The acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has become synonymous with Studio Ghibli, as the renowned animation studio’s co-founder is behind some of its most incredible films. Miyazaki has been responsible for some of Ghibli’s greatest hits since 1979, with his most recent film, The Boy and the Heron, released just last year.
Miyazaki’s best movies feature aspects fans have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, including stunning animation, compelling characters, and a moving narrative with a thoughtful message at its core. From coming-of-age classics like Kiki’s Delivery Service to internationally celebrated masterpieces like Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s top movies should be considered essential viewing for any Ghibli fan. Below , we’ve compiled a list of his 10 best films.
10. The Wind Rises (2013)
A Ghibli film that doesn’t feature a fantasy world, The Wind Rises is a biographical movie about Jiro Horikoshi, an aircraft designer behind the Mitsubishi A5M Zero fighter plane and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which were used during World War II. The film tells Jiro’s journey to becoming an aeronautical engineer, depicting his childhood, family, and a tender love story focused on him and the woman he falls for, Nahoko Satomi.
Though the 2013 Ghibli movie contains the director’s famous trademarks, including the stunning visuals and heartfelt story, it was widely criticized for going against Miyazaki’s known anti-war stance by glorifying an aircraft designer’s life. However, its poignant ending, which shows Jiro’s sadness after seeing what his planes are being used for, could be interpreted as a call for peace. This widely debated aspect has made The Wind Rises one of Studio Ghibli’s more divisive films.
9. Ponyo (2008)
Ponyo is centered on the tale of the titular goldfish princess, who escapes from her life beneath the ocean and meets a five-year-old boy, Sōsuke. The two form an unlikely bond, which only fuels Ponyo’s desire to somehow become human and experience things the way Sōsuke is able to instead of being confined to a glass jar. This longing grows to the point where she goes to great lengths to gain her freedom, endangering Sōsuke and his village in the process.
Fully embracing warmth and simplicity, Ponyo tells a familiar and straightforward story with a ton of heart. It showcases the transformative power of friendship through the perspective of two young characters. While its animation pales in comparison to Studio Ghibli’s more acclaimed films, it’s still worth watching for fans looking for a fantasy movie with a lighthearted narrative.
8. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Castle in the Sky is notable for being Miyazaki’s first film to be animated by Studio Ghibli. The movie follows the young orphans Pazu and Sheeta, who go on a thrilling adventure to uncover a mysterious floating island’s mysteries. In the process, they’re pursued by both government agents and air pirates who are after a crystal necklace that Sheeta owns. The duo must evade them while pursuing the flying castle called Laputa.
Though this is one of Miyazaki’s early works, the director’s trademarks were already obvious in Castle in the Sky for those who know what they’re looking for. The fantasy world’s portrayal of the harmony between modern technology and nature is a concept that is fleshed out in Miyazaki’s later films. Castle in the Sky‘s visuals were also quite unpolished compared to the director’s more popular works, but it’s still a must-watch for fans who are interested in the evolution of Miyazaki’s style.
7. The Boy and the Heron (2023)
Miyazaki’s latest and potentially last film, The Boy on the Heron, is more mature and understated than his previous works. It’s centered on a 12-year-old boy, Mahito, who grapples with the many changes in his life following his mother’s sudden death. As Mahito struggles to adapt to moving to a new town, he soon meets a talking heron who claims that his mother is still alive. To prove this, the protagonist enters another, more dangerous world.
The Boy and the Heron unsurprisingly became one of the best animated movies of 2023, though it has yet to — and may never – reach the status of Miyazaki’s more famous movies. The film is Miyazaki’s most personal work, mirroring his own life while depicting a coming-of-age story that explores grief in a meditative way. It isn’t for everyone, but those who can relate to Mahito’s experiences may consider The Boy and the Heron their favorite Miyazaki movie.
6. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Kiki’s Delivery Service tells a charming tale about the young witch Kiki, who, as tradition dictates, sets out at the age of 13 to find a new town where she can hone her skills. Accompanied by her talking cat, Jiji, Kiki establishes a delivery service, but soon begins to doubt her abilities. When she loses her magical skills, she must work on herself to overcome her hardships.
