12 Saddest Studio Ghibli Movies, Ranked

A touching depiction of emotion has always been a strong aspect of the most celebrated (and overlooked) Studio Ghibli movies. While there is no way to deny how detail-oriented, incredibly artistic, and visually pleasing the magical movies of Hayao Miyazaki are, the unique manner they depict universal emotions and portray relatable characters remain their most memorable assets.

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Often sending out thoughtful messages on environmentalism and pacifism and handling themes of friendship, love, family, and culture, these beloved Ghibli films have captured the attention and conquered the hearts of many moviegoers, particularly those with a soft spot for the animation genre. Although there are tons of lighthearted and fun Studio Ghibli features, others surely play on heartstrings. From Ocean Waves to Grave of the Fireflies, these are some of the saddest Studio Ghibli movies perfect to check out on a rainy winter day.

12 ‘Ocean Waves’ (1993)

Director: Tomomi Mochizuki

Image via GKIDS

Ocean Waves is one of the earliest and most overlooked Studio Ghibli movies. Based on the novel of the same name, this 1993 TV coming-of-age drama depicts a charming tale of love and friendship during high school years in the small town of Kochi, illustrating a love triangle that happens between two good friends and a newly transferred girl.

Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, the hidden gem animated film features an intriguing narrative and perfectly reflects teenage relationships, providing audiences with a nuanced perspective on love. Despite its youthful premise, Ocean Waves endures one of Studio Ghibli’s most mature and authentic features. Furthermore, it is the type of bittersweet watch that will most likely have audiences feeling nostalgic about something they have never experienced.

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11 ‘Only Yesterday’ (1991)

Director: Isao Takahata

Image via Toho

In Isao Takahata’s incredibly moving but underappreciated film Only Yesterday, viewers are offered a glimpse inside the life of twenty-seven-year-old office worker Taeko Okajima as she travels to the countryside for a 10-day getaway and reminisces about her childhood in Tokyo.

Presenting viewers with a heartwarming, wholesome narrative that calls attention to the importance of connecting with our inner child (as well as on the subtle way people change over time, especially when transitioning from childhood to adulthood), Only Yesterday is perhaps one of the most sensible and realistic movies of all Ghibli features, which is what makes it so incredibly touching and memorable. It is one of the movies that feature a flawless 100% Tomatometer score.

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10 ‘Porco Rosso’ (1992)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Image via Toho

Set in 1930s Italy, this must-see ’90s animated movie is a highly imaginative and absorbing feature that invites audiences to sneak peek inside the life of a veteran World War I pilot who is cursed to look like an anthropomorphic pig.

Even if fit for both younger and older audiences, there is no doubt that Porco Rosso will likely appeal to the latter most. That is due to the themes of anti-fascism, societal norms, and war that it tackles, which may be easier for mature viewers to comprehend. Because of its striking but somewhat tragic message, this well-written 1992 feature is also among the sad Ghibli movies. Additionally, it is worth noting that “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist” arguably goes down as one of the best and most impactful lines in animated movie story.

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9 ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ (1984)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Image via Toei Company

Similar to Princess Mononoke, this masterfully executed film by Hayao Miyazaki, which is considered a masterpiece in animated cinema to this day, delivers a compelling environmentalist message by portraying a warrior and pacifist who strives to prevent two nations at war from annihilating themselves and their dying planet.

The visually striking classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is yet another epic tale that transmits a wonderful, time-transcending message of empathy and kindness for all living things — all of these are themes that Princess Mononoke revisits. Moreover, it sheds light on the importance of protecting, respecting, and preserving the environment, being both a visionary and heart-wrenching warning to the current and future generations about the current climate crisis.

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8 ‘The Red Turtle’ (2016)

Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit

Image via Toho

The Red Turtle is a touching deserted island movie that follows a man who becomes stranded on a remote land and must use his skills to build shelter and survive. In the meantime, he encounters a mysterious red turtle that ultimately changes his life.

Given the way it tackles environmentalism and the beauty of nature, The Red Turtle makes for fantastic educational viewing and, consequently, a solid pick for both younger and mature audiences. Furthermore, what makes the 2016 Michaël Dudok de Wit feature so moving and thought-provoking is its unique approach to the cycle of life and loneliness, touching on themes of life and death and highlighting the ever-long quest for purpose and meaning. Like many other movies by the studio, it features relatable and three-dimensional characters at its center.

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7 ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Image via Studio Ghibli

Illustrating the quest of a young Emishi prince who finds himself in the middle of a war between the forest gods and the humans who exhaust their resources, the gorgeous Princess Mononoke remains one of the most iconic movies by the legendary Studio Ghibli.

What stands out about the 1997 film, making it so unforgettable and, in the final analysis, completely heartbreaking, is the effective way Princess Mononoke shines a light on man vs. nature. In a realistic light, it emphasizes how humankind can’t coexist with the natural world without becoming too greedy and resorting to violence. Overall, the mesmerizing but utterly moving Princess Mononoke shows how Mother Nature is ultimately so much more powerful than humanity and always comes up on top in the end.

