I have something kind of sad to admit: I did not grow up watching Ghibli movies.
Hey, don’t look at me like that. I didn’t know that these movies existed, okay? I did not have the movies on DVD, and neither did any of my friends. I was not an anime kid, and I’m not an anime adult (yet). I didn’t even know that this hugely popular animation studio existed until middle school, and the one time that I tried to illegally watch Kiki’s Delivery Service, I downloaded a virus on my 8th grade laptop that I’m pretty sure is still on there today. Despite being utterly obsessed with animation throughout my childhood, I never got the chance to experience the movies that were released by this Japanese studio from the late 80s to its closure in the mid-2010s. For a long time, I didn’t even know what I was missing.
That is until HBO Max stepped up as the first streaming service in the U.S. to offer all of the Ghibli movies in the same place. And now, dear reader, I am hooked.
Over the last few weeks, I have been slowly working towards watching every single Ghibli film. There are 22on the list, and so far, I’ve watched seven, so I still have ⅔ of the films left to see… but you guys. I can not stop thinking about the seven that I’ve seen. With an incredible mix of music, patient storytelling, unforgettable leads and god-tier visuals, every single one is an utter triumph, and I can feel myself getter happier and more invested as I continue my Ghibli journey.
After so many years of sub-par movies barrelling over themselves in theaters and animation giants taking more and more steps back from the true masterpieces of their past years (except for Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, obviously), I’ve gotten used to seeing only ‘okay’ animated movies. But now that I can just pull up a Miyazaki masterpiece any old time, I feel like my brain is being positively rewired, and the sheer volume of stellar films that I can watch whenever I want to is actually starting to improve my mental health and creative drive. Every single film I’ve watched is full of so much artistry and talent and downright joy that they have all cheered me up and made me want to create again.
So, if you’ve been feeling creatively burned out, or if you just want some comfort movie recs, here is a list of the movies that I’ve watched so far and what is so SO good about each of them:
- Princess Mononoke
This action-adventure epic follows an indigenous prince named Ashitaka, who is given a deadly curse when he defends his village from a savage monster. The only way for Ashitaka to become whole again is to journey far from his home and find the spirit of the forest, so he sets out in the world for the first time — and ends up caught in a deadly war between the gods of the forest and the industrious humans.
This movie is the best thing I’ve seen on a screen in years. The intensity, message and relationships on screen were like nothing I’ve seen in an animated film, and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a full-on fantasy epic. (Trigger warning, though: there is a fair amount of death and gore in this film, which surprised me during my first watch-through. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone under 12.)
- Spirited Away
As the most popular and enduring work by director Hayao Miyazaki, this Oscar-winning story about a little girl and her dragon boyfriend takes a lot of people’s top spot as their favorite Ghibli movie. The story of a girl named Chihiro who is swept up in the drama of a spirit bathhouse is out-of-this-world delightful, and its calm-yet-engaging pace makes this movie endlessly rewatchable. I would recommend you put your phone away and focus on the screen because you don’t want to miss a moment of this beautiful, weird and touching coming-of-age magic trick of a film.
- My Neighbor Totoro
This movie is a classic about two little girls who move to the countryside to be near their ailing mother. The sisters, Mei and Satsuki, are both sweet in their own ways, and the magical spirits they encounter while exploring their backyard turn their quiet home into a big-time adventure. I would definitely recommend this film if you’re with little kids or if you just need to be cheered up!
Also, even if you haven’t seen this movie, you can probably recognize the titular character Totoro. He’s the company mascot, sort of like Mickey Mouse, except he actually earns the title by being the cutest and sweetest character in all of Ghibli’s vast collection. (This isn’t a roast of Mickey Mouse… he just doesn’t have the vibe of the big, soft, rabbit-like forest spirit.)
- The Secret World of Arrietty
This story follows a young ‘borrower,’ a tiny Thumbelina-sized girl named Arrietty, whose plan to go out into the human world is thwarted when she is seen by a human boy. Brave and passionate, Arrietty is a protagonist you can really get behind, and the slow, sweet story of her coming of age filled me with a kind of coziness I haven’t experienced since the era of Disney fairy movies. If you ever had a love for Pixie Hollow, I am begging you to watch this film and relive those glory days, as Arrietty definitely made me feel nostalgic.
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
As one of the most well-loved movies in the Ghibli catalog, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a must-watch for anyone looking to get into this studio. The film follows a young witch named Kiki, who leaves home to start a life in a new city on her 13th birthday to start her magical training. Kiki is a protagonist that deals with an issue that I have experienced a lot over the years, but have almost never seen in films outside of this movie: burnout. Kiki’s main adventure revolves around developing the skills she needs to balance her work life, friends and passion for magic, and by the end, it’s truly inspirational to see her get her spark back.
This movie is so cute. It is the most heartwarming movie on this list. I don’t want to spoil the preciousness for you, so I’ll describe it as briefly as I can: Ponyo is basically the story of the little mermaid, but if she was a five-year old girl who loved a little boy. It is the coziest, sweetest film I’ve watched so far. If you’re having a bad day, I am begging you to do yourself this favor: make your favorite hot drink, wrap yourself in a fuzzy blanket and watch this fish princess movie. It will help.
- Howl’s Moving Castle
I’ve saved the best for last. I know I said earlier that Spirited Away is everybody’s favorite Studio Ghibli movie, and that Princess Mononoke is the best thing I’ve seen in years, but Howl’s Moving Castle still reigns supreme as my personal favorite Ghibli movie. I love everything, and I do mean everything, about this film — from the sweet found family aspect to the emotional journey of Sophie, our protagonist, to the love story and the little fire demon played by Billy Crystal. I don’t want to spoil this movie for any first-time watchers, but if you’re looking for the perfect magical fairy tale to whisk you away from your troubles, I think that Howl’s Moving Castle is about as out-of-this-world beautiful as Ghibli can get. I can, and have, watched this movie on loop until I fell asleep. Now that the film is on HBO Max, it’s quickly become one of my top comfort films, and I would be happy to watch and rewatch it a thousand times over. It’s, for lack of a better word, a total masterpiece.
So there you have it! My first foray into the world of Studio Ghibli. There’s still 19 movies left in the collection, so I know I have a lot left to watch. But until then, I’ll keep cracking away at the mold of these films and absorbing as much wisdom and inspiration as I can. I truly can’t wait to watch even more!