Studio Ghibli's Movies Ranked to Celebrate Totoro and More Arriving on Digital
Ghibli's wonderful animated films are now available to rent on digital as well as HBO Max and Netflix.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Studio Ghibli brought the world Totoro, Ponyo, Kiki and Howl -- and now much of the globe has these beloved animated characters at our fingertips. These timeless and delightful cartoon classics for the whole family are now available on digital stores including Apple, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, and Microsoft.
Almost the full Studio Ghibli catalog is already available to stream on HBO Max in the US, and on Netflix everywhere else.
CNET, like every place in the world, already harbors deep, abiding Ghibli fans: from those of us drawn to the glancing darkness in Spirited Away, to those entranced by My Neighbor Totoro's sense of childhood wonder -- and a couple of us who have watched almost every one of these flicks too many times to count. The collective Ghibli fan base at CNET came together to vote and share our picks for the studio's very best.
Although some of Ghibli's films (like Porco Rosso) haven't made our top 10, one of our top picks is unfortunately an outlier in this era of accessibility to Ghibli movies. Because of licensing rights, Grave of the Fireflies -- a devastating treatise on war -- isn't available on digital, or to stream on HBO Max or Netflix. Fortunately, the original Japanese-language version is on Hulu with English subtitles, and the English-language dub of the film is available to rent or buy in online stores like the Apple TV app.
Whether you're revisiting these movies after years away or embarking on them for the first time, consider this ranking of Ghibli's greatest movies as your own magical cat bus: It'll help deliver you to exactly the right stops you should make on this journey. (But feel free to join us in arguing over the order along the way.)
Honorable mention: Castle in the Sky
Castle in the Sky isn't one of director Hayao Miyazaki's classics -- it doesn't have the sheer imagination of Spirited Away, the scale of Princess Mononoke or the intimacy of My Neighbor Totoro. But it's a wonderful entry in the filmmaker's middle catalog. Airships, pirates, ancient technology and political intrigue surround a nicely drawn relationship between a princess and an orphan boy, each with secret ties to a hidden floating city.
The breathless adventure is a joy to watch.
-- David Priest, staff writer
10. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
When you think of Studio Ghibli, you tend to think of Miyazaki, but many of my favorite movies from Japan's most famous animation studio were directed by Isao Takahata.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is fitting as Takahata's final film. An adaptation of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Kaguya revisits a 10th century monogatari epic sometimes considered Japan's first recorded piece of fictional literature. In this, his last movie, Takahata returns to a beginning.
Considering it's an adaptation of a 10th century text, Princess Kaguya is actually fairly faithful to its source material, taking the spine of a timeless tale and augmenting it with a feminist bent. It tells the story of Princess Kaguya, a girl sent from the moon who grows into a woman of great beauty, attracting noble suitors from princes all the way to the Emperor of Japan. It's a morality tale of sorts, seen through the eyes of a young girl at odds with a world intent on putting her in a cage.
Takahata's version of Kaguya is a foil to the princess he remembers from his very first reading of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. As a child, Takahata was left cold by the mysterious heroine. "It was a strange story," he explained in a 2014 interview. "The heroine's transformation was enigmatic, and it didn't evoke any empathy from me." Takahata's Princess Kaguya is the opposite. She's a boisterous, energetic woman from the country, strait-jacketed into a patriarchal society that demands she pluck her eyebrows, dye her teeth black and conform to a set of societal expectations completely alien to her and her humble origins. Her well-meaning father's attempts to transform Kaguya into a "princess" sneak up on you, growing brutal and traumatic.
In one pivotal scene, Kaguya escapes back to the country, in search of her old mountain home. She stumbles across Sutemaru, her childhood friend and the embodiment of the carefree country life she longs to resume. "With you Sutemaru," she says, "I might have been happy." The pair leap into the air, flying through the countryside where they grew up.
But then Sutemaru wakes with a start, thinking the whole encounter to be a weird dream. He returns to his family and his routine, and Kaguya returns to her home, and the strict rules that bind her. She remains trapped by social norms and attitudes that women still wrestle with today.
