July 8, 2024

Miyazaki Movie Rankings

over the last 4 months, we watched every movie directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli.

I’ve been meaning to explore his work for years now, but delayed after reading the synopsis of Spirited Away and deciding my kid was not quite old enough at the time. I’m glad I waited, but also a little sad we didn’t begin this saga last year so we could have seen his newest movie in theaters (The Boy and the Heron came out December 2023).

We discussed our ratings immediately after watching each movie, and I wrote my summaries at the same time. But I’ve continued to add notes and shift the order, as some of these do hit differently with time and reflection. The following is our final family ranking (favorite to least favorite) of every movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki (12 in total, and 2 are pre-Studio Ghibli).

I used the Japanese poster images because they look incredible, but we watched the English dubbed versions of each of these, which were all excellent (with the exception of a couple characters in Princess Mononoke). I’ve also included tags of common elements that show up in each movie for an at-a-glance idea of the major themes.

BONUS: Because I’m a designer/nerd, I created a Miyazaki Movie Bingo Card. For extra fun, download, print it, and play as you watch each movie.

Miyazaki Movie Bingo Card - download printable
Download Miyazaki Movie Bingo Card Printable

If you’re here because you’re trying to pick your first Miyazaki movie and aren’t sure which one, click here to skip to my top 3 to watch first. Otherwise, read on for star ratings and summaries.

Click any title below to skip to that specific movie.

Creepy, Suspense, Magic, Spirits, Cute Creatures, Flying, Humor, Coming of Age, Greed, Friendship

1. Spirited Away (2001)

Adult Rating: 5 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 5 stars

Synopsis: A whiny 10 year old girl, Chihiro, is worried about a move to a new town and school becomes trapped in a spirit world with her parents, and has to find her own courage and resourcefulness to save them, while surrounded by all sorts of creepy, threatening characters.

In addition to the “parents in danger” theme, there’s a lot of suspense, and some interactions can be a little disturbing. I’d be cautious watching this with kids under 10.

Spirited Away is one of the few times where the phrase “coming of age movie” is accurate in the best (albeit unnerving spirit world) possible way.

In my opinion, this is easily one of the most incredible animated films of all time, (it won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature). It’s the quintessential Miyazaki, with all the elements to love about his art.

Miyazaki described the storyboarding process as if “a lid on my brain – one that I normally never open – has been opened, and that an electrical current connects me to some other faraway place.”

It feels like this is exactly what happened, as this movie is unlike anything I have ever watched. We rented it on a Saturday night. Sunday night, we watched it again. It’s even better with a second viewing, especially when looking for the symbolism of certain elements and characters.

While Totoro is incredibly famous, I consider Spirited Away Miyazaki’s masterpiece, and it’s in my top 10 of all movies now. I can’t wait to watch it a third time.

If you only watch one Miyazaki, make it this one. Chihiro’s journey from frightened and alone, to confident, intuitive, and brave, is such a joy to experience.

“Our world appears ever more fuzzy and confusing. Yet in spite of that it threatens to corrode and devour us. The job of this film, therefore, is to depict this world with clarity within a fantasy framework.”

– Hayao Miyazaki on Spirited Away

Creepy, Suspense, Magic, Spirits, Cute Creatures, Flying, Humor, Coming of Age, War, Grief, Destiny

2. The Boy and The Heron (2023)

Adult Rating: 4.8 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.9 stars

Synopsis: We follow an 11 year old boy, Makito, who lost his mother, and has just moved to live with his father’s new wife (his mother’s sister). All sorts of strange portal/world-shifting events begin happening, and he has to make a choice.

In Japanese, this movie is called “How Do You Live?” and it seems to be Miyazaki’s most personal film. It was a convoluted, suspenseful journey… like Spirited Away, it felt incredibly unique and original, with mysterious, neither good nor bad antagonists, and a plot that requires a second watch to truly comprehend.

This is the first Miyazaki movie where the protoganist is a young boy, which is meaningful as this film is somewhat autobiographical. The BBC defined the film as “a coming-of-age tale in which a child must overcome his selfishness and learn to live for others” and while I think that’s a good summary, it also feels like this movie is about letting go of grief, and choosing to move forward anyway. I’m going to have to watch this again to make sense of it, but it was certainly what I was hoping for in a deep, enigmatic Miyazaki way.

Finishing this movie feels a bit like Princess Mononoke, but without the frustration and anger. Mysterious and somehow hopeful at the same time.

