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Underrated Studio Ghibli Movies You Need to Know

By Linh
August 06, 2022

We all know about Japan’s most legendary animation studio – Studio Ghibli through its classical works, like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, or Princess Mononoke. But there are still tons of hidden gems within the long history of Studio Ghibli that deserve more recognition worldwide. If you’re ready to hear more about these underrated Studio Ghibli movies, then you’re in the right place!

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

A landscape painting of a meadow and clouds, depicting Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, one of many underrated Studio Ghibli movies.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a wistful tale that brings its audience among the clouds. Image via Shutterstock

This film is the epitome of director Hayao Miyazaki’s style: telling meaningful stories that are full of imagination.

The film is set 1,000 years after a brutal war called “The Seven Days of Fire”. During this terrible incident, humans used all kinds of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons to kill each other. By the war’s end, mankind has heavily poisoned the entire surface of the earth, creating a toxic jungle that is gradually spreading and putting humanity’s experience in jeopardy. 

The film’s story is centered around Nausicaä – the aforementioned princess– and her struggles to convince humanity that reconciliation with nature is the only way to ensure their own survival.

This movie is not only entertaining thanks to its engaging plot, lovable characters, and imaginative art direction; but also its brilliant messaging, for both children and adults. 

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Castle in the Sky (1986)

A painting of a no walking sign and a castle in a Sky, related to Castle in the Sky, another one of many underrated Studio Ghibli movies.
Castle in the Sky is a fantastical tale about a palace in the heavens. Image via Shutterstock

The story revolves around the search for Laputa – a floating castle in the sky – by Pazu and Sheeta. The whole film is an argument over ownership of the magic stone between different forces, but eventually, they all lose to the power of Pazu and Sheeta’s friendship  – a symbol of love for peace. 

Though Laputa: Castle In The Sky is Miyazaki’s third film, it was the first work that established Studio Ghibli’s dominance in animation. Like other Ghibli classics, Hayao Miyazaki creates a dreamy and colorful world, but integrates mature topics and humanist messages that have aged well over time.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

A line illustration of two protagonists from Grave of the Fireflies. The older protagonist is wearing WWII-era clothing and is carrying his younger brother on his back.
Grave of the Fireflies is a thoughtful yet sad tale about never giving up even when you lose everything. Image via Shutterstock

This Isao Takahata-directed film is set during the last years of World War II in Japan. The main character in the film is an orphan boy, Seita, and Setsuko – his younger sister – as he tells a sad story. Much like other underrated Studio Ghibli movies, this entry plucks at the heartstrings and leaves us deeply moved by the characters’ sibling bond.

However, different from other Ghibli movies, Grave of the Fireflies uses gray tones and sad melodies to depict the tragedy that people go through in wartime. The film has no dramatic details or climax, with its few plot points depicted methodically via Seita’s narration. Because of this, one may speculate that the thematic bleakness throughout this film makes Grave of the Fireflies one of the less popular works despite it being critically acclaimed.

Porco Rosso (1992)

A cute cartoon illustration of a pig wearing pilot goggles and flying in a red plane against a blue sky, which calls to mind Porco Russo, one of many underrated Studio Ghibli movies.
Porco Russo is a tale full of action and spirit. Image via Shutterstock

Porco Rosso tells the story of a marine pilot who specializes in bounty hunting in the Mediterranean during the post-World War I era. Though the pilot is human, he was mysteriously cursed with the face of a pig. The story is a process of reclaiming Porco’s true honor and soul. Among the disorder, noble qualities and manners – a respectable characteristic of Italian people – are still seen in Porco Rosso.

This is one of Studio Ghibli’s rare films that favor heroism, elevating people’s aspiration for freedom from legal constraints. Porco Rosso has the most “different from Miyazaki” elements, being based on a real-life setting rather than a fictional location and the plot being extremely simple without much romance or magical effects. However, it’s still appreciated on many levels for its deep meaning and symbolism, the most prominent being the anti-war attitude. 

Due to its lack of a typical “fairy-tale” ending, Porco Rosso may seem inappropriate for children at first. However, if you are a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation, Porco Rosso is often critically considered one of his best films and is worth watching.

Whisper Of The Heart (1995)

An ethereal painting of a young school girl carrying a musical instrument case while gazing at the stars in an orange and blue night sky.
Whisper of the Heart is an inspiring tale about creativity and friendship. Image via Shutterstock

In addition to mythical and adventurous films with fascinating colors and magical worlds, Studio Ghibli also features films that express the beauty of everyday life. Whisper Of The Heart, director Yoshifumi Kondo’s first and only Ghibli animated film, is a good example.

The main characters are Shizuku and Seiji who are in their last year of secondary school. Seiji dreams of becoming a violin maker while Shizuku wants to become a writer. The two meet each other through a mysterious cat. 

Although not on good terms at first, an innocent and beautiful affection develops between them throughout their journeys to realize their dreams. 

Whisper of the Heart once again proves that anyone of any age can join Ghibli’s audience. It’s such a great movie for those who may have unfulfilled dreams or those without the courage to express their feelings to the ones they love. The film delivers a meaningful message to young people who are on their way to pursue their dreams and love. 

Also, if you love the cat, you can also check out another underrated Ghibli movie, The Cat Returns.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

A simple, colorful illustration of the legendary Princess Kaguya resting in a bamboo shoot.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a charming adaptation of an ancient Japanese folktale. Image via Shutterstock

Written and directed by Isao Takahata, this film is adapted from an ancient Japanese folktale called Taketori Monogatari. In the mountains of ancient Japan, there was an old infertile bamboo cutter couple who found a tiny princess sitting in a glowing bamboo shoot in the forest.

The old couple adopt the diminutive princess and name her Kaguya. A while later the bamboo cutter took his family to the capital to live after being blessed with golden seeds from the bamboo shoot. Famous for her beauty and talent, Kaguya was proposed to by five noblemen. The Emperor of Japan also came to propose, but suddenly Kaguya discovered her true identity…

Director Isao Takahata, by using watercolors, charcoal art animation and calligraphic outlines graphics, has given the fairy tale a new vitality. Just like other Studio Ghibli’s animation films, this is also a story full of humanistic philosophy of life and successfully retells the ancient tale in an artistic interpretation.  

Although inspired from an old folktale usually told to kids, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is definitely not an ordinary anime for children as it is rather a beautiful but sad fairytale that might spark lots of contemplation!

How many of these underrated Studio Ghibli movies have you seen? Share with us what other Ghibli films you would make to this list?

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