Miyazaki weaves a simple, yet powerful coming-of-age story through Kiki’s experiences. Instead of relying on a traditional antagonist, Kiki’s enemies are her own self-doubt and insecurities, and the movie focuses on the way she changes and gains confidence in her new environment. It may not be as emotional as the director’s other works, but its straightforward narrative makes for an inspiring and delightful film that can be revisited over and over again.
5. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Set in a postapocalyptic world where a “toxic jungle” threatens what remains of human civilization, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind follows the titular character, a princess who has a deep connection with nature. Unlike most people in the film, Nausicaä wants to understand how they can coexist with the creatures and plants of the toxic jungle. Any hope of this is dashed by an emerging struggle against the kingdom of Tolmekia, which seeks to eradicate the area and hurt Nausicaä’s people in the process.
Miyazaki’s talent for worldbuilding is easy to see in the incredible dystopian movie, which pushed the limits of animated movies at that time to depict a stark version of a post-nuclear world. Its visuals may be somewhat dated now, but Nausicaä‘s profound message about humanity’s repetitive flaws and what they do to living things on the planet is just as relevant as ever.
4. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Set in a chaotic world where magic and technology coexist, Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fictional kingdom that finds itself at war with another kingdom. Here, the seemingly ordinary Sophie is transformed into an elderly version of herself by a jealous witch’s curse. As she looks for a cure, she meets a wizard named Howl and is soon entangled in his own messy story and strong stance against fighting for the kingdom.
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Miyazaki’s most mystical and intense movies, with the titular living structure being a memorable character itself. It’s best remembered for being a strong reflection of the director’s anti-war ideals, as it was notably made during the middle of the Iraq War. The film shows the futility of conflict and highlights the importance of humanity, compassion, and love instead, placing it among Miyazaki’s most important works.
3. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro is a defining anime movie of the 1990s that has gone on to become a beloved favorite of Studio Ghibli fans around the world. Set in postwar rural Japan, the film follows two sisters, Satsuke and Mei, as they move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their sick mother. As they explore the surrounding forest, they encounter playful spirits like the iconic Totoro, an adorable, massive creature who becomes their best friend.
Miyazaki’s mastery of capturing childlike wonder is on full display in My Neighbor Totoro. Satsuke and Mei’s fun and whimsical adventure through the woods unfolds at a gentle pace. Their charming relationship with Totoro is symbolic, subtly encouraging viewers to respect their own connection with the natural world. It’s never heavy-handed in this environmental message, though, choosing to emphasize its protagonists’ delightful experiences instead.
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Set in a mythical version of Japan in the 14th century, Princess Mononoke follows Prince Ashitaka, who becomes entangled in a conflict between industrialization and the spirits of the forest. Alongside the titular character, also called San, who is a human raised by wolves, Ashitaka attempts to facilitate peace between Iron Town and the creatures and spirits of the forest.
Princess Mononoke is a gorgeously animated cultural touchstone that’s often credited with helping Studio Ghibli gain international acclaim. It’s also Miyazaki’s most popular environmentalist film, with its dark and emotional narrative centered on the way human progress can cause destruction and despair. San’s characterization is particularly crucial to the movie’s message, as the contradiction of her position as a human raised by wolves in nature makes her complicated arc especially reminiscent of the messiness and complexity of humanity itself.
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Not just Hayao Miyazaki’s best movie, but also one of the greatest animated movies ever made, Spirited Away is a widely acclaimed classic and the director’s crowning achievement. The 2001 film tells the tale of 10-year-old Chihiro, who becomes trapped in a magical world while on her way to her new home. To rescue her parents from the witch Yubaba’s spell that turned them into pigs, Chihiro must be brave and face dangerous creatures in the unfamiliar world.
Spirited Away features every aspect that makes a Miyazaki movie great, from its young protagonist on a coming-of-age quest to its otherworldly setting full of fantastical creatures to its environmental message. Of course, the movie’s breathtaking visuals perfectly complement its phenomenal narrative, which sees Chihiro transform from a terrified child into a bold hero of her story. Spirited Away is undoubtedly Ghibli and Miyazaki’s very best work, and one that could only have come from that brilliant collaboration.