The 100 best animated movies: the best Studio Ghibli movies

World-famous animators pick the best animated movies ever, including Disney and Pixar movies, cult movies, kids movies, stop-motion, anime and more

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Now we know which are the 100 best animation movies of all time. But which are the best Disney movies and which are the best Pixar or Studio Ghibli films? Which are best for kids and families and which are strictly arty, political or edgy?

We’ve applied 26 handy labels to the 100 great animations in our list. Here you’ll find all the best films made by Studio Ghibli.

But how many have you seen? Take our poll to find out.

Spirited Away (2001)

Moving is a drag for ten-year-old Chihiro, until she discovers she’s meant to work in a bathhouse for the spirit world.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “There must be some mistake: None of these pigs are my parents!”

Defining moment: Tea and cakes with the monstrous Yubaba and No-Face—a moment in the same surreal league as Lewis Carroll.

The apex of Japanese animation—to fans worldwide, all animation—is one of cinema’s finest tales of untrammeled imagination. It’s a movie that emboldens children to embrace weirdness and wonder, and adults to remember how they once did. The plot is a stew of essential anxieties: dislocation, separation from one’s parents, fear of disappearing forever. Even more thoroughly, Spirited Away is a compendium of ancient folklores—the secret lives of radishes and other gods, the sins we commit against nature, her punishments. But as brilliantly woven together by Hayao Miyazaki (at the peak of his creative gifts), the movie is basically a story about growing up. The world is strange; let’s not fool ourselves. But maybe we, as human beings, are stranger. Chihiro is constantly (and riotously) told that she reeks; she fumbles around and incites fury. The lesson here is humility in the face of immortal forces. Critics were wowed, sensing parallels with Japan’s busted economic bubble and polluted streams. Yet the content was—and is—strong enough to stand on its own, a palimpsest of psychology, dreams and fear brought to life by exquisite craft. No film on our list speaks more to the inner animal and anima; is it any wonder those words are so close to animation?—Joshua Rothkopf

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Miyazaki proves he has the heart of a child, the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “Trees and people used to be good friends.”

Defining moment: The first appearance of the roving cat-bus will have viewers of all ages gasping in delight.

Some filmmakers build their great artworks with blood, sweat and toil. Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki seems to sprout his from seeds, planting them in good earth and patiently watering them until they burst into bloom. My Neighbor Totoro is the gentlest, most unassuming film on this list, a tale of inquisitive children, mischievous dust fairies, magical trees and shy sylvan creatures. But in its own quietly remarkable way, it’s also one of the richest and most overwhelming.

This is a story whose roots go deep: into Japanese tradition and culture, into its creator’s personal past, into a collective childhood filled with tales of mystery and a love of all things that grow. There is darkness at the film’s heart—the fear of losing a parent, the loneliness and frustration of childhood—but its touch is gossamer-light, delighting in simple pleasures like raindrops on an umbrella, dust motes drifting in the sun and midnight dances in the garden. The visual style is unmistakably Japanese (unadorned and artful) and the theme song is so sugary-chirrupy-sweet that it’s impossible to dislodge once heard. But the cumulative effect is unique and utterly all-encompassing, returning us to a world we have all, at one time, lived in—and perhaps will again.—Tom Huddleston

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

This unflinching war story proves that, in animation, anything is possible.

Director: Isao Takahata

Best quote: “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”

Defining moment: We don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but it features one of the most heart-wrenching character deaths in movie history.

The year 1988 saw Studio Ghibli at the peak of its powers, releasing a pair of richly personal tributes to youthful resilience that proved the breadth and brilliance of their work. My Neighbor Totoro (coming up!) was studio founder Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, a work of wondrous beauty and grace. But it’s matched—some would say surpassed—by Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps the bleakest and least forgiving film in our top 100. Set in the midst of WWII, the story follows two children, Setsuko and Seita, as they lose their mother in an American bombing raid and are forced to fend for themselves. At first it’s all a game, but as sickness and starvation begin to intrude, the film deepens and darkens, ultimately reaching a place of complete emotional exhaustion and absolute, devastating grief. This is not a movie to be taken lightly.—Tom Huddleston

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Ancient forests mark the battleground for mankind’s future in this mythical drama set in medieval Japan.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “My goal is to see with eyes unclouded by hate.”

