The Best Place to Start If You’re New to the Studio


In the world of animated films, there are few studios with the kind of universal acclaim and fervent fandom that precedes Studio Ghibli. The studio has made some of the most enduring, popular, and critically acclaimed animated films of all time. While the medium of animation is a playground of sorts for the creatively inclined, no one in the field has played around as much as lead creative Hayao Miyazaki. Famously a bit of a curmudgeon, Miyazaki has spent the last 50 years dedicating himself (and the studio that he co-founded) to the craft of hand-drawn animation — a dying art in the era of CGI.


Studio Ghibli has made 24 films, and almost all of them are excellent in some way. The latest film, The Boy and the Heron has hit theaters and become a surprise hit at the box office. At a time when major Hollywood releases are struggling, the success of The Boy and the Heron shows how Studio Ghibli has gained a fandom that has grown up on these films over the years. Yet there are plenty of people who still have not seen any. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and looking for a place to start, this is the best place to start if you’re new to the world of Studio Ghibli.

Update December 29, 2023: This article has been updated following the release of The Boy and the Heron with more films from Studio Ghibli that make for great starting points, as well as where each title can be streamed.


10 Only Yesterday (1991)

Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday tells the story of a 27-year-old woman named Taeko Okajima who works in a company in Tokyo. She takes a trip to her sister’s in-laws’ house in the countryside after living her whole life in Tokyo. The big city girl in her always wanted to take a vacation to the serene rural area and when she finally arrives there, her brother-in-law’s cousin Toshio comes to pick her up. Thus starts Taeko’s journey of self-discovery and love, as she starts to think back on her childhood, and whether she is someone her younger self will be proud of.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

If you are getting into Ghibli as an adult, Only Yesterday is a pretty great place to start, as it handles some realistic problems people face in their adulthood, such as loss of identity, soul-searching, and self-actualization. Taeko’s journey is physical and spiritual as it blurs the bridge between girlhood and womanhood. This film was directed towards adult women who could relate to the topic being portrayed in the film. But there are also parts where a younger Taeko appears on-screen that can help the audience reconcile with their childhood self as well. Overall, the film is an excellent place to start if you want to watch a serious but not heartbreaking movie. Stream on Max

9 The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises is a Hayao Miyazaki classic that came out in 2013. A little different from some other Ghibli films, this movie is a historical drama that tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed two Mitsubishi aircraft for the Empire of Japan to use in World War II. The movie shows how young Horikoshi wanted to become a pilot, but it was not possible because of his nearsightedness. After he dreams about an Italian aircraft designer, he begins studying aeronautical engineering while also falling in love with a girl he met on the train.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

The film was the highest-grossing film in Japan in 2013. There are no intricate themes that are hard to grasp. Rather, it’s a pretty linear tale of a man and how he overcame the obstacles in his life to reach for his dreams. The film also deals with more tender subjects, such as young love and overcoming the death of someone you love dearly. It is a bittersweet movie perfect for people looking for a less fantastical entry point into the franchise. Stream on Max

8 The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret Wolrd of Arrietty is a movie about a boy named Sho who accidentally discovers and befriends a 4-inch-tall borrower girl named Arrietty. Borrowers are little people who live in the houses of other people and unknowingly borrow things from the owners to make their homes. Arrietty and Sho become close, and the boy helps the little girl and saves her family on multiple occasions, strengthening their bond. It is a story of the unlikely friendship between a human boy who suffers from heart disease and a little borrower girl he accidentally discovers.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

The Secret World of Arrietty, as mythical in nature as it is, is also straightforward and linear. The film is based on The Burrowers, a popular children’s fantasy novel published in the 1950s. While the story has been adapted many times in the past and is known the world over, it gets a new angle through the artistic talent of Studio Ghibli. It goes to show how a classic story changes but also remains the same across cultures and is a great transition film for new audiences who want to see it a familiar story they know told in a new way. Stream on Max

7 Ponyo (2008)

Ponyo

Release Date
July 19, 2008

Cast
Yuria Nara , Hiroki Doi , Jôji Tokoro , Tomoko Yamaguchi , Yûki Amami , Kazushige Nagashima

Rating
G

Ponyo is sort of a flip on a Little Mermaid-type story, but injected with the signature bright-eyed magical realism of Studio Ghibli permeating throughout all of its frames. Following a young boy who makes a fast friendship with a fish on the run named Ponyo, the film is a real treat. As the two become friends, Ponyo becomes more and more humanlike, losing her fish traits and her tether to the underwater world. The two must work together to save Ponyo’s homeland and return her to her home world before everything goes wrong.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

It’s an easy recommendation to newcomers because of its familiar story beats and simple premise. It is also perfect for people who grew up watching The Little Mermaid as the premise is similar. But the story takes a different turn, and the gorgeous animation will keep you hooked to the screen till the end in this sweet, calming, and beautiful comfort movie. Stream on Max

6 Grave of the Fireflies (1989)

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

Release Date
July 26, 1989

Cast
Tsutomu Tatsumi , Ayano Shiraishi , Akemi Yamaguchi

Rating
Not Rated

Another one of those animated features that could easily be made into a live-action adult drama, Grave of the Fireflies is unlike anything else that has ever been produced — by Studio Ghibli or otherwise. The film follows two siblings, orphaned by the effects of the Second World War, as they attempt to survive during the last few months of said war. It’s a harrowing, all-encompassing tragedy film that utilizes its format and medium to great effect, accomplishing visuals and thematic resonance that couldn’t be accomplished in live action.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

Not only is Grave of the Fireflies one of the best Studio Ghibli films, it’s also one of the best animated films of all time and one of the best war films ever released. That’s why it deserves to be recognized as a great jumping-off point for newcomers to the Ghibli canon, to show how thought-provoking the studio’s output can be. Even though it can be a little bit hard to handle as the tragic nature of war becomes too heavy at times, the movie is one of the best Ghibli has to offer. Rent or buy on Apple TV or Vudu

Related: Why Are Great Kids Movies So Sad?

