Studio Ghibli is one of the most renowned animation studios in the world. It has pushed the boundaries of animation since its inception in 1985 and has given us masterpieces like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and many more. The studio’s catalog consists of 23 feature-length animated films, 22 of which are now available on streaming services for the first time ever. Netflix has the films for all regions outside of the US, Canada, and Japan. HBO Max has the rights to them in the US.
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Pretty much all Ghibli movies are wonderful and moving in their own way, and you should watch all of them if you have the time. However, if you are unfamiliar with what the Japanese studio has to offer, we have picked ten movies that are a must-watch for first-time viewers. Without further ado, here are the best Ghibli movies on Netflix and HBO Max.
The best Studio Ghibli movies on Netflix and HBO Max:
Editor’s note: Not all movies on the list are suitable for young viewers. Please, check their rating in your respective country for more information.
1. Spirited Away
A wrong turn on a country road leads Chihiro and her family into what seems like a derelict theme park. Among the eerie empty buildings, her parents stumble onto an abandoned food stall. They gorge themselves on the freshly cooked meals despite their daughter’s protests, which suddenly transforms them into pigs. It soon becomes apparent that the family has wandered into the realm of the kami. As spirits and gods emerge at dusk, determined to find help for her parents, Chihiro follows them into the unknown.
Spirited Away is surreal, enchanting, and vivid. It is a masterpiece of both animation and storytelling. Every frame is full of meticulous detail, spiriting you away into this otherworldly realm. But the film is not just an exercise in style and technical mastery. It is a touching coming of age tale full of strange but charming characters. It is without a doubt one of the best, if not the best, works of legendary director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
2. Princess Mononoke
It is easy to paint the world in broad black and white brush strokes, but it is much harder to portray two different groups’ struggles for survival with empathy and understanding. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Hayao Miyazaki achieved with Princess Mononoke. The balance between the human world and nature has been disrupted. A mining town is rapidly industrializing and cutting down forests, which angers the gods and spirits that reside within. Protagonist Ashitaka finds himself in the middle of this conflict, as he tries to see with “eyes unclouded by hate.”
Princess Mononoke is leagues above the typical animated movie with an environmentalist message. It is not preachy. Rather, it is a morally complex tale with ambivalent characters. Just like many other Ghibli films, it blends Japanese mythology and Miyazaki’s own imagination to create a magical world that nevertheless speaks to our present reality. This is easily one of the best Studio Ghibli movies on Netflix.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle
Sophie lives the quiet life of a hat maker until one day she crosses paths with both a wizard and a witch. But while Howl is kind and protective, the Witch of the Waste curses her. Sophie is transformed into a 90-year-old woman, and the spell prevents her from telling anyone about the fate that has befallen her. Yet, Sophie doesn’t give in to desperation. She heads out of town, slowly but surely making her way up the surrounding hills in search of Howl’s mysterious castle.
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Ghibli’s most fairy tale-esque movies. Loosely based on a Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name, the movie evokes a child-like sense of wonder. Its sprawling landscapes, grand magical architecture, and steampunk castle are each masterpieces in their own right. Admittedly, the plot can be a bit hard to follow at times, but the cast of colorful characters more than makes up for it. It is a magical experience full of imagination and adventure.
4. Kiki’s Delivery Service
Not every story has to be an epic adventure to be captivating. Kiki is a 13-year-old witch who leaves home to live on her own for a year. Accompanied only by her cat, she chooses the beautiful seaside city of Koriko as her new home. We follow her as she settles in, gets to know the residents, and sets up her own delivery business. But even though Kiki is excited and quickly makes some friends, being isolated and away from home is not always easy.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a charming slice-of-life movie. It tells a relatable and moving coming of age story that is made even better by its simplicity. It explores the struggles and self-doubt we all experience when making our first steps into the real world and how we can overcome them. It’s definitely one of Ghibli’s most wholesome movies — despite some of its sad and quiet moments, by the end it exudes optimism that is sure to be contagious.
5. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Before Princess Mononoke and even before Studio Ghibli was officially created, there was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It is one of Miyazaki’s first animated films, adapted from his own manga of the same name. It has many of the same anti-war and environmentalist themes present in Princess Mononoke. However, it is distinctly different thanks to its dystopian sci-fi setting that is reminiscent of the Dune novels.
