The 12 Best Studio Ghibli Movies, According To Letterboxd - Did They Get It Right?

There was a beautiful time when film buffs, critics, and dudes with strong opinions could gather in the IMDb forums and debate everything from the oeuvre of Sir David Lean to the latest episode of "Charmed." Today, internet critics make their way to the easier-to-navigate Letterboxd. Boosted by the 2021 COVID pandemic lock-in, it's now the joint for people looking to curate their watch list with the cream of the cinephile crop.

On Letterboxd, you can log your film-viewing history, rate films on a 5-star scale, and share your thoughts. The reviews can be as pithy or insightful as a user desires, and collated scores help fans figure out what's the best of the best in a given section. With this much input from peers, the app's consensus should offer a fair reflection of a film's quality. This Ghibli fan is going to look over Letterboxd's top twelve animated Studio Ghibli features with you, and I'm going to examine just how accurate we think these ratings are.

(A special note before we begin: "Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind" predates the founding of Studio Ghibli. If it was eligible for this list, it would easily deserve a place in the top-five!)

1. Spirited Away

Released in 2001, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" is a safe pick for Best Ghibli Movie on most lists. A lyrical coming-of-age tale, Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) still has some brattishness left in her. When her parents become pigs, she's lost in a world of unfathomable yokai spirits. It's up to her to grow up and learn to look for the best in others if she wants to free her parents and return home.

Sweet and lovely, it easily earns its rank on Letterboxd for several reasons. "Spirited Away" is the first worldwide Ghibli release after "Princess Mononoke" grabbed the attention of Western mainstream audiences. Every frame is gorgeous, and it's a relatable story for any age. The Joe Hisaishi-composed score is, once again, impeccable. The film's cast of spirits sparks our imaginations — from the silly Radish Spirit to the lonely No-Face. If someone is on the fence about watching Japanese anime, it's a magnificent film to show them the genre's value. The only quibble to make with its high rating on Letterboxd is a purely subjective one. "Princess Mononoke" would be my pick for the top spot, but I'll get to why soon!

2. Grave of the Fireflies

Directed by Isao Takahata and adapted from the semi-biographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, "Grave of the Fireflies" is the finest film you'll watch once in your life. All you need to know is in the current top Letterboxd review by a user called James: "I'm struggling to think of any other movie that eviscerated my heart quite like this one."

"Grave of the Fireflies" will do that. Two children become orphans in the aftermath of the 1945 firebombing of Kobe. Sadly, their family members who lived through the experience have too many struggles to care for them. Older brother Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and tiny Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) must fend for themselves. The film's opening foreshadows the film's ending. Watching how these children end up there is horrific and heartbreaking. Although it's a tough watch, it's beautiful and a reminder that Studio Ghibli has more than one excellent director at the helm.

Listed at number two on Letterboxd, it'd be a hard sell to move it around the ranks. It's not a Miyazaki film, and it's too shattering an experience. Placing it in second helps us understand that it's a masterpiece but not the right pick for a casual night of movie-watching.

3. Princess Mononoke

"Princess Mononoke" is the film that helped take Miyazaki out of the hands of cinephiles and anime clubs and turned the director into a Western phenomenon. With a localization overseen by Neil Gaiman, "Princess Mononoke" is a fantasy epic about the power of humanity to be destructive and kind.

Like J.R.R. Tolkien's work, Miyazaki's story is framed around a conflict between nature and industrialization. Prince Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda) becomes a victim of this conflict when a wounded boar god shares its deadly infection with him. The pulsating injury is magic and metaphor, a rot inflicted on the once-noble boar clan by iron bullets. His journey introduces him to the gunmaker, Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka), who is no senseless villain but a woman with a desire to protect those that society rejected. In opposition to Eboshi's iron sprawl is San (Yuriko Ishida), the adopted daughter of a wolf god.

It's a story that knows there are no easy answers to this conflict. "Princess Mononoke" gives us what it can, along with the tools to make of its ending what we will. Mature and beautiful, we argue it's better deserving of the number one spot. But landing in the top three spot is fair.

4. Howl's Moving Castle

There's a big problem with stunt-casting Hollywood stars to voice top-shelf animated features. But in Christian Bale's defense, he nails the dramatic twink complexity of the draft-dodging wizard in "Howl's Moving Castle." That's a lot of odd words to explain our titular secondary lead, but they're accurate. Based on Diana Wynne Jones' novel, Miyazaki's take on "Howl's Moving Castle" ups the stakes and makes Howl not just a cowardly slacker with a taste for fashion, but a wizard desperate to avoid getting entangled in a bloody war. That sentiment is foundational to most of Miyazaki's stories, and it fits perfectly into this adaptation.

