Advertisement

You can watch almost every Studio Ghibli movie on HBO Max. But where to start?

Totoro and Mei in 'My Neighbor Totoro'
Totoro and Mei in Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro.”
(Studio Ghibli)
1

For the first time ever, nearly every single Studio Ghibli title is available to stream through a single subscription service: HBO Max.

Until recently, U.S. fans of the prolific Japanese animation studio could access their films only through physical home releases and special theatrical events. Though the Ghibli catalog is available for digital purchases, Wednesday’s launch of WarnerMedia’s new standalone streaming service made the films more accessible than ever.

Ghibli is best known as the studio behind the works of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, including “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” The studio has officially released 21 animated features.

Although there is nothing wrong with approaching Ghibli’s expansive catalog in order of the films’ release dates, below is a suggested viewing order that considers each film’s themes, tone and filmmakers for a more curated experience. This order is not meant to bea ranking.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Most Studio Ghibli films are MPAA rated G through PG-13, but the list below includes a note about what that means for how kid-friendly the movie actually is.

1. Start with some classic Miyazaki and compelling heroines

2

“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984)

'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' | 1984
“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” is the film that helped launch Studio Ghibli.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid-friendly?: Some violence, death and intense situations comparable to a Marvel or “Star Wars” film. (PG)

Although “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” pre-dates the existence of Studio Ghibli, it has long been claimed by the storied animation studio and is the place to start. The success of “Nausicaä” is what led to the 1985 founding of Ghibli. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is dwindling in the face of an expanding poisonous forest and giant insects, the film is infused with Miyazaki’s signature environmentalist and pacifist themes. The story centers on Nausicaä, a young and capable princess, whose empathy and commitment to understanding the deadly flora and fauna become the key to everyone’s survival.

Advertisement

3

“My Neighbor Totoro” (1988)

"My Neighbor Totoro" remains one of the most iconic Ghibli titles.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid-friendly?: If they’re into whimsical, magical creatures, definitely. (G)

“My Neighbor Totoro” is the film that gave Ghibli its signature mascot, Totoro, one of the most recognized characters in all animation. The movie follows two sisters who move with their father to an old house in the countryside as their mother is sick in a hospital. Eleven-year-old Satsuki and 4-year-old Mei are very much ordinary kids with relatable joys and frustrations as they adapt to their new life. Their magical adventures with the fantastic creatures and spirits they encounter has long kept “Totoro” a must-see for all ages.

4

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

"Kiki's Delivery Service" is among the most kid-friendly Ghibli titles.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid-friendly?: If they’re into magical coming-of-age stories, absolutely. (G)

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a a movie about growing up. Kiki, a 13-year-old witch, sets off to make her own life as tradition dictates, leaving her loving family behind. Her magical abilities are limited to flying on her mother’s broom and being able to communicate with her black cat, Jiji. But Kiki soon learns adjusting to life as the only witch in a big city is more than just the excitement of new encounters and experiences. Loneliness, uncertainty and feeling vulnerable are all a part of getting older and figuring out our own identity.

5

“Spirited Away” (2001)

"Spirited Away" became one of Ghibli's biggest international successes and won the Oscar for animated feature.
(Studio Ghibli)

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Advertisement

Is it kid-friendly?: Some violence and mildly intense moments with creatures that could be considered scary-looking. (PG)

“Spirited Away” is often considered one of Ghibli’s best, and it has the animated film Oscar to prove it. Ten-year-old Chihiro is (unhappily) on her way to her new house with her parents, but a couple of (bad) decisions cause her parents to be turned into pigs and all three of them get trapped in the spirit realm. There, she befriends a boy named Haku and gets a job working at a bathhouse. The film is steeped in Japanese folklore and introduces various memorable spirits as Chihiro learns to navigate the rules of the spirit world in order to figure out a way back to the human realm.

2. Take in a girl’s adventure with a selfless boy. Then one where the boy is selfish.

6

“Castle in the Sky” (1986)

The adventure "Castle in the Sky" was the first film released by Studio Ghibli.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid-friendly?: Some violence and mildly intense situations involving armed adults chasing and threatening children. (PG)

The first official Studio Ghibli release, “Castle in the Sky” is one of the rare Ghibli films to feature a recognizable, unsympathetic, evil villain. It’s a story about two orphans, Sheeta and Pazu, who meet by chance and vow to find the legendary floating castle Laputa together. But air pirates and government agents alike are after Sheeta and her mysterious pendant, which are the keys to unlocking Laputa’s power.

7

“Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)

As Miyazaki's follow-up to "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle" earned one of the widest releases for a Ghibli film in the U.S.
(Nibariki / Walt Disney)

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid-friendly?: Some violence and mildly intense situations comparable to the earlier films in the “Harry Potter” series. (PG)

Advertisement

Loosely based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, “Howl’s Moving Castle” follows Sophie, a teenager who is transformed into an old woman by a witch one day after meeting the wizard Howl. She sets off to break the curse and is reunited with the wizard in his walking steampunk castle. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a critique of war and aspects of modernity in a whimsical, fantastic package.

