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The 5 Best Ghibli Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen

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Are you bored with rewatching Spirited Away or Castle in the Sky for the 10th time despite their magical charm? Or perhaps you’re finally ready to tackle some of the more adult works in Studio Ghibli’s film repertoire, but you’re not sure where to start? Then we have the list for you! 

These films aren’t flops, like the infamous Tales from Earthsea. Instead, they’re just overshadowed by the more famous films from this animated studio. They might not have gotten the big-budget theater releases of their more famous peers, but now that almost every Studio Ghibli movie is available via streaming on sites like Netflix and HBO Max, there’s no excuse to miss out. 

These five movies are all cinematic masterpieces in their own right and definitely deserve a watch as integral parts of the history of Studio Ghibli!

Grave of the Fireflies

Several cans of hard candy on a shelf featuring the sister from the movie Grave of the Fireflies

Image via Shutterstock

While this film is not as popular as other more lighthearted Ghibli classics like My Neighbor Totoro, it is absolutely one of the studio’s best and most important movies to date. Grave of the Fireflies graphically and realistically portrays the struggles of a boy and his younger sister after they lose their mother in a firebombing and their father to war during World War II.

Their tragic story is an accurate depiction of the horrors of war, based on a true story. The film is a powerful reminder of both the true and terrible consequences of both war and nationalism for normal citizens. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is a film that everyone, not just Ghibli fans, should see at least once in their lives. It’s definitely one of the top 10 Ghibli films ever.

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Pom Poko

5 small statues of Japanese mythical tanuki in a bamboo forest

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Pom Poko has an incredibly bittersweet ending for a movie with a premise that should be comedic. The film is about a pack of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) with supernatural abilities allowing them to shapeshift and transform using their very large… scrotums. The tanuki try to use their powers to stop humans from destroying their forest home by playing pranks, sabotaging equipment, and finally, conjuring up a frightening parade of monsters to make people believe the town is haunted.

The director Isao Takahata could have stopped at this humorous, Tom and Jerry-style game of cat and mouse. Instead, his film dives much deeper with a poignant message. Nature cannot prevent human progress. You would never think that the sight of tanuki using their own scrotums as parachutes would make you cry, but somehow Pom Poko manages to do just that. 

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Princess Kaguya from the Japanese fairy tale looks at the moon while holding a fan.

Image via Shutterstock

This film is very different from Studio Ghibli’s usual fare, and yet is still undeniably from the same studio, with its strong female protagonist and attention to detail. The style of animation makes this film, based on a Japanese fairy tale, look like a traditional sumi-e painting (traditional Japanese ink painting) come alive.  

Each stroke imbues Kaguya with youth and liveliness, as we watch her journey, starting with her being found as a baby girl inside a bamboo stalk by a bamboo cutter. She then grows into a young woman so graceful and beautiful she attracts suitors from all across the land until she realizes her destiny. This classic Japanese fairy tale could not have been brought to screen better.

Only Yesterday

This Ghibli film was only brought to international attention after the English dub was released in the US in 2016, 25 years after the film’s Japanese release. The English voices included stars like Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley and Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel. Why was it overlooked for so long? Being a realistic drama targeted towards adults, particularly women, in their 20s, Only Yesterday joins an often overlooked genre within animation. 

The film’s international critical success (with a 100% Rotten Tomato score) speaks to its quality. And, with the uncertainty of life during these past couple of years, many millennials are feeling the exact same fears as the film’s protagonist, Only Yesterday is more relevant than ever. 

The Cat Returns

A girl in a high school uniform pets a cat in between a white and red car

Image via Shutterstock

The previous films on this list have gotten less press due to being more adult-oriented, creating a smaller audience. Unfortunately, feature-length animated films for adults are still not the norm internationally. However, The Cat Returns is an often overlooked children’s film. In fact, it is one of Studio Ghibli’s best films for very young children, as it has a shorter runtime (only 75 minutes), a simpler story, and a more cartoonish animation style than even other Ghibli children’s classics like Howl’s Moving Castle. 

The Cat Returns is technically a spin-off of Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of The Heart, with the character of The Baron returning to the screen. However, that’s about all the two films have in common. This film follows the adventures of Haru, a young girl who saves a cat from getting run over, only to find out that she has saved the Prince of Cats. This causes her to be transported to a secret kingdom of talking cats, from which she must escape. 

The film is a fun, Alice-in-Wonderland-style adventure with plenty of fantastical, dream-like sequences to enjoy. Plus, the American dub features an all-star cast with the likes of Anne Hathaway, Tim Curry, and Elliott Gould.

Have you already seen these films? Are you planning to? Let us know in the comments!

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