Meanwhile, Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is the hero everyone needs. She's a celebration of growing up, being true to yourself, and courage. With Heen ( Dee Bradley Baker), the wheezy little mop dog, and Calcifer (Billy Crystal), the grumpy fire elemental, it's a charming film with surprising depth. In the fourth place on Letterboxd, we concede that's fair. It benefits from the high we were still getting from the release of "Spirited Away" three years earlier but acknowledges that it's not as epic as "Mononoke." It's a great movie — just not good enough to enter the top three.

5. My Neighbor Totoro

At number five on Letterboxd, it's a fair argument to wonder if "My Neighbor Totoro" is ranked too high. (But it's number one in my heart, though!) Especially on dark days, "Totoro" is sweet and cuddly — practically designed to make you feel warm fuzzies. Sisters Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning) are too young to understand the world's injustices. But they're just the right age to embrace the universe's magical corners — where trolls come in various squeezable sizes with leaf-hats and a cat that's also a bus. It's the greatest thing ever.

While "Totoro" is a delightful experience, it's not a coherent story. It's a few blessed days, capped by the promise of a better future. But it's so lush, beautiful, and perfect that the Totoro creatures are now synonymous with Studio Ghibli. The big boy himself has a place in their official logo. It may be thin when compared to a Steven Soderbergh film. But it's the right movie for what it is: a sweet fable that brings hope. For parents with kids that can't get enough "Bluey," this offers the same kind of gentle artistry that will engage their imaginations.

6. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Isao Takahata's final movie, "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," was meant to be (and is) the director's magnum opus. The art style is like no other Ghibli film, telling its heartbreaking folktale via deceptively simple charcoal-style linework and soft watercolor hues. Based on the 9th century "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" follows a hard-working man who finds a baby inside a stalk of bamboo and raises her as his. But he becomes too invested in her future success: Kaguya lives an unhappy life as a caged bird.

Takahata turns the old story into a lament. Kaguya is never free to make choices. Her unhappiness grows throughout her brief life on Earth. The end of her story is a metaphor for death, as her wishes are forever unfulfilled as she returns to the Moon. For its artistry and dedication to its themes, it should rank in front of "Howl's Moving Castle" in the Letterboxd rankings. Likely, it's weighted down (through no fault of its own) by choosing a unique style over Miyazaki's familiar charm. Nonetheless, it's a lovely film and is more than worthy of being in the top ten.

7. Kiki's Delivery Service

"Kiki's Delivery Service" is a nice film. Scratch that, it's not just nice, it's kind. In a world of grimdark directors slapping grey chrome filters onto once-peppy superheroes and Lars Von Trier doing Von Trier things — sometimes you just want to feel good. Letterboxd puts "Kiki's Delivery Service" at number seven, which may be as overweighted as "Totoro" for harder cinephiles. But it's hard to find any fault in this 1989 Miyazaki classic.

Kiki is a mail-delivering witch who goes through a brief crisis of confidence. It forms the bedrock of the thin plot, giving this coming-of-age fable something to do in between its delightful village scenes. She has, of course, a black cat. Jiji is one of the top ten cats in cinema, a mouthy charmer who'd happily share a saucer of milk with Salem from "Sabrina The Teenage Witch." Even Jiji has a subplot, finding love in this fine little town with a pretty maid down the lane. There is no way to feel bad after watching this movie, except perhaps a twang of longing that being a mail delivery witch isn't a real job. Letterboxd is right to place this movie so high, as it feels like a small act of defiance against an unhappy world.

8. Whisper of the Heart

Yoshifumi Kondō was one of Ghibli's best animation directors, but he only ever directed one film. 1995's "Whisper of the Heart" puts him at the helm of one of Miyazaki's stories. Less overtly magical than many of Studio Ghibli's films, the film follows Shizuku (Yōko Honna), a girl with a lively imagination and a slow-growing friendship with a taciturn boy. She creates a story for the Baron, a dapper cat statue on display in a local shop, giving him an enemy in the local stray, Muta. Muta is a grumpy cat, and her tale reinvents him as the Wilson Fisk of the feline streets.

Baron's catty tale isn't the main story, but it adds a sweet levity to a sober story of two kids navigating complex emotional twists. "Take Me Home, Country Roads," the Bob Denver classic, may provide some sonic whiplash, but the lyrics make new sense here. At eight on the Letterboxd list, it's in the right place due to its thoughtful quality. But there's a melancholy behind this film. Kondo was meant to be Miyazaki's heir, and this would have been the first of many films guided by him. Unfortunately, Kondo died in 1998, prompting Miyazaki's first temporary retirement.

