Studio Ghibli is an award-winning anime studio that has been impressing audiences with its awe-inspiring works of art since the 1980s. Known for its magical tales, loveable characters, serene soundtracks, and state-of-the-art visuals, Studio Ghibli has produced over 20 anime classics that are unlike anything the world has ever seen. Their elegant life-like art style swiftly immerses you into magical worlds of curiosity and wonder, making you feel like a kid adventuring through the countryside of Japan. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing a Studio Ghibli film for yourself, here are five of the best titles to get you started.
- Spirited Away
Spirited Away is a timeless masterpiece and is considered by many to be one of the greatest anime films of all time. Not only has it topped many “best” lists among critics, but it was the first anime to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature: not bad for a movie that started production with no script.
Follow 10-year-old Chihiro’s magical journey into the spirit world as she fights to rescue her parents from the clutches of the conniving witch Yubaba while overcoming challenges of personal growth, discipline, greed, and discrimination. As you journey throughout Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginative universe where babies are giants and spirits unwind in bathhouses, you’ll witness Chihiro transform before your very eyes from a scared, insecure brat to a daring, courageous young lady. With its stunning visuals, dazzling adventure, and gentle soundtrack, Spirited Away has left its mark on viewers for over two decades while teaching us valuable lessons about humility and perseverance.
- My Neighbor Totoro
When you think of the Studio Ghibli catalog, My Neighbor Totoro is likely the first title that comes to mind. After all, not only is it one of the studio’s most iconic films, but the adorable King Totoro is used as the company’s mascot.
My Neighbor Totoro is an anime full of wholesome, family fun with loveable characters and luscious green aesthetics that’ll have you begging to tour the Japanese countryside via Catbus. Witness the adventures of 10-year-old Satsuki and her kid sister Mei, who settle into a small village with their dad to be closer to their hospitalized mother. As the sisters adjust to their new humble lifestyle, they befriend Totoro, a giant magical creature who watches over the forest. If My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t win you over with its gorgeous scenes of nature-rich landscape, it’ll captivate you with its heartwarming innocence and purity, making us all wish we had a neighbor like Totoro.
- Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke is a cinematic classic whose themes of war and violence make it one of Studio Ghibli’s more mature titles. It tells the tragic story of humans versus nature as several tribes fight for the rights to a sacred forest. Perhaps the most shocking detail of all is, despite the presence of several animal tribes (including wild boars and apes), the humans are by far the most savage species in the story and are the root cause of most of the film’s problems.
In Princess Mononoke, a cursed prince finds himself caught between an on-going battle between the animals who are sworn to protect the sacred Forbidden Forest and the humans of
Irontown who insist on mutilating the forest and its inhabitants for the sake of industrialization. What unfurls is a constant battle of morals, greed, and territory as the prince is forced to choose between protecting the citizens of Irontown and aiding the wild Princess Mononoke in defending the forest from the destruction of humans. Princess Mononoke shows us the consequences of being consumed by hate and selfishness and unveils the ugly side of human nature as we watch the humans bring constant turmoil and destruction in pursuit of their own personal gain. Although this film was made in the 1990s, many of its themes about war, hate, and earth preservation are concepts that are still unfortunately relevant to this day.
With Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki takes us on a mythical adventure under the sea with a story that’s inspired by Disney’s The Little Mermaid. In Ponyo, a magical goldfish named Brunhilde longs for a life of freedom outside of her father Fujimoto’s captivity. Her wish is finally granted after she washes up on shore and is rescued by a young boy named Sosuke. The two develop a strong bond — much to her father’s disdain — and after getting a taste of life on land, Brunhilde does everything in her power to become human and live a life on land under her adoptive name Ponyo. Ponyo will take you on an imaginative journey of love, triumph, and aquatic adventure with eye-popping depictions of oceanic life and magical sea creatures that’ll leave you awestruck.
The studio’s use of rich pastel colors throughout the film really captures the essence of the anime’s oceanic setting, trading in Studio Ghibli’s traditional Japanese countryside aesthetics for a seaside village that was reportedly inspired by the town of Tomonoura. Ponyo’s roster of memorable characters make it an fantastic family film, including Lisa, whose strength, understanding, and unrelenting support of her son make her one of the best moms in anime history.
- When Marnie Was There
One of their more recent titles, When Marnie Was There is a hidden gem in the Studio Ghibli catalog whose dramatic tale is easily comparable to any Oscar winning live-action film. It tells the story of a 12-year-old foster child named Anna, who is sent away to live with her aunt and uncle in a small seaside village due to her struggles with physical and emotional health. During her stay, she befriends a mysterious girl named Marnie who appears to reside in a nearby mansion despite news that it had been abandoned for quite some time. As the secret friendship plays out in the film, you’ll start to question what’s real, what’s imaginary, and what’s Marnie’s connection to Anna. By the time you get to the movies shocking reveal, you won’t be able to conceal your tears.
In addition to having the breathtaking nature-rich aesthetic that Studio Ghibli is known for, When Marnie Was There also inspires conversations about mental health, as we watch the main character struggle with issues of loneliness, self-esteem, and social anxiety — mature elements that are not often found in animated films. The beautiful imagery and dramatic themes about love, friendship, and the struggles of growing up as an orphan make When Marnie Was There a must-see anime and one of the best Studio Ghibli movies ever made. Just make sure you have a box of tissue handy.
You can check out these amazing films — as well as classics like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle — now on HBO Max.
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Kaillaby is a writer from The Bronx with infectious high energy and a passion for geek culture. She loves connecting with Blerds like herself and hopes to create her own cartoon someday.