5 Kiki’s Delivery Service (1990)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the Ghibli classics that all fans love. The film depicts a young trainee witch named Kiki who has a black cat, Jiji, whom she can speak to. Kiki runs a delivery service and flies on her broom around the town to make deliveries. She lives with a kind woman named Osono, who gave her a place to live in exchange for her help. With this premise, the story progresses as she starts to lose her ability to fly and talk to Jiji and becomes steadily more exhausted.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

Complete with a witch, a talking cat, a mysterious painter, and magic being used in the most normal way, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a very simple film. It’s the simplicity with which the life of a witch is depicted that makes it so special. Even though Kiki has different abilities than everyone, she is not labeled as a freak but works in a way that helps the community around her and even befriends some people. Its episodic nature also makes it a more laid-back hang-out film as it explores the day-to-day adventures of this young girl. It is simple, sweet and delightful which makes it a great starting point to get into what the general vibes of a Studio Ghibli film are. Stream on Max

4 Princess Mononoke (1997)

princess mononoke

Princess Mononoke

Release Date
July 12, 1997

Cast
Yôji Matsuda , Yuriko Ishida , Yûko Tanaka , Kaoru Kobayashi , Masahiko Nishimura , Tsunehiko Kamijô

Rating
PG-13

When a man is cursed to have superhuman strength and also fatal pain in his body by a Boar God, he goes on a journey towards the Western forest where the creature came from to find a cure. There, he finds himself in midst of a war between a mining colony and forest Gods. He also meets a woman named San, a warrior princess who was raised by a wolf-god and the two begin an unlikely friendship. Princess Mononoke is an epic story of a battle between humans and nature and a man who tries to stop the war.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

This visually stunning film is a great entry point for people who like action films or anime. The battle scenes are incredibly well-executed while also having some of the most gorgeously put-the-screen depictions of nature. Princess Mononoke is the type of film that can generate fist-pounding moments of excitement while also having genuinely beautiful quiet moments that make one ponder the beauty of life. Princess Mononoke can be enjoyed by young kids but also one that appeals to older audiences and might be one of the best films to start out with if one wants to get into Ghibli because it is hard not to be hooked afterward. Stream on Max

3 Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

howl's moving castle

Howl’s Moving Castle

Release Date
November 19, 2004

Cast
Chieko Baisho , Takuya Kimura , Akihiro Miwa , Tatsuya Gashûin , Ryûnosuke Kamiki , Mitsunori Isaki

Rating
PG

One of the greatest love stories to have come out of Ghibli, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of a young woman Sophie, who turns into an old woman because of an evil witch’s curse. Looking for a way to reverse the curse, she ends up in the castle of Howl, who is an infamous wizard. In Howl’s residence, Sophie meets the wizard, his apprentice Markl a talking fire Calcifer. Things also go awry when Sophie’s country and the neighboring kingdom start a war.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

Filled with magical elements, witches and wizards, and a literal moving castle, this film is easily one of the most visually stunning and entertaining Ghibli films. Regardless of if you like animated movies or not the compelling storyline and art style will captivate anyone easily, making it one of the easiest starting points for new Ghibli fans. Stream on Max

Related: Best Studio Ghibli Movies, Ranked

2 My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

Release Date
April 16, 1988

Cast
Noriko Hidaka , Chika Sakamoto , Shigesato Itoi , Sumi Shimamoto , Tanie Kitabayashi , Hitoshi Takagi

Rating
PG

Even if you haven’t seen a single Studio Ghibli film, you’ve undoubtedly seen Totoro out and about. The titular character of the film My Neighbor Totoro, the big forest creature, adorns all the film’s merchandise and marketing for good reason: he’s unbelievably adorable (as is the rest of the film). Following two young girls as they move into a new house that is infested with mythical sprites, My Neighbor Totoro is a film full of childhood wonder and magic.

Why It’s a Great Starting Point

It takes you back to the feeling of being a child, discovering all these new and strange things that surround you. Totoro is a fantastic entry point to the Ghibli canon because it’s hard not to love every single inch of this film’s cutesy exterior. The film is Ghibli’s easiest film for children to understand and love and is a great entry point for them to start falling in love with the magical world of this franchise. Stream on Max

1 Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Release Date
July 20, 2001

Cast
Rumi Hîragi , Miyu Irino , Mari Natsuki , Takashi Naitô , Yasuko Sawaguchi , Tatsuya Gashûin

Rating
PG

One of the most celebrated animated films of all time and an often-cited favorite of many, Spirited Away is the perfect encapsulation of everything that Miyazaki has worked towards his whole career. The story of the film is quite simple. A ten-year-old girl named Chihiro, who is moving to a new place with her family, comes across a predicament when they enter the world of Kami and her parents her turned into pigs by a witch. Chihiro then starts to work at the witch’s bathhouse and befriends a boy named Haku while finding a way to free her parents and leave this fantasy world.

Why It’s a Great Staring Point

Sometimes, it’s hard to say definitively what an artist’s masterwork is when they have so many good pieces of work, but it isn’t hard in Miyazaki’s case. While every film he’s made is above and beyond, Spirited Away is that rare occasion of a seminal, generation-defining work. Watching this film is a direct confrontation with the sublime, a film that could never be replicated and had never existed before. It’s not only the perfect jumping off point to get into the filmography of Studio Ghibli, but is a necessity for any film fan to experience at least once. Stream on Max



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