9. Ponyo

Miyazaki's watery follow-up to the childlike wonder of "My Neighbor Totoro" has some ranking confusion around it on Letterboxd. Sharp eyes will notice that the eighth place is taken by a behind-the-scenes short called "Ponyo: Meet Ponyo" while the film itself is several places down. But the comments are largely the same, suggesting a few dozen people have made an honest mistake in their ratings and accidentally boosted the wrong thing. So let's assume 2008's "Ponyo" is at the ninth-ish place.

That's a fair spot for the film. "Ponyo" has a larger story than "Totoro," with recognizable elements of "The Little Mermaid" and a disruption of the natural world when Ponyo clings to her new human life with an overdose of borrowed magic. Miyazaki renders the deep sea as beautiful and complex as his forests with ancient (and sometimes) unsettling fish appearances. The stunt casting is also less charming in this film compared to other Ghibli. Liam Neeson does a capable job as Ponyo's campy-wizard-dad Fujimoto, but his natural gravel doesn't mesh with this gentle world. Weirder is Matt Damon, who manages to sound pretty much like Matt Damon, which adds little to the dynamic here.

10. The Wind Rises

In America, we think of the Wright Brothers when we think of the history of aviation. Some of us may recall that Orville Wright went to his grave disheartened with the way his invention became a mechanism of war. In 2013's "The Wind Rises," this sentiment is shared by Jiro Horikoshi, who designed several Mitsubishi fighter craft planes for use in World War II.

This biography feels forgettable in discussions of Ghibli greats due to how straightforward it is. There's no magic. There are no fantastical sequences. There's only the wonder of the skies. But it's enough, and it lifts Miyazaki's love for aviation past the awkwardness of "Porco Rosso." Beautiful and bittersweet, the film contains Miyazaki's signature anti-war message running through it. However, it's still a little odd for one of his most understated films to be about a man who brought a brutal war to a new level — even if that was never his intention.

It's in a decent place on Letterboxd, acknowledging that it's not Miyazaki's strongest film, but still one of his most empathetic. However, our opinion is that it should swap places with "Only Yesterday," another Isao Takahata masterpiece that tackles the inner life and dreams of young women. It sits just outside the top 12, and this would be the right place for it.

11. Castle in the Sky

"Castle in the Sky," Studio Ghibli's premiere film, borrows a couple of things from Miyazaki's "Nausicaa" — like its heroic blue hues and the adorable fox squirrel critter. However, it borrows a lot more from "Future Boy Conan," one of Miyazaki's earlier television works. Built from a throwaway chapter of "Gulliver's Travels," young Sheeta (Anna Paquin) is the princess of a lost and unusually advanced kingdom (like Conan was). As the film opens, she's the amulet-carrying MacGuffin between a band of pirates and a shady government crew. But an orphan boy named Pazu (Mayumi Tanaka) gets thrown into the mix, and a "Stardust" style adventure quickly ensues.

Speaking of "Stardust," there is no way Robert DeNiro and his eccentric pirate crew didn't find inspiration in the maternal Captain Dola and her family of pirate lads. They're gruff and messy, but they're not the bad guys here. The true nemesis is the rapacious desire for power and control, epitomized by the most blatantly evil villain to be found in a Ghibli film. Overall, the eleventh ranking for this film is fair. It's seminal for being the first official Studio Ghibli film and strongly encapsulating Miyazaki's themes.

12. Porco Rosso

"Porco Rosso" sneaks onto the end of the Letterboxd top twelve, due to the "Ponyo" mishap. It's a fitting ranking for a unique film. Released in 1992, it's the first film to realize the depth of Miyazaki's love of aviation. Like "Whisper of the Heart," it's straightforward stuff. The biggest nod to fantasy is that our hero has a pig's head — the result of a curse born of his cynicism.

Set in Europe, during a fractious but fictionalized post-World War I era, our heroic ham Porco (Shūichirō Moriyama) has more than a little Humphrey Bogart in him. He's a bounty hunter hero, clearing the skies of airborne pirates. He's never comfortable with the strong-willed women in his life. It's an emotional story typically told from a feminine viewpoint — a benefit Bogie never enjoyed due to the hard-masc Hollywood era he epitomized.

Porco's curse hides his true nature from himself. He's a good man willing to fight for the right things — but never for his happiness. For Studio Ghibli, it's a rugged film that's not as tightly connected as Miyazaki's later works. Still, it's valuable for its soaring vistas and emotional heart.