The titular heroine Princess Nausicaa lives in the Valley of the Wind but often wanders to the nearby Toxic Jungle. The forest and everything in it seems to be poisonous to humans, while its depths are swarming with gigantic insect-like creatures. It soon becomes apparent that the Toxic Jungle exists because of a devastating past war that has poisoned the landscape. Nausicaa is not afraid, however. She tries to find the best in both people and beasts. The plot can be a bit convoluted at times because the multiple chapters of the manga had to be squeezed into a feature-length film, but Nausicaa is a stunning and emotional movie regardless.
6. My Neighbor Totoro
There are few animated characters as iconic as Totoro — an enormous but cuddly woodland spirit. He is discovered and befriended by sisters Satsuki and Mei. Their family has recently moved to an old countryside cottage, so their mother can receive treatment for an unknown illness at a nearby hospital. The house and surrounding area prove to be magical from the moment the girls step in. The cottage seems to be inhabited by tiny soot spirits. Curious, Mei follows them into the forest one day only to find the strange but amiable Totoro. They form an unlikely friendship that can only lead to enchanting adventures.
My Neighbour Totoro is yet another Studio Ghibli classic. It doesn’t follow the typical three-act structure but rather lets its story unfold naturally. This might not be to everyone’s liking, but it is one of the movie’s greatest strengths. My Neighbour Totoro lets us see through the eyes of a child — with a sense of innocence, curiosity, and wonder.
7. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
If there is one film that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the Ghibli catalog, it’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, the film has a very distinct experimental art style. It is quite minimalist, resembling a sketch painted with watercolors — a choice Takahata purposefully made as to not distract from the emotional story.
Kaguya is a mystical miniature girl. She is discovered in a shining bamboo stalk by a childless bamboo cutter. He instantly believes she is of divine origin and brings her home, where he and his wife take her in and raise her as their own. Kaguya grows rapidly and is soon almost indistinguishable from the other children in her village. However, her adoptive parents believe she is destined to be a princess. As she grows, Kaguya is forced to reluctantly abandon her previous carefree life and try to fulfill her role.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is stunning both visually and narratively. Its animation flows like a painting in motion, while its devastatingly emotional story reminds us of the transitory nature of human life. It is an awe-inspiring work of art, which everyone should see at least once.
8. Castle in the Sky
Steampunk flying machines, air pirates, and wild sky chases — Castle in the Sky is one of Studio Ghibli’s most straightforward adventure films. It all begins when Sheeta literally floats down from the sky, saved by the magical powers imbued in her amulet. She is discovered by a young boy named Pazu who graciously takes her in while she recovers. Pazu then shares the legend of an ancient floating city with his visitor. But before they can embark on a journey in search of it, they are attacked by air pirates who are after Sheeta’s mystical pendant.
Castle in the Sky is a lively and enthralling adventure. It might not be as allegorical or mysterious as other Miyazaki works, but it still features Studio Ghibli’s signature gorgeous visuals, a wildly imaginative story, and fun characters. It’s all you would want from an adventure movie about discovering a lost civilization, and it will keep your attention with every frame.
9. When Marnie was There
Anna is a lonely 12-year-old girl who finds it hard to connect to others, including her foster parents. After a worrying asthma attack, she is sent to live with relatives in the countryside on the recommendation of her doctor. Even in this small community, however, her introverted and withdrawn nature makes it hard to form friendships and trust new people. Until she meets Marnie — a lively girl who lives in a mansion across the town’s lake.
When Marnie was There is written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who also brought us another recent Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arrietty. It is a sentimental tale of self-discovery and friendship, imbued with elements of mystery and fantasy. Although it is not a Miyazaki film, it bears all the telltale signs of an immersive and captivating Studio Ghibli adventure. It will keep you emotionally invested from beginning to end.
10. Whisper of the Heart
Whisper of the Heart is a lot more grounded in reality than most Studio Ghibli films, but that is its strength, not its weakness. It follows 14-year-old student Shizuku — an aspiring writer and book lover who visits the library quite often. One night, she discovers that all of the books she borrows have been previously checked out by a boy named Seiji. He turns out to be a classmate of hers, and although she finds him annoying at first, they soon discover they have more in common than expected.
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Whisper of the Heart is an unpretentious coming of age Ghibli classic. It depicts teenage life and its trials honestly and without condescension. It gives us a glimpse into the everyday life of Japanese students, but its themes cross cultural barriers. The film delicately explores teenage romance but focuses on dreams and aspirations and the real work required to achieve them. It is a must-watch for both Ghibli fans and first-time viewers.