11 Underrated Studio Ghibli Movies To See Before ‘The Boy and the Heron’

When you think of Studio Ghibli, several things may come to mind: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Maybe you think of soot sprites, radish spirits, dragons, colorful backgrounds, detail that suggests a team of passionate animators.

Well, with The Boy and the Heron making its appearances on the big screen, we thought we’d celebrate Studio Ghibli in all of its whimsical, gorgeous glory. And we’re gonna do that by putting some other underrated flicks at the forefront. We can’t get enough The moral of the story? Never sleep on Studio Ghibli. Take a look at some of their lesser-known (but well-loved) films below.

‘Whisper of the Heart’ Is A Candid Romantic Drama

Photo: Whisper of the Heart / Studio Ghibli

Whisper of the Heart is about a quiet, bookish young girl who meets a charming man who inspires her to follow her dreams and break out of her introverted shell. It’s an incredibly uplifting movie that might prompt you to step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. If that’s not enough to pique your curiosity, the movie also features a cat in a top hat named the Baron who, in typical Ghibli fashion, serves as a guide for the protagonist.

Whisper of the Heart was the directorial debut of Ghibli animator Yoshifumi Kondo. Miyazaki called him “one of the best among the hundreds of animators I ever met,” and Kondo’s untimely death (he passed in 1998 of an aneurysm, possibly from working too much) prompted Miyazaki to create a long-term plan for his retirement, to avoid working himself to death. He never made a second film. 

‘The Secret World of Arrietty’ Is Enchanting And Whimsical

Photo: The Secret World of Arrietty / Studio Ghibli

Based on the book The Borrowers by Mary Norton, Arrietty or The Secret World of Arrietty, follows a young, tiny girl who lives under the floors and in the walls of a human family’s house. The film was heavily praised for its animation and ability to transport viewers into Arrietty’s world. It was also praised for its enchanting soundtrack, scored by French vocalist and harpist, Cecile Corbel. It’s a sweet, unique film definitely worth your time. 

‘The Cat Returns’ Is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ For Feline Fanatics

Photo: The Cat Returns / Studio Ghibli

If you’re a fan of cats and Ghibli, The Cat Returns is the movie for you. Haru’s life changes when she saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The incident prompts a latent power to surface, as Haru discovers she can talk to cats. Things get a little Alice in Wonderland as Haru is thrust into the Cat Kingdom and starts to turn into a cat. She even gets proposed to by the prince of the cats. Needless to say, required viewing for cat enthusiasts.

‘When Marnie Was There’ Is A Story On Loss And Love

Photo: When Marnie Was There / Studio Ghibli

When Marnie Was There follows a young girl named Anna, a foster kid suffering from depression, struggling to figure out who she is. Things start to look up when she meets the mysterious Marnie, and the two form a strong friendship. Like many Ghibli films, When Marnie Was There explores themes of loss, loneliness, and love, but it is one of the few Ghibli films to unflinchingly shows how feelings of inadequacy and being unwanted can affect a child. 

‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ Explores Themes Of Family History And Self-Discovery

Photo: From Up on Poppy Hill / Studio Ghibli

From Up on Poppy Hill doesn’t have fantastical elements, but that doesn’t make it any less magical. The movie follows a young girl as she tries to reconcile her past with her present. Unlike many well known Ghibli films, From Up on Poppy Hill is more character oriented than plot-driven, which may have initially turned some Ghibli fans off. However, fans who tuned in were treated to a meditative piece evoking a strong sense of nostalgia.

‘Porco Rosso’ Deals With Sky Pirates And Pigs In Planes

Photo: Porco Rosso / Studio Ghibli

Porco Rosso is about a bounty-hunting World War I veteran who gets turned into a pig. Take a second if you need to let that sink in. Freedom is a big theme in the film, which is no surprise, as the characters are trapped between two World Wars. Freedom comes in the form of an airplane and the sky; the characters are at their happiest when they’re in the air. Like in The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s passion for aviation is prominently showcased in this film.

‘Only Yesterday’ Is A Warm Nostalgia Trip

Photo: Only Yesterday / Studio Ghibli

Unlike most Ghibli films, Only Yesterday’s protagonist is an adult. Taeko, a 27-year-old woman, decides to leave Tokyo for a while to reconnect with her rural roots. The Japanese title of Only Yesterday translates to “memories trickle down,” which is exactly what happens as Taeko recalls her first crush and other experiences on her visit home. Only Yesterday tugs hard on your nostalgia heart strings.

Many Ghibli fans in the US missed this gem, as it didn’t get a stateside release until 2016, more than 20 years after its initial release.

‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ Features A More Unique Art Style

Photo: The Tale of Princess Kaguya / Studio Ghibli

Based on a well-known Japanese folk-taleThe Tale of Princess Kaguya tells the story of a little girl who’s taken in by a family that finds her in a glowing bamboo shoot. The animation style differs from other Ghibli films in that it’s light and sketch-like, which lends the movie an otherworldly feel.

Despite critical acclaim, The Tale of Princess Kaguya didn’t preform very well in the box-office, earning back only half of the production costs

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ Is A Devastating Tale On The Tragedies Of War

Photo: Grave of the Fireflies / Studio Ghibli

Grave of the Fireflies is an anti-war drama set in Japan at the end of World War II. It follows a 14-year-old boy and his younger sister as they endure the harsh realities of the war’s aftermath. In its initial release, it was billed alongside the fairly lighthearted My Neighbor Totoro, and could not be any more different in tone than its counterpart.

While Totoro enjoys continued success years after its release, Grave of the Fireflies did not. Compared to the fantastical and fairy tale-esque films in Ghibli’s catalog, Grave of the Fireflies’ s bleak setting and heartrending narrative made it difficult to watch for some viewers. This is a heartbreaking, beautiful movie that will leave you stunned and silent long after the credits have rolled.

‘The Wind Rises’ Is A Masterclass In Magical Realism

Photo: The Wind Rises / Studio Ghibli

The Wind Rises was the last film directed by Ghibli visionary Hayao Miyazaki before he retired in 2013. Based on a true story, it follows Jiro Horikoshi as he attempts to create a new fighter plane. Like Grave of the FirefliesThe Wind Rises adopts a grounded tone, with little-to-no fantastical elements or lovable creatures fans have come to expect of Ghibli. That said, The Wind Rises is an inspirational film about following your dreams.

As Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises can easily be read as the director’s rumination on art, and the way in which the things we create are taken away from us and assume a life of their own, for better or worse. 

‘Pom Poko’ Is A Zany Fantasy Complete With Japanese Raccoon Dogs

Photo: Pom Poko / Studio Ghibli

Pom Poko is about a community of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) with an ancient past and the power to transform into anything or anyone. In Japanese culture, tanuki are both real animals and mythical creatures, which plays into the film’s story and themes; as society becomes further and further removed from nature, the powers of the tanuki have less impact on humans. Mystery and myth fade and die. 

In the film, when the homes of the tanuki are threatened by sprawl, the creatures decide to take a stand. Like some other films on this list, Pom Poko doesn’t have the easy, fairy-tale ending common in some more popular Ghibli films. While the majority of the movie is a joyous romp, it ends on a somber note of warning.