Escape is only possible for Princess Kaguya when she leaves Earth, returning back to her home on the moon.
-- Mark Serrels, editorial director
9. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is the bedrock of Studio Ghibli. Released more than 35 years ago, it still feels ageless today -- perhaps now more than ever. We, like the inhabitants of Nausicaa's fantasy world, must watch from behind face masks as tribal factions disregard truth and risk the lives of others to protect their own power.
The film centers on Nausicaa, an explorer princess in the Valley of the Wind. It begins in a state of tranquility -- snowflake-like spores flutter down on a daydreaming Nausicaa, blanketing her in white. Its beauty hides menace. A thousand years have passed since humanity poisoned the planet in an apocalyptic war. Nausicaa spends her days exploring the war's legacy -- a widening Toxic Jungle of airborne poison and dangerous giant insects -- to bring supplies back to her peaceful valley kingdom.
When an airship from a nearby military state crashes into her valley, it triggers a chain of conflicts, each one exposing more bellicose arrogance. From the movie's initial place of tranquility, Miyazaki slowly layers on anxiety as Nausicaa's chances of saving her valley and the world seem to be snatched further from her reach. Fighting for peace, Nausicaa realizes the destructive depths of human foolishness even as she uncovers hope for humanity's salvation.
Released in 1984, with Miyazaki directing this adaptation of his own manga graphic-novel series, Nausicaa's commercial and critical success catapulted its creators to film renown and directly led to the founding of Ghibli. But Nausicaa also marks the cinematic genesis of many of the tropes that are now hallmarks of Studio Ghibli's work: pacifism, spiritual environmentalism, the earnest young heroine.
It's a film that speaks to anyone who ever felt hopeless watching greed or hubris provoke humans to hurt one another without mercy, or to assault our natural world without remorse. Ultimately, it shows that our hope always resides in the young, in new generations whose purity of kindness must be kindled to repair the mistakes of those who came before.
In the end, Nausicaa's fantasy triumph reminds us that, even with menace darkening our lives in the real world, goodness can -- and will -- return again.
-- Joan E. Solsman, senior reporter
One hallmark of Miyazaki's films is bizarre whimsy tempered by thoughtful wonder. Like an anime subversion of the Little Mermaid tale, Ponyo feels like the last of Miyazaki's kid fantasies.
Ponyo is an underwater child princess, the offspring of a wizard and a mighty sea goddess. Her curiosity brings her to the surface of the sea where, in the form of a weird goldfish, she befriends a boy exploring tide pools on his island. Scooped up in his hands, Ponyo slurps a drop of blood from a nick on his finger.
The act seals Ponyo's love for the boy, Sōsuke, and unlocks a magical and slippery transformation of Ponyo, from fish to fish-person to girl to fish again and all over the map. It also disrupts the harmony of land, moon and sea, subjecting Sōsuke's island to flooding storms and tsunamis.
Ponyo's evolution feels delicate, powerful and completely manic. Her energy is unstoppable. And she eats so much ham. My kids now want ham in their ramen so they can be like her.
Nothing in Ponyo is too scary. Even the terrifying-looking magician dad, voiced by Liam Neeson in the English-language dub, becomes frazzled and endearing. I love the prehistoric oceans, which are filled with creatures I obsessed over as a kid: trilobites, ammonites, ancient sharks and armored fish. It's a movie about nature, parents and love.
It's also the closest, for me, Miyazaki has come to a Disney tale in his film style, while always staying true to his embrace of the odd and his defiance of convention.
For a tale about a guileless young witch flying around on a broomstick, Kiki's Delivery Service stays well-grounded. As the kinetic Kiki grapples with growing up, this early Ghibli film quietly unfurls a coming-of-age story exploring the complexities of moving from childhood to adult independence.
Kiki's Delivery Service exists in a magical world like many of Ghibli's movies, but Kiki's witchcraft never takes on the mythical scope of some other Ghibli films. Nobody's parents turn into pigs, like Chihiro's in Spirited Away. The survival of the world from a god-like weapon doesn't fall on Kiki's shoulders like it does Nausicaa's. Kiki isn't the same type of tough as San in Princess Mononoke, but Kiki's struggle to overcome self-doubt is no less heroic.
