In 1985, an anime studio was started in Japan by a producer, Toshio Suzuki, and two friends and veteran animators, Isao Takahata, and Hayao Miyazaki.
The studio made (and continues to make) a profound impact on the world of animation and also influenced Hollywood directors like Wes Anderson and Guillermo del Toro, and influenced Disney’s Luca. Studio Ghibli movies often revolve around serious topics like habitat loss, forest destruction, destruction by atom bomb, artificial intelligence etc., but with stories that are stirring, poignant, colorful, and empathetic. These stories are brought to life by quirky, lovable, intriguing, and magical (sometimes literally) characters who have attained an iconic status.
Here are the most iconic Studio Ghibli characters according to us.
1. The red turtle from the movie The Red Turtle
Conceived as the titular character of Ghibli’s first international co-production and dialogue-free movie, the red turtle conveys its thoughts and feelings despite never uttering a single word. It’s a mysterious character that appears out of nowhere whenever the stranded bearded protagonist is about to reach the shore. Further into the movie, we learn what was motivating the red turtle and see her living out her life in a different form.
2. Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro
One of the most recognizable and enchanting Ghibli characters made its appearance in the movie My Neighbor Totoro. Wearing an eerie smile, and headlight eyes glinting mischievously, the catbus charms its way into the hearts of the viewers and stays there, probably forever. In a conversation with Miyazaki, the Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa acknowledged that he loved the catbus.
3. Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Although not strictly a Ghibli character (her movie came before the studio was founded), Nausicaä is the prototype feminine protagonist that has come to characterize Miyazaki’s films. Named after a princess from Homer’s Odyssey, she is a plucky, kind, resourceful, and curious girl. She is a true lover of nature and is trying to restore health to the surrounding ecosystem.
4. Porco Rosso from Porco Rosso
Marco is not actually a pig. He is a World War I fighter pilot who was cursed during combat to have a grotesque face that resembles a pig. Porco is different from other Miyazaki protagonists as he is a male, has a reputation for his lasciviousness, and a gun (actually fighter pilot) for hire who loves to battle sky pirates.
5. Mononoke from Princess Mononoke
Mononoke is probably Studio Ghibli’s only heroine that is often shown to be angry, vengeful, and violent. A wolf riding warrior — today she would be labeled a militant environmentalist — Mononoke is part Mowgli (hangs out with wolves) and part Poison Ivy (wants to protect the forests and its dwellers) who is ready to go to any length to preserve what she cherishes most: nature!!
6. Satsuki and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro
This delightful duo was originally conceived to be a single character but was split into two sisters. It is through their eyes we get to enjoy the idyllic and magical world of My Neighbor Totoro. Satsuki is a 9-year-old with short hair who tries to fill in the shoes of her mother by taking care of the house and her sister, and preparing lunch (before going to school). Mei is a 4-year-old munchkin who is very energetic, adventurous, and looks up to her sister. Both the sisters are vulnerable, courageous, bold, explorative, and sometimes goofy.
7. Sophie Hatter from Howl’s Moving Castle
Sophie is a tragic heroine from the stable of Ghibli. Destined to have a mediocre life, she loses her youth (thanks to a witch) and moves into the eponymous moving castle as a housekeeper. Slowly and steadily she influences the workings of the castle and the wizard who owns it, ultimately regaining her youth, but is left with white hair, which signifies her gain of wisdom and maturation as a person.
8. No Face from Spirited Away
First seen in the background, timidly standing on a bridge, this masked and mysterious spirit later transforms into a monster-like creature. Kaonashi (Japanese for faceless) is a spirit that says nothing (just whimpers), wants something, and eats everything. He is a poignant character in search of acceptance and identity (a central theme in Spirited Away), and rejection makes him only angrier. Although he has no legs and floats like an ink-filled cloud, he leaves behind footprints. Ultimately he does find purpose and acknowledgement after the train journey with Chihiro.
9. Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service
Kiki is a half-blood (born to a witch mother and non-magical father) who leaves home to train as a witch. She is quite attached to her pet, Jiji, a black cat. She is a curious, affable, and a sweet girl but is also sometimes given to pride and obstinacy. She is an enthusiastic learner and soon finds shelter with a kindly baker for whom she starts doordashing (on flying brooms).
10. Kamaji from Spirited Away
The eight-limbed (six hands and two legs) spider-esque supervisor of the boiler room of the spirit bathhouse is a gruff but helpful and kind man who is seen cheering the protagonist’s freedom. He is a busy man trying to keep up with demands of different kinds of herbal bath waters. Aiding him in his task are his minions (pun intended), the soot sprites first seen in My Neighbor Totoro, who haul coal into the furnace.
11. Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke
Lady Eboshi is the calculating, ruthless, and formidable antagonist of Princess Mononoke. She is a no-nonsense woman who is trying to perfect firearms to ensure the survival of herself and the residents of Irontown. She is a woman in a man’s world. She may come off as arrogant and selfish, but the people of Irontown love her, especially the lepers who deeply admire her.
12. Japanese raccoon dogs from Pom Poko
The tanuki, aka Japanese raccoon dogs, are the main characters in the movie Pom Poko. They are again quite unique among Ghibli protagonists, as animals in Studio Ghibli movies are seldom anthropomorphic. In a movie based on the theme of man vs. nature, these guys are doing all they can — ranging from impeding construction to downright killing men — to protect their habitat from the urban development.
13. Kaguya from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
This magical, merry, and eponymous character leads a very austere and poignant movie. She was found as a miniature girl inside a gleaming bamboo, and she very quickly grows into a young girl. Her parents think of her as a divine gift and start calling her “Princess.”
14. Chihiro from Spirited Away
Often described as a sullen girl (who wouldn’t be when leaving friends?), Chihiro is a timid but quite strong girl. Although initially she gets scared easily, she learns to not get intimidated and exhibits a maturity beyond her age. She is also the only character in the movie who consistently displays kindness, honesty, and selfless love, qualities that are often associated with evolved adults.
15. Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro
The most beloved character from the Ghibli stable appeared in the movie that bears his name — a character so iconic that it is now the mascot of Studio Ghibli and also had a cameo in Toy Story 3. A plump, gigantic, playful, and benevolent jungle spirit, Totoro is kid at heart like his new friends. He uses a large leaf as a poor substitute for an umbrella, and enjoys the pattering of raindrops on the umbrella that Satsuki gives him. He also acts as a guardian angel for the girls, summoning the catbus when Satsuki needs to go look for Mei. Totoro is one of those few characters that is capable of waking up the child hidden within all of us.