Defining moment: The first sight of the Deer God, antlers glowing as we glimpse him through the trees.

Like Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, this Miyazaki epic puts ecological concerns at the center of a human power struggle—but a decade on from those earlier films, the director’s worldview had become much more complex. The nascent technology of iron smelting allows for the development of firearms, but also means that forests are felled to fuel the process—forests where the ancient gods still live. Half-human, half-spirit Mononoke embodies the contradictions of change, vowing to protect the woods yet drawn to youthful warrior-tribesman Ashitaka, who’s seeking his own destiny at the heart of this threatened landscape. Unlike the Disney universe, there are no simplistic heroes or villains here, just the steady realization that our bid to master nature will have profound consequences: both our making and our undoing. Muscular, troubling, uncompromising storytelling on a grand scale.—Trevor Johnston

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

A bookish Tokyo schoolgirl ponders her future—and delicately comes of age.

Director: Yoshifumi Kondô

Best quote: “It looks like springtime has come for Shizuku at last.”

Defining moment: The heroine’s telling first visit to the creepy-yet-enticing antiques emporium.

Yoshifumi Kondo was admired enough to be Miyazaki’s anointed successor at Studio Ghibli, but he completed only this single remarkable feature before succumbing to an aneurysm at 47. Although Miyazaki’s screenplay allows a brief flourish of airborne fantasy, this is predominantly an intimately observed story on a canvas even more compact than Only Yesterday, spotlighting a book-loving high-school student whose fortunes change when she follows a stray cat into a mysterious antiques shop. As this chance encounter transforms her outlook on life, a delicate love story blossoms between two shyly hesitant youngsters, yet the key focus is really the adolescent flowering of the creative urge—the “whisper of the heart.” A shame it slightly loses its nerve in the end; otherwise, this is tender, wise and magical fare deserving much greater prominence in the esteemed Ghibli canon.—Trevor Johnston

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

An animation giant plunders classic kids’ lit for this tale of a resourceful young witch.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “You’d think they’d never seen a girl and a cat on a broom before.”

Defining moment: The airship disaster is one of the most thrilling sequences in the Ghibli catalog.

When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were first unleashed on an unsuspecting public, cries of familiarity were rampant. And it’s true, the books were inspired by everything from the Worst Witch literary series to Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. But Rowling was hardly the first kids’ writer to raid the past for inspiration, a point proved by Kiki’s Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of the sweet, charming but hardly groundbreaking novel by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A tale of a teenage witch, her bad-tempered pet cat and a sleepy city by the sea, the film is a grab bag of kid-lit tropes. But it’s not so much the story as how you tell it, and that’s Miyazaki’s genius: In the hands of a great director, this cozy little coming-of-age tale becomes something altogether more strange, beautiful and affecting than its outline would suggest.—Tom Huddleston

Only Yesterday (1991)

The best film Mikio Naruse never made.

Director: Isao Takahata

Best quote: “So many memories playing in my head like a movie, almost overpowering me.”

Defining moment: A ’60s Tokyo family tucking into a whole pineapple becomes a metaphor for life’s promises and disappointments.

A story about a 27-year-old remembering her school days while working on a farm in the country sounds like truly unlikely animated material. Trust the instincts of Studio Ghibli mainstay Isao Takahata, however, who reckoned that when we see recognizable life animated, it acquires a kind of solidity that makes us look anew at the everyday. Here’s a drama that aims to understand the present by reexamining the past, yet it’s not doused in nostalgia. Instead the film explores with uncanny insight and accuracy the sundry minor high-school setbacks that have inhibited protagonist Taeko’s subsequent romantic fortunes. Better days may lie ahead, though, as the story works toward a final-reel emotional release that feels truthful and earned—something rare in any kind of cinema, and arguably unique in the annals of animation. It’s Ghibli’s secret classic.—Trevor Johnston

Porco Rosso (1992)

A tribute to classic Hollywood, aviation and the unlimited possibilities of cinema.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.”

