Met interprets as “Totoro.” One day, after believing her mother’s condition has worsened, Mei heads out on foot to the hospital. Satsuki enlists the help of Totoro and the Catbus, a large bus-shaped cat, to help her find her sister.
My Neighbor Totoro has a very sweet story with child characters that are very compelling, and I thought that Hayao Miyazaki was able to tell the story, convincingly, through the eyes of the child protagonists. The animation in My Neighbor Totoro perfectly accompanies the story that’s being told, and it captures the audience’s imagination. The look of the fantastical creatures like Totoro and the Catbus is very endearing, and Mei is simply cute. I have to admit that I kind of feel like a kid again whenever I watch this movie.
3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
This is the first film that Isao Takahata directed for Studio Ghibli, and it’s an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel written by Akiyuki Nosaka. The film is set near the end of World War II in Japan, and features two children, Seita and Setsuko, whose lives are disrupted after the firebombing at Kobe. They survive, but their mother is caught in the air raid and dies from burn wounds. Seita and Setsuko’s father was serving in the Japanese navy and away from home when the attack occurred. As a result, the children are sent to live with an aunt who treats them cruelly over time. The siblings can only take so much before they leave and live in an old, abandoned bomb shelter.
Grave of the Fireflies is a realistic portrayal of this event and the aftermath of what happened. It’s gritty and at times, it gets rather dark. While this film may star children, it’s not a film aimed at that audience. It’s a very gripping film, which probably includes one of the saddest scenes ever to appear in an anime film. While I’ve seen this film three or four times now, I choke up and bawl like a baby every time I see this particular scene. In addition, I also become very angry at Seita and Setsuko’s aunt every time I see this film. To me, always having these strong emotional responses each time I watch the film is a testament to how well written the story is. It also shows how emotionally invested the audience can get when it comes to Seita and Setsuko.
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke was the Studio Ghibli film that started getting the company attention in the United States. The film is set during the Muromachi period of Japan, and it focuses on the struggle between the supernatural guardians of the forest and the humans that try to consume its resources. Ashitaka, the last Emishi prince, is cursed when he kills the demon form of Nago, the boar god. He leaves his village because of the curse, and he comes upon Irontown, a refuge for social outcasts near the forest that’s inhabited by the animal gods and the Forest Spirit. Ashitaka finds himself thrown into the middle of the conflict when San, a human girl adopted by wolves, attacks Irontown. He tries to become a peacekeeper between the gods of the forest and the people of Irontown, who clear the forest to get more iron ore for the firearms that they manufacture.
Princess Mononoke tells a compelling story, which focuses on two ideas: the environment and the fact that no one is necessarily either good or evil. What I really appreciated about the storytelling in Princess Mononoke is the fact that Miyazaki was able to tell this story without falling into the trap of “the forest animals and the animal spirits are the good guys, and that Lady Eboshi and the citizens of Irontown are the bad guys.” The animation in the film is also breathtaking, and it perfectly conveys the feelings and emotions Miyazaki wants the viewer to experience while watching the film.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away is Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s best known film, thanks in large part to winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards. The main character of the film is a spoiled 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who is unhappy about moving to a new home and going to a new school. As they drive to their new home, Chihiro’s father becomes lost. The family finds an entryway to a mysterious tunnel, which appears to be an entrance to an abandoned theme park. Chihiro’s parents find food at one of the stalls and help themselves to the meal. Chihiro declines to eat, and goes off to explore more of the park. During her exploration of the park, Chihiro comes across an older boy who warns her she must leave the park before it is dark. Night is quickly falling when she returns to the food stall, only to discover that her parents have turned into pigs. The film follows Chihiro as she learns what she needs to do in order to survive trapped in the spirit world. She also must find a way to return her parents to normal and return to their world.
With Spirited Away, Miyazaki tells a compelling coming of age story as Chihiro begins to change as she goes through her experiences in the spirit world. Miyazaki also successfully combines the fantastical elements of the spirit world with the realism of Chihiro’s maturation. Spirited Away is also filled with memorable characters such as No-Face, Haku, Yubaba, and Boh.
The animation in Spirited Away is breathtaking, and at times, it almost looks realistic. The look of the film adds to its overall atmosphere and helps to enhance the fantastical elements that are included in it. The combination of the storytelling and the animation help to make Spirited Away one of the best films that Studio Ghibli has ever released.
This list represents my personal opinion, it is not meant to be a definitive list of the best Studio Ghibli films of all-time. Which films would be in your personal top five? Let us know in the comments!