Instead, Kiki's Delivery Service bears more resemblance to Miyazaki's quiet films, like Whisper of the Heart or My Neighbor Totoro. These films have conflict built into them -- Kiki, for instance, deals with losing and rediscovering identity -- but the conflict isn't all these movies are about.
The plot acts as a basic structure for the movie, within which the characters can stretch, wander and interact. Kiki has turned 13, which means she must find a city without a witch to make her own way. Kiki uses her power of broom-flight to start a delivery service. Along the way, she briefly loses her magic, experiences minor victories and failures, and builds relationships with women who mentor her emotional journey -- a baker, an artist, an elderly client.
Miyazaki's usual visual flair and observational empathy make every moment in Kiki captivating. Midway through the film, for instance, the young witch delivers a birthday parcel to a girl her age in a large house and is suddenly aware of her outsider status, the relative poverty she must accept along with her independence.
Ultimately, Kiki triumphs after she treks through her feelings of loneliness and insecurity to embrace her identity. It may not be a mythical victory, but it's one we've all shared.
-- Shelby Brown and David Priest, staff writers
6. The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises isn't a typical Ghibli film: It's achingly beautiful and heart wrenching, sure, but it doesn't have any fantastical creatures or quirky cats. Instead, it's based on a true story -- its flights of fancy soar around our real world, riding on the wings of wistful aeronautical engineer Jiro's aircraft designs. But as with all Ghibli films, storm clouds gather on the horizon, and childlike innocence is tested.
Miyazaki gives the Ghibli treatment to an ordinary man in an extraordinary time. Based on the life and work of pioneering aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, the film's emotional journey is painted with lavish imagery of pastoral landscapes and vast colorful skies.
But we're brought back down to earth by hints of violence as the old world transitions to a faster, brighter, horror-filled future. The Jiro of the story dreams of incredible aeroplanes swooping elegantly through beautiful blue skies, but even as a child there's no escaping a realization that flight is a cursed dream. No matter how much Jiro draws on nature to create his beautiful aeroplanes, they're destined to soar and kill and burn in the industrialised conflict of World War II -- and even a dreamer can't ignore the violence growing on the streets.
Designers and builders may tell themselves they just want to build beautiful things, but technology created in the shadow of war is never neutral. Progress and destruction are sadly intertwined.
The film's weighty themes emerge subtly, however, like the wind changing direction in the trees. Jiro's journey is filled with color and melancholy, beauty and sadness, making this one of the most affecting animated films ever made. A powerful, lyrical meditation on change, war and a good man's place in the world, The Wind Rises is Ghibli's finest moment. Even without any wacky cats.
-- Richard Trenholm, Movie & TV senior editor
5. Grave of the Fireflies
While Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are often seen as one in the same by the English-speaking world, Ghibli co-founder Takahata was just as crucial to shaping the studio's body of work. Grave of the Fireflies is undoubtedly his most celebrated film.
A tragedy focused on the journey of Seita and Setsuko, two young children struggling for survival in the final months of World War II, Grave of the Fireflies is often canonized as one of the great anti-war movies. Despite being an anti-war advocate, Takahata disagrees. More than anything, Grave of the Fireflies is a movie about indifference and isolation. Seita and Setsuko's struggle is known to many, but that suffering is ignored.
Grave of the Fireflies is a haunting, visceral movie unlike anything I've ever experienced in animation. Takahata himself lived through the war and much of the movie is directly inspired by his own experiences. At one point Seita and Setsuko find themselves in the midst of an air raid on the city of Okayama. The bombs make a strange hissing sound as they fall from the sky, a detail only someone like Takahata could have observed.
"Many TV shows and movies that feature incendiary bombs are not accurate," he explained in an interview with Japan Times. "They include no sparks or explosions. I was there and I experienced it, so I know what it was like."
The movie has an ending so brutal and truthful that, the morning after watching for the first time, I could barely even look at the cover of the DVD. Grave of the Fireflies isn't just a reminder of the destructive horror of large-scale conflict, it's a warning to future generations to preserve our shared humanity and to act in the presence of those who suffer.