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Princess Mononoke

Release Date July 12, 1997

Cast Yôji Matsuda , Yuriko Ishida , Yûko Tanaka , Kaoru Kobayashi , Masahiko Nishimura , Tsunehiko Kamijô

Runtime 134 minutes

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6 ‘Pom Poko’ (1994)

Director: Isao Takahata

Image via Toho

Despite all the cuteness overload of its adorable characters, the severely underrated Ghibli film Pom Poko is actually a really sad story when one thinks about it. The film follows a community of magical, shape-shifting raccoon dogs who struggle to keep their home from being destroyed by urbanization.

Pom Poko is a Ghibli film that presents a harsh look at the massive damage that humans can cause to the environment, and it does this by depicting the devastating impact of human activities on nature and the animals that inhabit our magical planet. Despite the sweet, charming, and quirky nature of the movie, Pom Poko is thought-provoking and utterly heartbreaking; the kind of film that leaves audiences feeling helpless and disappointed after the credits roll, while also being highly educational for younger audiences.

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5 ‘The Boy and the Heron’ (2023)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Image via Toho

In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki’s soul-wrenching, beautifully animated latest (and potentially last) effort, a young boy named Mahito is faced with the painful death of his mother, who fell victim to the wreckage of an awful war. From his point forward, the movie highlights Mahito’s journey of childhood trauma, where he embarks on a ride between the living and the dead and ventures towards a new beginning.

Dealing with the painful consequences of losing someone close to us for such unfair and cruel reasons, The Boy and the Heron is, at its core, a crushing film that tackles grief and loss. As such, it is not exactly an easy watch, especially not for those who may find themselves in a similar situation. While not the saddest Ghibli movie, it surely deserves a high spot on this list.

The Boy and the Heron

Release Date December 8, 2023

Cast Soma Santoki , Masaki Suda , Takuya Kimura , Aimyon

Runtime 124 minutes

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4 ‘When Marnie Was There’ (2014)

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Image via Toho

Among the saddest Ghibli movies is the gorgeously animated fantasy film, When Marnie Was There. It tells the story of the asthmatic twelve-year-old Anna who, due to her chronic disease, is sent to stay with her relatives in Japan’s countryside. There, the introverted Anna forms an unlikely bond with a new friend with beautiful long blonde hair named Marnie.

Filled with twists and turns, especially nearing its ending, this intimate, delicate tale of loneliness and alienation provides audiences with an intriguing and touching narrative that awakens feelings of melancholy and nostalgia in viewers. In the meantime, When Marnie Was There reflects on self-discovery and the importance of healing journeys, too. No doubt, this Ghibli film provides audiences with an awe-inspiring but deeply emotional time in front of the screen.

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3 ‘The Wind Rises’ (2013)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Image via Toho

After years of being inspired by Italian aeronautical designer Caproni and dreaming of creating his dream plane, aviation-obsessed engineer Jirô Horikoshi finally managed to fulfill his ambitions. However, his world comes crashing down when the character learns that his prized creation will serve as a weapon used for battle in World War II.

Miyazaki’s historical melodrama is breathtakingly gorgeous and features a compelling premise to match — not only does it evoke strong emotions in viewers, but also encourages them to reflect on the past and present. Highlighting the significance of pursuing one’s goals and celebrating inspiration and craftsmanship, The Wind Rises is an essential Ghibli watch that everyone should check at least once.

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2 ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ (2013)

Director: Isao Takahata

Image via Toho

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an enchanting family fable that narrates the fascinating story of a tiny girl who is discovered inside a stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife. The protagonist grows rapidly and blossoms into a beautiful young lady. Eventually, five men from prestigious families propose to her, but they fail to impress her. In the meantime, the Emperor of Japan proposes to Kaguya.

Like many other Ghibli films, this 2013 feature is beautifully crafted with visually stunning animation and an incredible score. Because of its thought-provoking themes, including the struggles that a young girl is forced to undergo and the social pressure on how to behave as a woman, Princess Kaguya is undoubtedly a sad and impactful animated movie that deserves a high spot on this list.

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1 ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988)

Director: Isao Takahata

Image via Toho

There is no way to deny that Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most gut-wrenching and haunting animated movies about World War II, which is why it is often considered the saddest Studio Ghibli movie of all time. This, for the most part, is because it deals with the sensitive topic of war by depicting two siblings and war orphans who attempt to make it through the final months of the Second World War.

Illustrating the loss of innocence and family relationships, the unforgettably tragic 1988 movie is guaranteed to make viewers grab the tissues. It is based on the semi-autobiographical short story by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka and his own experiences before, during, and after the firebombing of Kobe in 1945.

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NEXT: The Best Studio Ghibli Movies, Ranked According to IMDb

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