Best Studio Ghibli movies to watch: A definitive ranking of Hayato Miyazaki works for those new to the genre

Best Studio Ghibli movies to watch: A definitive ranking of Hayato Miyazaki works for those new to the genre

A new wind

Text: Emily Heng

Growing up, there was a prevalent misconception in my household that all animated films were child-friendly. My parents deemed them "cartoons", exacerbated and encouraged by the existence of G-rated channels in the vein of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon — of which they paid a tidy sum for every month (remember the days of SCV?). Perhaps it was why they didn't scrutinize my Studio Ghibli box set too closely. At first glance, it paints a rosy picture of friendly mythical woodland creatures. My Neighbour Totoro is a pudgy bear hybrid that makes umbrellas out of leaves; Kiki's Delivery Service comprises bow-wearing witches riding broomsticks; while Howl's Moving Castle features impeccably-dressed scarecrows and a carpet-resembling canine.

Those familiar with the animation film studio — helmed largely by founder, Hayao Miyazaki — will be quick to refute these assumptions. Much like his works, there is an edge and grit to Miyazaki's vision. A widely-circulated story involves Miyazaki sending Harvey Weinstein a samurai sword in the post after he was charged with handling the US release of the film, Princess Mononoke. As the story goes Miyazaki attached a cheery (yet ominous) note to the gift: "No cuts."

That, in its essence, is what makes up a Miyazaki film; all outward effervescence, but with an underlying message that reflects human nature in all its twisted, strange glory. On that note, I've gathered the best Miyazaki flicks to try beyond the internationally-acclaimed Spirited Away should you be looking to bone up on knowledge with regard to this famed animator. Add these picks to your to-watch list, stat.

Princess Mononoke

A personal favourite of mine, it is also the most violent — and gory! — of the lot. Now that you've been sufficiently warned, I can get to the gist of the story. Princess Mononoke is essentially love letter to planet earth and the alarming rate in which humans selfishly sap its resources. It follows a young prince, Ashitaka, who is cursed by a boar god after attacks his village. He set outs west to find a cure, eventually stumbling upon a human girl raised by wolves. It goes from there, detailing the longstanding conflict between those who trust in old-world beliefs and others who put their faith in science and technological advancements.


Kiki's Delivery Service

I'd equate this film to a nice, perfectly-brewed cup of tea, where it warms your insides and provides comfort in every sense of the word. This feel-good piece centres around a young witch, Kiki, who leaves home to start a delivery business in a new town. It details her growing pains, struggles with independence, and the unique challenges that come with being a teenaged girl navigating a new environment without adult guidance. Also, a talking cat! What's not to love?


The Cat Returns

Then, there's the one with lots of talking cats. This lesser-known film by Miyazaki is a quirky, peculiar take on the typical fairytale format featuring a boatload of felines. The lead is Haru, a schoolgirl who finds her life turned on its head after she saves the life of a cat who (shockingly!) turns out to be the son of the Cat King. She is then whisked away to the Kingdom of Cats, where the prince aims to repay her kindness by asking for her hand in marriage. Yes, it's a film for the furries (jk).


Howl's Moving Castle

Based upon a Dianna Wynne Jones novel, Howl's Moving Castle has received high-praise for its sweeping visuals, immersive audio, and compassionate message about ageing positively. Set in a fictional kingdom where magic and early 20th-century technology exist, it tells the tale of Sophie; a milliner who is turned into an old woman after she accidentally offends a witch. The incident catches the attention of another magician, Howl, who then recruits her into his resistance efforts against a wicked king.


Grave of the Fireflies

Please, please get the tissues ready for this one. Ranked as one of the greatest war movies of all time, it chronicles the lives of two siblings in the final months of the Second World War. To expound further would be to venture into spoiler territory, so let me just end things off by saying I bawled for an hour straight after the movie concluded.