-- Mark Serrels, editorial director
4. Princess Mononoke
Early in Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka -- a prince banished from his village and cursed by a demon -- walks through a magical forest. He carries a gravely injured stranger on his back, stepping over great, moss-blanketed tree roots. Small forest spirits called Kodama begin to materialize around Ashitaka, walking with him. One hops on another's back, and they weightlessly jog ahead of the prince, a playful encouragement.
Princess Mononoke is packed with moments like this, that feel so fresh, so inventive, even 20 years after they were conceived. In fact, throughout Miyazaki's various films, from a '70s-style crime caper, to sensitive explorations of childhood (and particularly girlhood), to historical dramas and fantasy epics, such visual invention has characterized nearly every frame.
But Mononoke represents the pinnacle of another element of Miyazaki's work: his insistence on anti-violence. Like many Japanese storytellers, the atom bomb reverberates through Miyazaki's filmography. While legendary writers like Osamu Tezuka, Katsuhiro Otomo and Isao Takahata deal more directly with the modern state's capacity for destruction, Miyazaki places the onus, and his attention, on people -- individual and corporate, benevolent and self-serving, ancient and modern.
In Mononoke, Lady Eboshi leads Iron Town, a human settlement producing rifles and warring with the gods of the forest. She is a strong, competent leader who hires women out of brothels and bandages lepers with bare hands. She also seeks to kill the great forest spirit.
Eboshi and Princess Mononoke herself -- the wolf-raised woman fighting on behalf of the forest -- are the film's dual poles, progress and tradition, industry and nature. And they each want the other dead. Ashitaka steps between them, insists on peace, even as humans and gods go to war all around.
Miyazaki uses this kind of hero in a number of his films -- Nausicaa and Howl's Moving Castle chief among them -- but it works best here, because the characters on all sides are so thoroughly and tenderly humanized. We, like Ashitaka, love them even at their cruelest.
Late in the film, Ashitaka's steed -- a red elk named Yakurru -- takes an arrow to the thigh. He limps after the prince, even as his master tells him to stay behind. Finally, Ashitaka takes his reins and they run side-by-side. It's a brief moment that communicates so much: Yakurru follows his master, who struggles to save the forest despite his own bullet wound; Ashitaka slows to run alongside the animal meant to carry him. It's a reorienting of human interaction with nature, prioritizing the relationship above pure functionalism.
For Miyazaki, the violence humans do to one another is simply an extension of what we did first to nature. He rejects such violence, rendering it ugly and strange, in relief against surprising and powerful natural tableaus. And like any good fantasy, his movie reveals reality: that the tree branch is just as magical as the forest spirit sitting on it, the wind just as mysterious as the god it carries.
-- David Priest, staff writer
3. Howl's Moving Castle
Harry may be more famous, but there's another clever, charming wizard worth knowing. His name is Howl and he lives in a magical flying house that's powered by a plucky fire demon named Calcifer. One day, Howl meets a shy but endearing young hatmaker named Sophie. Unfortunately, their brief encounter draws the attention of the jealous Witch of the Waste, who turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman. Sophie heads out to the wastelands to find a witch or wizard who can lift the curse. She meets a living scarecrow with a turnip for a head, who bobs up and down like a pogo stick and leads her to Howl's enchanted home, where she ends up working as his housekeeper and cook.
And that's when the story really begins.
Howl's Moving Castle, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and loosely based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, is funny and serious, with a sweeping musical score that's lovely, haunting and memorable -- think of an old-fashioned merry-go-round. In the English language version, the characters are brought to life by an amazing cast -- Christian Bale as Howl, Billy Crystal as Calcifer, Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, and Jeans Simmons and Emily Mortimer, respectfully, as the old/young Sophie.
Miyazaki's story has a simple message: War is bad. It brings suffering and loss and tears. But it's also a story of hope, friendship, compassion and loyalty. We also learn that being old -- especially an old woman -- doesn't mean you can't do remarkable things. As Grandma Sophie, our heroine finds her courage and her voice, free to say whatever she thinks.
