Spirited Away is easily one of Studio Ghibli’s most popular movies, loved by domestic and international audiences alike. Miyazaki’s masterful world-building adds a magical zing to it. It allows viewers to immerse themselves in a world rich in Japanese culture and tradition, while still relating to the protagonist Chihiro’s journey.
But Miyazaki isn’t the only filmmaker out there capable of weaving magic so well into their works, and these are some anime movie recommendations for those who appreciate a good story with fantasy elements.
8 anime movies like Spirited Away that have a strong focus on story-telling along with incredible visuals
1) Hotarubi no Mori e (2011)
Like Spirited Away, Hotarubi no Mori e begins with the human protagonist Hotaru getting lost in a forest inhabited by spirits and yokai. She meets Gin, who helps her find the way out of the forest. Gin, who is more-spirit-than-human, says he will disappear forever if touched by a human being.
Hotaru returns to the forest every summer to visit him, growing up while Gin remains frozen in time. As their ages seem to finally coincide, both Hotaru and Gin grow more aware of their romantic feelings for each other.
2) Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
The first movie to be produced by Studio Ghibli, Laputa: Castle in the Sky mixes fantasy with science-fiction. Featuring the legendary island from the novel Gulliver’s Travels, the movie has something for everyone.
The story follows Sheeta and Pazu as they are followed by secret agents and pirates, all of them searching for the location of a long-lost floating island, called Laputa.
3) Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)
A list of anime movies featuring magic is incomplete without movies by Makoto Shinkai. Similar to Spirited Away, Children Who Chase Lost Voices shows protagonist Asuna traveling to Agartha, also known as the Land of the Dead.
This anime movie has darker undertones compared to the Ghibli classic, but is also a coming-of-age story at heart. The movie beautifully depicts loss and grief, and the maturity that comes with letting go of the past.
4) The Boy and the Beast (2015)
Most of the entries on this list of anime movies, including Spirited Away, are set in rural or suburban places. On the contrary, The Boy and the Beast begins amidst the urban cacophony of the streets of Shibuya.
Orphaned runaway Ren gets taken in by Kumatetsu as his disciple. Accompanying the beast back to the Beast Kingdom, he spends the years training under his master who is also motivated by Ren to prove himself worthy of becoming the next lord of the Beast Kingdom.
5) Penguin Highway (2018)
When Chihiro stumbles into a magical world in Spirited Away, magic itself spills into the regular world in Penguin Highway.
This anime movie revolves around Aoyama, a mysterious woman who goes simply by the name “Lady,” and the sudden appearance of a huge number of penguins in the town. This anime falls within the “coming-of-age” genre, but has elements of mystery and science fiction.
6) Belle (2021)
Anime movie, Belle, is possibly the most unique entry on this list, due to it being a “science fantasy.” A modern readaptation of “The Beauty and the Beast,” the movie flits between the real and virtual worlds, with people using supernatural characters as avatars.
Belle deals with the protagonist Suzu’s trauma and inability to cope with her mother’s death. It follows her as she ventures into a web of danger and intrigue as “Belle,” after she meets a mysterious vigilante called “The Dragon.”
7) A Letter to Momo (2011)
Curiously, a lot of anime movies weave magic into their narratives while dealing with heavier topics. Just like how Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro is interpreted as Setsuki and Mei coping with their mother’s sickness,
A Letter to Momo begins with Momo and her mother moving to a small island town from Tokyo after her father’s death. Like Spirited Away, the movie features supernatural creatures, as Momo starts seeing the yokai haunting the estate who help her cope with her loss. The movie is named after an unfinished letter from her father with just the words, “Dear Momo.”
8) The Cat Returns (2002)
Being a list of anime similar to Spirited Away, it is only appropriate to end with another movie animated by Studio Ghibli.
The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru who ends up engaged to the Prince of the Cat Kingdom after rescuing him from being hit by a truck. She is soon swept into an adventure which takes her to the Cat Kingdom, where she slowly starts turning into a cat.
Being a spin-off of Whisper of the Heart, the movie features the cat figurine Baron Humbert von Gikkingen who tells her the secret to save her human self.
While all of the entries in this list of anime movies are critically-acclaimed, many of them are rather underrated. Even among Studio Ghibli productions, only a handful of movies like Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro are popular worldwide.
This list will hopefully encourage viewers to dive into the magical world of anime movies, especially with Makoto Shinkai and Hayao Miyazaki's upcoming movies.