Releasing critically acclaimed hit after hit, Studio Ghibli has carved quite an internationally renowned name for itself over the last twenty years, with a consistent quality track record matched only by Pixar – hence why the studio is often referred to as the Disney of the East. A lot of Studio Ghibli’s success rests on the shoulders of one man – Hayao Miyazaki – whose unique, imaginative films stand as the studio’s strongest offerings. As The Wind Rises is set to be Miyazaki’s last movie, it seemed fitting to look back at his back-catalogue. Miyazaki films are unlike anything anywhere else on Earth – utterly caked in creativity, the films take viewers to surreal and magical places often previously unseen in the world of cinema. Alongside the set-pieces and animation, its Miyazaki’s characters who stand as the core of his films, and over the last thirty years he’s invented some fantastic ones. But which of his characters are the best? Which are the most surprising? And so here’s a rundown of the Top Ten Miyazaki Characters – the most interesting, the most unique, and the most magical.
10 – Lisa (Ponyo, 2008)
‘Well. That guy was a freak show. But don’t you call people “freak show”. We never judge people by their looks.’Sōsuke’s mother Lisa may seem like an odd choice – she’s not a lead and she’s not even in the film that much – but she is actually very complex, and so subtly put together that it’s easy to overlook how well written she is. Lisa stands as a ‘how to’ guide on creating detailed side characters. She’s not an idealistic mother figure but a woman, one with a job, with a husband she gets mad at, one who contradicts herself, one who drinks, and one hugs her son when he does something cute. She comes across as a young mother trying to balance a host of different weights in her life and crucially, is realistic – she feels like a person. When she leaves her son in a storm late in the film, we don’t feel like she’s abandoning him – her motives are justified and we understand why she does what she does. Miyazaki is excellent at creating female characters and Lisa is a shining example.
9 – Yubaba (Spirited Away, 2001)
‘So your name’s Chihiro…what a pretty name…and it belongs to me now. From now on your name is Sen, you got that? Answer me, