Studio Ghibli’s secretly queer films, ranked – from Spirited Away to Howl’s Moving Castle

Jennifer Lynae Lee
·7-min read

If you’re like me, you’re slow to hop on any train no matter what it is.

I didn’t listen to The Beatles until I was 20. I didn’t try hummus until I was 19. Some of y’all would come for me and say it’s less a choice and more of a lack of culture in my life. And you know what, you’d be right. That is why I binge, cuties; what’s your excuse?

My most recent binge was the Studio Ghibli collection. HBO Max recently added the top most popular Studio Ghibli films in the US to their catalogue and when I didn’t want to pay the $14.99, my sweet, sweet 87-year-old grandmother let me borrow her password. Thanks Ginger!

And I binged those f**kers like the world is ending, not that it isn’t.

I realised that the not only are so many other shows I loved growing up derivative of this body of work (Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, I’m looking at you) but damn if it isn’t coded in queer ideaology from head to toe.

Themes of magic, fantasy, transformation, curses, war, civilisation versus nature as well as coming-of-age and hero’s journey narratives pose the perfect landscape for the queering of traditional, heteronormative, patriarchal societal standards including those of beauty, love, presentation and behaviour.

So without further ado, let’s dive into the ranking.

Warning: All explanations contains spoilers.

1. Ocean Waves (1993)

Ocean Waves Studio Ghibli
Ocean Waves Studio Ghibli

Were you a confused and closeted queer high schooler? Are you keen on reading social subtext? This film is for you! This film follows the drama and nuances two implicitly queer friends caught in a love triangle. Need I say more?

2. When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There Studio Ghibli
When Marnie Was There Studio Ghibli

This is going to get controversial in here for a second, but bear with me. So our main character Anna is suffering from severe depression and anxiety, classic gay combo, so she is sent to the countryside to spend time with her aunt and uncle.

After flubbing every IRL interaction she has with kids her own age, she finally befriends a girl who lives in a mansion across the inlet. The two become inseparable in the grasses and shallows by the mansion.

When Anna is not with Marnie she is thinking about her and drawing her. Ultimately it turns out that it is the ghost of her grandmother, BUT before any of that was known to Anna or the audience, undeniable gay vibes.

3. Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away
Spirited Away

This film draws its queerness both from its depiction of familial relationships and social ostracisation. Chihiro’s parents don’t recognise their daughter’s reality as truth and much to the anxiety of viewers like me, gaslight her about the danger she senses.

Being gaslit by your parents is generally a human experience, but queers get an all too generous helping imo. While Chihiro is assisted by allies in this unwelcoming, deadly spirit bathhouse, it is ultimately her core values of kindness and authenticity that save her and her friends.

4. Pom Poko (1994)

Pom Poko
Pom Poko

This film highlights the story of gentrification and colonisation experienced by shapeshifting raccoons in the Japanese countryside. Right off the bat we see the separation of civilisation (compulsive heterosexuality) and nature (LGBTQ+ spectrum), with humans suffocating the lifestyles of dancing and partying magical creatures, othering them in the name of progress.

In order to save their homes and lifestyle, the racoons must conform and shapeshift into humans to learn how to outwit them. Most of us have been in their shoes, having to wear a hetero mask at work or with family only to come out once you realise being uniquely you is the only thing that will save you.

It’s a tale of finding one’s place in a world that’s made no room for you and it’s pretty f**king gay. Oh and I forgot to mention that the racoons’ magical power is stored in their balls and ovaries which feels queer to me. I know I can’t be the only one who thinks that ahah.

5. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbour Totoro
My Neighbour Totoro

Queer is children seeing into another dimension. One full of fantasy where dreams are seen and unseen and limits are never presupposed. Queer is letting go of your perception of real and normal to make room for the inconceivable. Enough said, go watch this.

6. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki's Delivery Service
Kiki's Delivery Service

This film is a lesbian cottagecore feverdream minus, unfortunately, the lesbians. It offers a coming-of-age take on modern witch hood. And if we know anything it’s that witches are gay af.

As Kiki moves to the big city to master her witchcraft she becomes demoralised by how slow of a study she is, causing her powers to wane. And it’s only when she meets an artist, a fellow believer in “magic” that her powers reach their full potential. In the queer fashion, community is the key to sanity.

7. Ponyo (2008)

Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo
Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo

This Little Mermaid-esque children’s story is a queer allegory if I ever saw one. A half-fish half-magic princess, Ponyo, desires to explore the surface world in defiance of her father’s strict no-human rules.

Using up her father’s stores of precious magic, she turns the seas asunder and herself into a human; her body and soul clearly misaligned. The film’s journey is centred around Ponyo and her friend’s attempts to keep her human. Big ally energy right there.

8. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo
Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo

It’s the wattpad energy for me. Our main character, a down on herself capricornesque young woman is cursed by the local witch to look like an old woman. In an attempt to break the spell she winds up the housekeeper of Howl, the local wizard’s castle. There the two fall in love in the midst of soul-bonded fires and alternate dimensions.

This film is resoundingly queer not in the romantic dynamics but in the domestic life. The crew living in howl’s castle is hoagepoage, a chosen family. We don’t know where any of them, except for main, came from but we know they are ride or die now. Magical and cursed misifts. I ain’t never seen a group of queer friends where all of them weren’t misfits.

9. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo
Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo

This film, like so many of Studio Ghibli’s, dissects the relationship between man and nature; conformity and instinct. And lucky for us that makes it an instant addition to the queer canon.

The metaphor aligns so strongly because queers of every disposition will at some point succumb or be heavily influenced by the unavoidable compulsive heterosexuality. I know that s**t had a hold of me for nearly 21 years. Shout out to all the cis men I mistakenly made out with. JK. Shout out to all the women and enbies who came after.

Like so many historically praised and historically hidden queers, Princess Mononoke is willing to sacrifice everything to protect the natural world from those who sought to rid it of its agency and spirit. In other words we are here we are queer, and we’ll march and collectise and sue until you get used to it hunny.

10. Porco Rosso (1992)

Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo
Studio Ghibli's secretly queer films, ranked, from Spirited Away to Ponyo

This is the story of a man who is given a second chance at life after a near death experience, but this time as a pig-man. Porco is a cishet man who must come to terms with the fact that he isn’t really a straight man. There are hints of Porco returning to his human/cishet form, but they are only ever perceived by others. He feels as if the world will not accept him and sequesters himself, but in reality everyone loves him just the way he is.

Any Studio Ghibli films left out scored less than a 4/10 on the queer scale.