3. Get acquainted with some of Studio Ghibli’s other voices

8

“Only Yesterday” (1991)

Taeko in public transit in 'Only Yesterday'
Taeko in “Only Yesterday.”
(© 1991 Hotaru Okamoto - Yuko Tone - Studio Ghibli - NH
)

Written and directed by Isao Takahata

Is it kid-friendly?: Though not inappropriate for kids, its deliberate pacing and more mature subject may not keep them all entertained for long. (PG)

For U.S. audiences, Ghibli is almost synonymous with Miyazaki, but fellow studio co-founder Isao Takahata also directed a number of acclaimed films including “Only Yesterday.” There are no explicit elements of fantasy in this story about Taeko, a 27-year-old single woman who starts revisiting moments from her past during a trip to see relatives in the countryside. But the way Takahata stylized memory in this reflection on nostalgia steeped in nostalgia is no less magical.

9

“Whisper of the Heart” (1995)

Shizuku in a train in 'Whisper of the Heart'
Shizuku in “Whisper of the Heart.”
(© 1995 Aoi Hiiragi / Shueisha - Studio Ghibli - NH)

Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, written by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid-friendly?: If they are into slice-of-life romances, yes. (G)

Another one of Ghibli’s lesser-known films among U.S. audiences, “Whisper of the Heart” is a coming-of-age story featuring an aspiring writer, an aspiring violin maker, a cat, a cat statue and the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The film follows junior high schooler Shizuku as she figures out her own aspirations after meeting a boy who is working to follow his dreams — and it’s one of the few Ghibli titles with a straightforward romantic element. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, it was Ghibli’s first theatrical release directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata.

Advertisement

4. Watch how Miyazaki and Takahata approach similar themes very differently

10

“Princess Mononoke” (1997)

San from 'Princess Mononoke'
San in “Princess Mononoke.”
(Studio Ghibli)

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid friendly?: The goriest of the Ghibli films with violence and other intense situations that show blood, injuries and decapitations. (PG-13)

“Princess Mononoke” and its environmentalist themes makes the film a spiritual successor to “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” It also features one of Miyazaki’s most complex villains — Lady Eboshi, the leader of a town whose existence harms the forest and its spirits but is the refuge for those cast out by society. The protagonist is Ashitaka, a prince cursed by a boar god-turned-demon, who meets San, a human girl raised by a wolf god, while searching for a cure and is thrust into the middle of the conflict between humans and nature.

11

“Pom Poko” (1994)

Tanuki in 'Pom Poko'
A scene from “Pom Poko.”
(Hatake Jimusho / Studio Ghibli )

Written and directed by Isao Takahata

Is it kid friendly?: Some violence between magical raccoon dogs and humans. And you might have to explain why the raccoon dogs use their scrotums to shape-shift. (PG)

In Japanese folklore, tanuki — Japanese raccoon dogs — have the ability shape-shift. The tanuki in “Pom Poko” decide to unite to fight against the human development projects that are threatening their already dwindled lands. Their resistance includes re-learning how to shape-shift and sabotaging construction sites. Takahata’s environmentalist film is one of Ghibli’s more comedic offerings, but it also engages with very real issues with sad repercussions.

12

“Ponyo” (2008)

Ponyo and Sosuke in 'Ponyo'
Ponyo and Sosuke in “Ponyo.”
(Nibariki / GNDHDDT)

Advertisement

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid friendly?: If they’re into stories about a magical undersea being who longs to become a human, very much so. (G)

“Ponyo” is about a magical goldfish who’s the daughter of a wizard and a sea goddess. After meeting and befriending a human boy named Sosuke — who names her Ponyo — the goldfish longs to become human. But of course, things are not all that simple.

13

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013)

A tiny girl found in bamboo in 'The Tale of Princess Kaguya'
A scene from “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.”
(GKIDS)

Directed by Isao Takahata, written by Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi

Is it kid friendly?: Some violence, and sexist harassment not uncommon in fairytales. (PG)

Takahata’s final film was a beautiful adaptation of an ancient Japanese folk tale about a bamboo cutter who finds a miniature baby girl inside a glowing stalk of bamboo and raises her as his own. She quickly grows into a beautiful young woman, is courted by many powerful men, but feels stifled by the life of nobility thrust upon her by her adoptive family.

5. Soar with Miyazaki’s love letters to flight

14

“Porco Rosso” (1992)

Porco flies a plane in 'Porco Rosso'
Porco Rosso in “Porco Rosso.”
(Studio Ghibli)

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Advertisement

Is it kid friendly?: Some violence, including fisticuffs and aerial acrobatics. (PG)

Miyazaki’s love of flight and aircrafts are apparent in many of his films and “Porco Rosso” is a clear homage to early aviation. The film follows an ex-World War I pilot turned freelance bounty hunter known as Porco Russo. A mysterious curse has turned Porco — formerly Marco — into an anthropomorphic pig. He may be gruff, but he hates fascists and is loyal to his friends.