Magic, Spirits, Cute Creatures, Flying, Humor, Illness, Family

3. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Adult Rating: 4.5 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.6 stars

Synopsis: two young girls have moved to the country with their father while their mother is in the hospital, and are able to see and interact with forest spirits. Adventures ensue.

This imaginative story is told from the perspective of young children; a delightful low-stakes romp that captures the imagination. The forest spirit creatures can only be seen by children… if they want to be seen. No fear, playful joy and a bit of suspense.

I personally think this is the best Miyazaki movie to start with because it’s so iconic and there’s less to unpack than something like Spirited Away (which is much higher on the creepy/suspense scale). If your kids are younger this is definitely the best movie to start with. Elle and Dakota Fanning were excellent choices for the voice actors on this one.

“My Neighbor Totoro aims to be a happy and heart-warming film, a film that lets the audience go home with pleasant, good feelings.”

– Hayao Miyazaki

Note: there was originally only one girl in the movie. The character became two sisters during production, but they kept the original poster, which is also the menu screen.

Creepy, Spirits, Harmony with Nature, Violence, War, Complexity, Exploitation, Hatred, Destiny

4. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Adult Rating: 4.3 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.5 stars

Synopsis: a 17 year old boy, Ashitaka, defends his remote tribe from a demon creature, is mortally injured, and goes on a quest to find the source of the conflict and potential healing. He finds a war between exploitative Irontown and the mountain gods, led by a girl named San.

This one is hard to rate on first watch. On the one hand, it’s talked about with such reverence I had high expectations. On the other, it was a really odd, violent story that makes you angry, but I think that’s actually the point. The characters are incredibly complex, as is the ending.

The theme is about the clash of humans living with nature. Mononoke is a broad term meaning evil spirits, so Princess Mononoke seems to be the derogatory title used by the nearby town to refer to San, a girl raised by wolves, who fights for the animal gods. While the movie is named for her, the story is actually about Ashitaka, a boy from a lost people group who chooses to “see with eyes unclouded by hate” and attempts to reconcile both humans and nature.

A few nit-picky things: the English version has two horrible choices for voice actors. The setting for this movie is 14th-16th century Japan, and characters from that world in no way sound like Billy Bob Thornton or Jada Pinkett Smith. I mean seriously… who made that decision?

Also, there’s an angle where Lady Eboshi has empowered women by hiring women away from brothels. My issue is that these women are obnoxious, immature, and constantly mocking the men, as if empowerment requires one to be crass. I suspect that was an attempt to add levity to a film that lacks the cute, comedic characters you expect from Miyazaki. Or perhaps it’s supposed to be a trauma response, but it felt shallow. At least Lady Eboshi is a non-annoying, if misguided, strong female character. She’s very reminiscent of the Tolmetian princess in Nausicaa.

As a matter of fact, this movie feels like Nausicaa 2.0 — an attempt to communicate a similar message with much more nuance and complexity, while also making the personal and communal impact of hatred and animosity much more explicit. Like the demon creature that opens the movie, this is a nonstop rush of emotion and questions.

TL;DR: There’s so much to unpack here. I would temper expectations and recommend you don’t start with this one if you’re new to Miyazaki. I don’t doubt that it requires multiple watches to truly get it, and while it didn’t initially feel like something I’d want to watch again, I felt differently after a few days. It’s just so strange, somewhat horrific and open-ended, so the lack of a clear conclusion will leave you with the strangest “what did I just watch” feeling. From what I’ve seen online, this is an incredibly normal response.

Imagine an environmentally-conscious Donnie Darko as a self-aware anime, and you get the idea.

“Princess Mononoke does not purport to solve the problems of the entire world. The battle between rampaging forest gods and humanity cannot end well; there can be no happy ending. Yet, even amid the hatred and slaughter, there are things worthy of life. It is possible for wonderful encounters to occur and for beautiful things to exist.”

– Hayao Miyazaki

Suspense, Harmony With Nature, Violence, War, Destiny

5. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Adult Rating: 4.5 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.7 stars

Synopsis: in a post-apocalyptic world there are several scattered people groups who all live in fear of the poisonous forests and the giant ohm bugs who destroy everything when driven to anger. Only Nausicaa, a 16 year old, delightfully self-sufficient glider-flying princess, seems to understand the importance of coexisting with the natural world. An enemy crash landing, battle, exploration, and messianic story follow.

I really enjoyed this incredible character and story, made all the more surprising when you realize Nausicaa is a brave and competent female character created in the 80’s. This movie is a commentary on living in harmony with the earth, with explicit environmental themes that would make this great for group discussion with kids about the parallels happening in our world now.

