Studio Ghibli has created a lot of great characters. It's a defining quality of the animation studio itself. From adorable, plush creatures to the frighteningly evil, the range of Studio Ghibli's ability to create incredible characters is one of the things that really sets them apart from other movie-making studios.
Check out below for my top 10 most memorable Studio Ghibli characters of all time!
Yubaba is the evil witch who owns the bathhouse in Spirited Away. She is greedy and maleficent, and she has a very distinct look that separates her from most other characters. She is able to shape-shift, so Studio Ghibli animated her with a sense of fluidity, and that uncertainty about even her state of being is off-putting, and perfectly so. Yubaba tries to use and abuse the main heroine at any chance she gets, and she is probably the most archetypically evil character in all of Ghiblidom.
Porco Rosso is the airplane piloting, woman-wooing, American-outflying Pigman! In a time between the two world wars, Porco Rosso lives in a changing Italy and is a legendary pilot. He is a memorable character, even for Ghibli, because of the magical realistic circumstances surrounding him. Porco is such a gentleman, he gets all the ladies, too!
The Catbus. What more do I need to say?! If you've seen it, you'll never forget it. The Catbus appears in My Neighbor Totoro, and is used as a vehicle for Totoro. Depicted as a large, male, orange tabby with windows, furry seats and headlights for eyes, the Catbus is pretty much the best way to travel ever. With its large grin and ability to vanish, the Catbus is reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat of Alice and Wonderland, but it's totally way better because you can ride it. The Catbus was also the design base for the six-legged flying bison Appa featured in the TV show Avatar the Last Airbender. Through Appa, the Catbus' magical legacy lives on!
Totoro is essentially Winnie the Pooh for Japanese children. The character became insanely popular after the 1988 movie My Neighbor Totoro, in which the Totoro befriends and helps two young sisters. Totoros have become very popular as toys, especially plush dolls, and are also essentially the mascot of the entire Studio Ghibli. The word Ghibli is pretty much synonymous with the image of the Totoro. How could you not be in love with them!? They're characteristically chubby, squishy, soft, magical, and benevolent. Sounds like a fantastic childhood friend.
Seita and Setsuko
And now for an entirely different mood, Seita and Setsuko are the main characters in one of Ghibli's most overlooked masterpeices, Grave of the Fireflies. Seita is the 14 year old older brother of Setsuko, who is a four year old girl. Grave of the Fireflies takes place in WWII Japan, and while Seita and Setsuko's father is off fighting the Allied Forces, their town is bombed, and their mother dies shortly thereafter due to burn wounds. Freshly orphaned in a time of social distraught, Seita and Setsuko end up living in an abandoned bomb shelter, desperately trying to stay alive. These two are the most heartbreaking characters you will ever meet in a Ghibli movie, easily. The siblings are so poignant that they absolutely unforgettable.
No Face, aside from the heroine herself, is one of the most remembered characters in Spirited Away. His mask-face and ghostly body (as well as his tendency to, you know, eat people...) make him come across initially as some sort of dangerous force, but he is eventually revealed to be a largely harmless being. In the movie, No Face comes to represent a sense of excess and greed that permeates the entire bathhouse. With his stark black and white look and simultaneously blank and soulful expression, No Face has become an iconic figure for Spirited Away, and Studio Ghibli as a whole.
San is the young maiden who lives deep in the mystical, dangerous forests in the world of Princess Mononoke. She is beautiful, but her beauty is even more alluring because of her wildness. She lives with and was raised by a pack of giant white wolves, who serve as forest spirits trying to protect the forests from the encroaching human population and pollution. At times San is more beast than man, and that's what makes an impression on you.
Howl is the sorcerer-at-large in Howl's Moving Castle, the second Ghibli movie to make it to the U.S. through Pixar and Disney after Spirited Away. Howl is one part indulging womanizer, and one part insecure youth, and all full-blown wizard. Howl kind of manipulates Sophie (the heroine in the movie) in the beginning and attempts to avoid being sent off to war due to his pacifist beliefs, but throughout his apparent downfalls, you root for Howl because of his unwavering ability to save the day. With his shape-shifting abilities and magical household friends, Howl is a character that sticks with you. Howl's counterpart, the fire spirit Calcifer, also deserves to be mentioned, as he's a brilliant mixture of wit and charm.
Chihiro is the ten-year old heroine of Spirited Away. She is said to have been created because Miyazaki wanted to create "a girl heroine whom [girls] could look up to." Headstrong and smart, Chihiro is forced to work in a magical bathhouse in order to save her parents' souls from demons and witches. What makes her such a memorable character in people's minds is how incredibly real she feels. There is no point in Spirited Away where you think, “oh, a ten year old girl wouldn't act that way,” or “she wouldn't move like that,” Studio Ghibli excelled at making a believable character with Chihiro, and she has had a lasting impact because of it.
Nausicaä is a Ghibli character of lore. Literally and figuratively! She is the titular heroine of Ghibli's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind movie as well as the manga of the same name written by Hayao Miyazaki himself. She is a warrior, a princess and a priestess, and she is able to communicate with the giant insects that have overrun much of Nausicaä's post-apocalyptic world. She is empathetic, committed and has an indescribable magnetism that leads her to be loved by her fellow characters and viewers alike. She is a sort of scientist-leader as well, as she studies the ecology of her surrounding world in order to better understand a way for humanity to move forward. A gunslinging, jet-flying, heavily spiritual scientist princess, Nausicaä is one of the cornerstones of the entire Ghibli empire.
Who are your favorite Studio Ghibli characters? Are there any that you think that I missed? Let me know in the comments below! And stay tuned for more Studio Ghibli related posts throughout the week!!
The Susuwatari, or “traveling soot” or “living dustballs” that inhabit forgotten corners of the bathhouse in Spirited Away are such typical Ghibli creatures that I had to include them on this list. The sort of attention to detail in the magical realism worlds that Ghibli creates goes all the way down to the dust. The Susuwatari first appeared in My Neighbor Totoro, as living dust that inhabits the country house that the family moves into. The Susuwatari later appear in Spirited Away, as little living sootballs with eyes that Chihiro meets during her time at the bathhouse. In Spirited Away, the Susuwatari work in the boiler room moving coal into the furnaces. Chihiro befriends them by helping them with their chores and they in turn help her throughout her trials at the bathhouse.
The Kodama in Princess Mononoke are some of the most overlooked characters of all Ghibli creations, and this is undeserved. With their rattling bobble heads, these forest sprites inhabit the magical woods in the Princess Mononoke world and their presence signals that the forest is in harmony. Both spooky and adorable, these little guys exemplify the tenuous relationship between the sweet and beautiful and the morose and dangerous that is so present in Princess Mononoke.
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