15

“The Wind Rises” (2013)

Jiro looks up at a plane in "The Wind Rises"
Jiro in “The Wind Rises.”
(Touchstone Pictures)

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Is it kid friendly?: Some violence and intense situations related to its wartime setting. This is one of Ghibli’s most adult themed films. (PG-13)

Intended to be Miyazaki’s final film before retirement, “The Wind Rises” is palpably a work of an artist reflecting on his legacy. Once again turning to his love of flight and aviation, “The Wind Rises” tells the fictionalized life story of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of Japanese fighter planes used during World War II. It’s a glimpse into the complexity of being a pacifist and loving planes — knowing planes have been used as destructive machines of war — as well as that of the calling to create.

6. Check out more stories with fantasy elements

16

“The Secret World of Arrietty” (2010)

Sho and Arrietty in 'The Secret World of Arrietty'
Sho and Arrietty in “The Secret World of Arrietty.”
(Studio Ghibli / NDHDMTW)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa

Is it kid-friendly?: If they are into the big adventures of tiny people, yes. (G)

Advertisement

Based on “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton, the movie is set in a world where tiny people live undetected among humans, “borrowing” things from them as needed. Arrietty is a young borrower girl, who is discovered by a human boy named Sho. Luckily, he just wants to befriend the small cohabitants, but he’s not the only human who lives in the house.

17

“The Cat Returns” (2002)

The Baron and Haru
The Baron and Haru in “The Cat Returns.”
(Nekonote-Do / Studio Ghibli / NDHMT)

Directed by Hiroyuki Morita, written by Reiko Yoshida

Is it kid-friendly?: If they really like cats, for sure. (G)

This is the movie for everyone who thought the above films needed more cats. A sort of a spin-off of “Whisper of the Heart,” “The Cat Returns” centers on Haru, a teenager with the ability to talk to cats. After saving a cat one day, she is whisked away to a cat kingdom to be married off to a cat prince. It’s up to the Baron (from “Whisper of the Heart”) to rescue her.

18

“When Marnie Was There” (2014)

Marnie
A scene from “When Marnie Was There." 
(Studio Ghibli)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, written by Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando

Is it kid-friendly?: Some violence, intense situations and sad moments. (PG)

A young girl named Anna is sent by her foster parents to a rural seaside town for the summer, befriends a mysterious girl named Marnie and discovers secrets about her own past.

7. Then take in the drama and comedy of everyday life

Advertisement

19

“Ocean Waves” (1993)

Rikako and Taku at the beach
Rikako and Taku in “Ocean Waves.”
(Saeko Himuro / Studio Ghibli)

Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, written by Seiji Okuda and Nozomu Takahashi

Is it kid-friendly?: Some physical altercations and adolescent dramatics. (PG-13)

This made-for-TV movie was the first Ghibli film to be directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata. “Ocean Waves” is about two best friends whose dynamics are shifted with the arrival of a new transfer student. It’s a pretty straightforward teen drama involving both unrecognized and unrequited romantic feelings.

20

“From Up on Poppy Hill” (2011)

Shun and Umi in "From Up on Poppy Hill."
(Studio Ghibli)

Directed by Goro Miyazaki, written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa

Is it kid-friendly?: Some mildly intense and sad moments. (PG)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro Miyazaki, “From Up on Poppy Hill” is a teen romance set in 1963 Yokohama steeped in nostalgia for that specific time in Japanese history (after the Korean war, right before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics). Umi and Shun are polite and likable central characters, so of course their love story has a few dramatic twists.

21

“My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999)

The Yamadas
A scene from “My Neighbors the Yamadas.”
(Studio Ghibli)

Written and directed by Isao Takahata

Advertisement

Is it kid-friendly?: Not inappropriate for kids, but it’s a different pace and style than what kids might expect from Ghibli movies. (PG)

A comedy from Takahata comprising vignettes of the everyday lives and dynamic of the Yamada family. It’s a different aesthetic than other Ghibli films, and though painted digitally, it appears more like moving comic strips.

8. Because you might as well watch all of them

22

“Tales from Earthsea” (2006)

Sparrowhawk
Sparrowhawk in “Tales from Earthsea.”
(Nibariki - GNDHDDT)

Directed by Goro Miyazaki, written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa

Is it kid-friendly?: There is some fantasy violence and violent deaths. (PG-13)

It is best not to think about Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Earthsea” books too much in approaching Ghibli’s adaptation “Tales from Earthsea,” Goro Miyazaki’s directorial debut. It’s one of the studio’s more divisive releases, though it does boast stunning visuals.

23

Bonus for completists

Do not skip “Grave of the Fireflies,” Isao Takahata’s haunting look at the final months of World War II through the eyes of young siblings Setsuko and Seita as they struggle to survive after their mother dies from an air raid. It is a difficult watch and definitely not for for all ages. The film is available digitally and to stream on Hulu.

The animated series “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter” is a Studio Ghibli co-production, directed by Goro Miyazaki, that can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

Though not a Studio Ghibli film, Hayao Miyazaki’s feature directorial debut, “The Castle of Cagliostro” (part of the “Lupin III” franchise about master thief Arsène Lupin III), is available to stream on Netflix.