Nausicaa actually began as a manga in Animage, and was produced just prior to Studio Ghibli forming, so it’s not officially a SG movie, but it absolutely feels like one in every way.

Note: Nausicaa is, in fact, wearing pants. She flies a glider around with a skirt and I’m like are they showing a preteen’s bare butt in this 80’s anime… nope. Evidently she just wears skintight leggings that are the exact same color as her skin. Ok then.

Action/Adventure, Harmony With Nature, War, Destiny

6. Castle in the Sky (1986)

Adult Rating: 4.5 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.7 stars

Synopsis: pirates attempt to steal a mysterious pendant from a 13 year old orphan girl, Sheeta, who’s helped by a 12 year old orphan boy, Pazu, and together they try to find a legendary floating world, and unravel the mystery of her family while escaping both pirates and the army.

All airships, all the time. We joke about how every Miyazaki features at least one airship, and this movie is loaded with them.

The “magic” is mostly of the scientific advancement variety, along with strong environmental themes and a child’s perspective on human striving for power and appreciation for nature and stewardship. It’s a nonstop action adventure with some hilarious characters.

This would be a great Miyazaki movie to start with that’s much more of a classic fun kids film. Imagine an 80’s anime version of Romancing the Stone for children.

Studio Ghibli was formed in order to create Castle In the Sky (after the success of Nausicaa), and Miyazaki actually visited Wales as research for the movie. This trip coincided with a conflict between coal miners and the government, so the boy ended up being part of a coal mining community.

“I really admired the way the miners’ unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities, and I wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in my film. I saw so many places with abandoned machinery, abandoned mines – the fabric of the industry was there, but no people. It made a strong impression on me. A whole industry with no people.”

– Hayao Miyazaki on Castle in the Sky

Action/Adventure, Humor, Mysteries

7. Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Adult Rating: 4.5 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.8 stars

Synopsis: two fearless professional thieves run across and help a runaway bride, then infiltrate the weird castle of a mysterious count to rescue her and uncover the mystery of counterfeit money and matching ancient rings, all while evading the count and an inspector.

My kid agrees with this ranked list with the exception of this movie, which he thinks should be on the list. He absolutely loved it. It was hilarious in a zany, physics-defying cops and robbers kind of way.

Important Note: we watched the Manga Entertainment English language version, which is excellent, but also PG-13 due to a decent amount of language. At one point the main character calls himself a playboy and tries to kiss a waitress… the end is meant to be redemptive, so I think that was to establish contrast, but I’m really not a fan of casual sexual harassment in movies for children. However, this is less a kid’s movie than anything else on this list (except the Wind Rises). Consider yourself warned.

This is the first film ever directed by Miyazaki, for Tokyo Movie Shinsha (so pre-Studio Ghibli). It’s based on a manga series, Lupin III, and evidently Miyazaki changed the character quite a bit from the original manga, which is evidently just a thing that he does (see Howl’s Moving Castle…)

If you like Porco Rosso or Castle in the Sky you’ll love this one. I don’t feel like it should be as high on the list because it doesn’t have the depth and thought-provoking elements typical of Miyazaki’s more original work. However, it’s become a cult classic and was evidently highly influential for John Lasseter and Steven Spielberg.

Action/Adventure, Humor, War, Flying, Guilt

8. Porco Rosso (1992)

Adult Rating: 4.5 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.5 stars

Synopsis: a playboy veteran pilot who has the head of a pig for some reason has to fix his beloved plane and duel an obnoxious American pilot while outrunning sea pirates and getting over his fear of being a decent person.

We enjoyed this so much more than I expected. It was legitimately hilarious, with some sick burns and great dialogue. Unlike most Miyazaki movies, there was no magic or crazy/cute creatures. (There was, however, lots of flying and flying machines).

The “curse” of the main character having the head of a pig felt arbitrary. It was clearly an outward manifestation of survivor’s guilt and internalized shame/low self-worth that Porco Rosso is forced to work through during the events of the movie. It’s never explained and isn’t a primary focus, so if the movie’s box summary feels like a weird turnoff, just ignore it and watch this anyway.

A lot of the humor went over the kid’s head (dragging the hot shot American pilot voiced by Cary Elwes… amazing) but there was plenty of sea pirate shenanigans that kept him thoroughly entertained. One character in particular felt like a cross between Yosemite Sam and the antagonist in Popeye, and of course there’s the plucky young lady breaking barriers, as one would expect. The old Italian women working in the plane repair shop are my favorite.

