13. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)
Okay, yes, this is technically not a Ghibli film. Its production and release precedes the studio’s founding by a year. But come on; if no one told you that, would you be able to tell? Nearly everyone important who worked on this movie went on to join Ghibli. And it’s my list, so I say it counts.
Though not Miyazaki’s first feature (that would be 1979’s extraordinarily fun The Castle of Cagliostro), Nausicaä is an excellent crash course in almost everything he loves: flying, environmental and anti-war sentiments, good female protagonists, morally grey conflicts, and more. It’s an excellent sci-fi romp, starting from a peaceful place and escalating to a truly epic climax (the god-warrior sequence is one for the ages). The only thing hampering the movie is that it’s based on the first two volumes of a seven-volume comic book story, and it kinda shows. It’s somehow both self-contained and feeling truncated, the ending rather abrupt. But given the messy production, that Nausicaä came out coherent is an accomplishment.
12. The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)
Besides Ocean Waves, this has the least impressive art and animation of any Ghibli. To boot, The Cat Returns is the shortest, the least complicated, and the broadest work they’ve yet done. It’s also a complete delight, and pound for pound the studio’s funniest movie. Hence, I’d call it their most underrated. A silly story about a girl who unwittingly gets caught up with the intrigues of a kingdom full of cats, this spinoff of sorts from Whisper of the Heart (more on that later) knows exactly what it is and goes about its business with crisp efficiency. It’s a throwback to the simpler fantasy adventures the various founders of the studio made back in the ’60s and ’70s, but with considerably more verve and mischief.
11. My Neighbors the Yamadas (Isao Takahata, 1999)
This film’s deceptively simple artistic style belies a wonderfully sophisticated visual sensibility. The first all-digital Ghibli, My Neighbors the Yamadas takes advantage of the expansive canvas offered by a computer with images that fluidly morph and travel from one vista to the next. All of which is in service to a sequence of vignettes about a totally normal Japanese family going through totally normal situations (which generous fantastical exaggerations). But even that straightforwardness is deceptive. References to folklore abound, as do quotes from old poets such as Bash?. The Yamadas are a study in the push-pull between traditional ideals of family and the demands of modern life. Despite that specificity, any family can look at this and see themselves clearly represented.
10. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Even though it’s in the better half of the list, this might be a controversial placement for Spirited Away, if only because it seems to be widely agreed upon as the top Miyazaki and the top Ghibli. Which is not to say that it isn’t great, because it is. The incredible, fully-realized world of the bathhouse might be the single best setting the studio ever devised. The theme of the old world versus the new is literalized, as old superstitions and work ethic prove to be the key for a contemporary young girl both to survive and to grow as a person. But I don’t love the characters as much as I do in most of the films ranked higher than this, and after Chihiro escapes the bathhouse, the movie doesn’t so much come to its close as it does putter to an eventual halt. Those quibbles aside, I believe that this is a fitting culmination of all the things Miyazaki loves.
9. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)
Frustratingly withheld from any home video release by Disney, animation fans have long championed this unusual entry in the Ghibli roster. Takahata’s team took pains to make their animation more lifelike, adding creases and lines to the characters and drawing their speaking bits to match prerecorded dialogue (the opposite of standard practice in anime). It’s the studio’s zenith in its usage of tiny details. Those subtleties flesh a good deal of depth of out the film’s plot, about a woman figuring out what she wants from herself while on a trip in the country. Again, it’s the simpler, older ways of life getting their due. Ghibli directors are excellent at doing this without appearing blinkered by nostalgia, probably because they don’t simultaneously denigrate the present day – just point out that it perhaps isn’t accommodating to everyone.
8. Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992)
Perhaps the reason I wasn’t as impressed by The Wind Rises’ study of war and airplanes was because I thought this movie already said such things much better. It probably helps that there’s a lot more actual flying in this one. And that they’re the most thrilling flight sequences Miyazaki ever directed. “War turns men into pigs” is an on-the-nose conceit, but Porco Rosso makes it work. It’s a red-blooded action movie that also knows exactly when to slow its pace and has heavier, legitimately mature musings on its mind.