Defining moment: The climactic duel between Porco and his archnemesis, American air ace Curtis.


The most impressive thing about writer-director-producer and Studio Ghibli chief Hayao Miyazaki is not his imagination (which is vast), nor his compassion (which is bottomless), but his extraordinary confidence: It takes a remarkable man to come up with a tale of a magical pig who flies planes in pre-WWII Italy. But it takes balls of brass to believe that such a story was worth spending three years and who knows how many million yen to bring to the screen. Thank God he did. It takes some arguing to not see Porco Rosso as Miyazaki’s crowning achievement, crammed with charm, empathy, historical irony and dry, brilliantly idiosyncratic wit. But most of all it stands as a testament to the power of film itself, presenting a world both inspired by cinema—from Errol Flynn to Humphrey Bogart via the Pagot brothers—and filled with it, from the movie magazines read by our crumpled porcine hero to the cat-and-mouse cartoons he loves to watch.—Tom Huddleston

Pom Poko (1994)

This thunderous Ghibli romp—part satire, part family adventure, part war “documentary”—is one of the weirdest movies ever made.

Director: Isao Takahata

Best quote: “I have no face!”

Defining moment: The scene in which a raccoon transforms his scrotum into a giant sailing ship bound for nirvana. (We know you’re curious.)

If you’ve seen Spirited Away, with its ancient ghost demons, and Porco Rosso, with its farmyard flying ace, you’ll know that those Ghibli guys can get a little weird sometimes. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer, mind-melting oddness of Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata’s chronicle of the Great Raccoon War. Structured in pseudodocumentary style, complete with constant voiceover and regular time leaps, it tells the tale of a group of shape-shifting raccoons who take up arms against the human beings destroying their woodland. But cozy critters this lot ain’t: Not only do they kill several people over the course of their campaign—and throw a huge party to celebrate—they also use their testicular pouches as everything from hot-air balloons to welcome mats, employ their transformative powers to infiltrate human society and argue constantly (and often viciously) with each other. Sweet, satirical, savage, sad, silly and quite spectacularly strange, Pom Poko stands utterly alone.—Tom Huddleston

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Thrilling adventure, as an archetypal Miyazaki heroine seeks a mythic lost city somewhere above the clouds.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “The crystal should remind us that we come from the earth and to the earth we must return.”

Defining moment: The destructive power of a giant robot signals the ominous threat of Laputan technology.

For the very first Studio Ghibli production, writer-director Miyazaki stepped forward boldly with fleets of lovingly realized vintage flying machines. The film traces the story of a young girl wondering whether the glowing crystal passed to her as a family heirloom will lead her to the legendary flying city of Laputa. If the tale then proceeds along expected lines, the exhilaration of the myriad chase sequences and aerial dogfights remains a marvel (not least given the rudimentary technology available to the Ghibli animators at the time). Also, a strong, ecologically aware undertow adds ballast to otherwise slightly two-dimensional villains. As such, it’s not as thematically rich as Miyazaki’s best (those titles are coming up), but the sheer imagination on view as the camera navigates the richly thought-out Laputa cityscape is obviously the product of a true visionary.—Trevor Johnston

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

This richly imagined postapocalyptic fantasy is Miyazaki’s first masterpiece.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “Man and insect cannot live together!”

Defining moment: The glow of the rampaging insects’ hate-filled red eyes lines the horizon.

Miyazaki’s first film based on his own original material is a major statement of intent. The man doesn’t just tell stories; he creates entire worlds. That sense of total immersion pays dividends here. It’s truly shocking when the eponymous heroine’s peaceful agrarian community comes under attack from a warmongering nation whose aggressive expansion plans could completely unbalance the postapocalyptic environment, where deadly giant insects lurk in the so-called Sea of Decay. Just as Star Wars did before it, the film thrillingly shows how one individual’s distinctive perceptions can affect events on a cosmic scale, yet the triumph here is the insistence on endeavoring to resolve mankind’s fate rather than deploy more destruction. Looking to discover early Miyazaki? Start with this epic saga of conflict and compassion.—Trevor Johnston


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