This was originally supposed to be a 45 minute long inflight movie for Japan Air. Here’s Miyazaki on his directorial memoranda:

“Porco Rosso is designed to be a work that businessmen exhausted from international flights can enjoy even if their minds have been dulled from lack of oxygen. It must also be a work that boys and girls, as well as aunties, can enjoy, but we must never forget that first of all it is a cartoon movie for tired, middle-aged men whose brain cells have turned to tofu.”

– Hayao Miyazaki

That summary is amazing, and I think he was successful. I’m looking forward to watching this one again at some point.

Note: the Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli was a real plane, so the engine stamped withGhibli’ was not gratuitous.

Dreams, Flying, War, Love, Life

9. The WInd Rises (2013)

Adult Rating: 4 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.8 stars

Synopsis: a boy with bad eyesight who loves flying goes to college to become a savant plane designer, saves a girl during an earthquake on a train, discusses war, works too much and falls in love. It’s one of those “based on a true story” documentaries about Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed planes for Japan pre-WW2, but he’s been blended with another real person.

From Ghibliotheque: The Unofficial Guide to the Movies of Studio Ghibli:

“The title is taken from a novel by the author Tatsuo Hori, based on his experience of losing his wife to tuberculosis, Miyazaki melds much of Hor’s life story with that of Horikoshi, creating a mix of fact and fiction that aims to depict the doomed generation that came of age in the 1930s, and their struggle through “an era of recession, unemployment, hedonism and nihilism, war, disease, poverty, modernism and backlash, a march toward the ruin of a stumbling and falling empire”.”

Toshio Suzuki (the cofounder of Studio Ghibli), on Miyazaki:

“He had a detailed knowledge of war-related matters, and loved drawing fighter planes and tanks. On the other hand, he was a great advocate of world peace, and he even participated in anti-war demonstrations. I wanted him to direct a movie that resolved that seeming contradiction.”

As you might expect from these descriptions, this movie was very different. It’s classic Miyazaki with an airship less than five minutes in, and lots of flying, dreaming, and finding inspiration in the everyday. Where it differed was… everything else. While it was magical, there was no magic, cute creatures or creepiness.

“I want to portray a devoted individual who pursued his dream head-on. Dreams possess an element of madness, and such poison must not be concealed. Yearning for something too beautiful can ruin you. Swaying toward beauty may come at a price.” – Hayao Miyazaki

Many of Miyazaki’s “villains” aren’t villains at all, but complex people who want specific things. In this movie, the “villain” seems to be the corruption of beauty. The movie, at its core, is about Jiro’s pursuit of a dream; to design beautiful airplanes, while being required to equip them with bombs. In the movie, Jiro never truly wrestles with this, and it doesn’t seem he is meant to. Instead, we get an ode to craft and a fictional, sad, and somewhat hollow love story.

There was one remarkable line that hit me in the feels. During a dream, Jiro’s idol, an Italian engineer named Caproni, says:

“They say an artist has only ten years of creativity. The same goes for engineers. Live your ten years well, Jiro.”

In a way, this summarizes the movie.

What surprised me is that my 9 year old enjoyed this movie more than we did, and said he wanted to watch it again. I think that may be due to the inspiring quality of seeing someone pursue something with such dedication while also just… living. In the end, that’s probably what Miyazaki intended.

War, Love, Agency, Sacrifice

10. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Adult Rating: 3 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 3 stars

Synopsis: an 18 year old, Sophie, is cursed to look like a 90 year old woman, so she says screw it and hops on a castle with legs as it moves through the countryside, encounters the custodian boy, the fire demon, and the mysterious wizard Howl who has been commanded by the weird government to fight with other wizards against airships during a war, while dealing with an evil witch and creepy specters, and of course they fall in love.

I found this one incredibly disappointing, because I read the book prior to watching the movie. The book is excellent. The movie is completely different after the first 45 minutes.

“Miyazaki and I were both children in World War Il and we seem to have gone opposite ways in our reactions to it. I tend to leave the actual war out, whereas Miyazaki has his cake and eats it, representing both the nastiness of a war and the exciting scenic effects of a big bombing raid.”

– Diana Wynne Jones (author of Howl’s Moving Castle), on Miyazaki’s adaptation

So yeah, war is somehow the primary theme (there is no war whatsoever in the book). Most horribly, he turned the solidly evil antagonist into a sappy sidekick. That was so incredibly weird and unsettling. And there’s this weird thing about Howl transforming into a bird (?), and other disjointed pieces that don’t make sense, probably because they left out some of the most interesting parts of the book. If you watch this, absolutely do not read the book beforehand. It will ruin it for you.