The lovely imagery aside, this isn't a kids movie. The battle scenes and smoke-belching flying warships are meant to be scary. The themes are complex. And the characters aren't good or bad -- they're a little bit of both. They're human.
And that's why I love this movie. It's a full-on adventure that presents such a vivid story that, for a little while, you forget you're watching an animation because it feels so real.
-- Connie Guglielmo, editor-in-chief
2. My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro centers on two sisters who have just moved with their father to the Japanese countryside as they await the recovery of their sick mother. While exploring their new home, the two encounter various forest spirits, including a massive, furry and cuddly creature that inevitably smiles, roars, yawns and flies its way into your heart.
Their adventure with Totoro makes up a fantastic, whimsical and sumptuous visual ride that can be universally appreciated by all ages and cultures. The film serves as a showcase for the fluid, detail-packed hand-crafted imagery that would make Studio Ghibli a legend in the animation world and help bring anime to Western audiences.
But perhaps the most ringing endorsement is from my 4-year-old son. This weekend, I sat him down to watch the Japanese-language version of the 88-minute film, which meant he couldn't understand the exact details of what was going on.
It didn't matter. Despite the language barrier and the fact that he's more used to computer-generated shows cranked out by Disney, my son was completely engrossed, shouting Totoro at the television and squealing with delight at the visuals.
Which, frankly, was a bit of a surprise, since his visual diet consists of noiser and flashier shows packed with silly gags and lots of action. Even compared with other Studio Ghibli films, very little happens in My Neighbor Totoro. There are no antagonists or scary monsters, or any real sense of conflict. Totoro himself doesn't even show up until a third of the way through the film. One could argue that it's too sleepy.
But that slow, easy pace, which perfectly mirrors the idyllic countryside setting, is a big reason why it's so easy to get into. That and the sheer adorableness of Totoro, who serves as the logo for Studio Ghibli and is akin to the Winnie the Pooh of Japan.
My Neighbor Totoro's unabashedly optimistic and comforting vibe, which wraps around you like a warm, cozy blanket, is the perfect antidote to our anxiety and uncertainty-filled reality. I challenge you not to fall in love with this film.
I'm going through a doorway, into a broken amusement park world. It's a place of disturbing silence, alien faces. Lost parents. This is my emotional state every time I see Spirited Away. It's a film that never stops bowling me over. It's been my favorite Miyazaki, and it's my kids' favorite now, too. Every few months, we go through into its magic again.
Like other great children's tales that juggle whimsy with darkness -- James and the Giant Peach, Alice in Wonderland -- Spirited Away dances on a delicate line between the charming and the disturbing. I don't know if there's a more unsettling moment than seeing your mom and dad suddenly transform into pigs.
Spirited Away's a tale of a girl and her parents who have moved to a new home, but have discovered a lost theme park (or is it a spirit temple?) deep in the forest. The girl, Chihiro, loses her family and ends up working at a bath house for spirits until she can rescue them again. The rules of this world don't make sense. There's a strange, crazy witch. A moody dragon. A greedy, needy no-faced spirit.
A remarkable aspect of Spirited Away is Miyazaki's grounded style. Yes, there are lurking spirits, a dragon-boy, dust sprites. But it's also about a girl who is moving to a new place, and how that makes her feel unmoored. That long drive in the car, looking out the window at a quiet forest. It's reflective and wild at the same time.
Spirited Away is frustrating, exciting, heartwarming, chilling, adorable and off-putting. It's also Studio Ghibli's most commercially successful film, still holding the record for Japan's highest grossing movie ever, nearly two decades after it debuted. And it's the only Ghibli film to win an Oscar for best animated feature. I know why I love Spirited Away, but it's amazing that so many others feel the same way about it. How did something weird become so mainstream?
I think it's because every character, no matter how weird, also feels so understandable. I remember moments that linger with no explanation. And characters that seem scary, suddenly becoming endearing and adorable.
Like the best children's literature, it sticks in my brain. I want to go back to that lost place, that ghostly world, over and over again. I'm just glad my kids agree.