I don’t think I would have been much of a fan because the storyline is just weird, but we’ll never know. I do know this seems to be one of his more well-known and popular movies in America (and one of the highest grossing in Japan), so maybe I’m an outlier.

Billy Crystal as Calcifer absolutely makes the movie though, and it clearly has the coolest poster.

Friendship, Coming of Age, Perseverance

11. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Adult Rating: 3.5 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.1 stars

Synopsis: a young witch, Kiki, has just turned 13, so she and her talking cat must leave home to find the new town where she will live and learn a trade, only to discover it’s a larger modern town that doesn’t really get the whole witch thing and this is hard and she’s sad and there’s this boy that wants to be friends who annoys her, and then she gets depressed but she learns about friendship and perseverance.

This is an adaptation of a children’s novel by Eiko Kadono. My kid preferred this over Howl’s Moving Castle, but I found myself irritated by the main character. Ignorant tropes around relationships/communication drive me nuts, and the mishaps all felt really manufactured.

Of all the Miyazaki movies, this one feels the most like a typical kid’s movie plot or a Disney movie, neither of which are a compliment. It’s probably the only Miyazaki movie I wouldn’t watch again, other than Ponyo.

“It is no longer appropriate to refer to leaving one’s parents as a rite of passage, because all it takes today to live on one’s own in society is the ability to shop at the local convenience store. The true ‘independence’ girls must now confront involves the for more difficult task of discovering their own talents.”

– Hayao Miyazaki on Kiki’s Delivery Service

Friendship, Balance, Love, Destiny

12. Ponyo (2008)

Adult Rating: 3 stars
Kid (9yo) Rating: 4.3 stars

Synopsis: a 5 year old magic fish girl decides she wants to be a human because she falls in love with a 5 year old boy who must prove his love for her by carrying her around in a bucket. Her wizard father tries to stop her from becoming human, but she escapes and upsets the balance of the entire world, so her giant magic mermaid mom steps in, an agreement is reached, and balance is restored.

My least favorite Miyazaki. A really weird plot, storyline, ending… the whole thing was odd. It’s a retelling of a version of the Little Mermaid, but with children. And Ponyo is obnoxious.

What I did find interesting was the fact that Satsuke seems to be modeled after Miyazaki’s son Goro, who supposedly never knew his own father due to workaholism. This family dynamic is mirrored in the movie, which is a little depressing to think about. His mom is a great character though, and the most fearless driver I’ve ever witnessed on screen.

It’s a beautifully animated adventure, and would definitely be enjoyed by any and all kids. I just can’t get past the plot. My kid actually said it didn’t feel like a Miyazaki movie, and I think he may be getting at that Disney feel… whatever that actually is.

now go watch some movies!

We borrowed most of these from our amazing local library, although the Boy and the Heron is new enough you’ll have to rent/buy it. Otherwise these are all available on Apple TV.

If you just want to know which movies to watch first, here’s my personal recommendation for the top 3 Miyazaki movies to start with:

  1. My Neighbor Totoro (delightful)
  2. Castle in the Sky (action/adventure)
  3. Spirited Away (creepy and magical)

I’d love to hear thoughts on the ranking – I had looked up a few of these before we started watching because I wasn’t sure where to start, and it’s interesting to see how lists differ. I think you’ll find Spirited Away is the most revered across the board, and Princess Mononoke the most misunderstood. But you really can’t go wrong with any of them.

Next Up: we plan to eventually watch a 1978 children’s show directed by Miyazaki, called Future Boy Conan that’s now available on Blu-ray.

Download Miyazaki Movie Bingo Card Printable

Note: all Miyazaki quotes were taken from Ghibliotheque: The Unofficial Guide to the Movies of Studio Ghibli, which is a fun book that gives some history and a review of every Studio Ghibli movie (not all are directed by Miyazaki). We’re working our way through the rest of the Studio Ghibli movies as well, which I’ll document in a future post.

For more on the kami spirits referenced on my bingo card, see The Gods and Spirits (and Totoros) of Miyazaki’s Fantasy Worlds. I also really enjoyed this essay on The Aesthetic Harmony of Japanese Nature.

Leave a Comment

subscribe for art + essay updates

You’ll get an email every Friday if new art or essays have been uploaded.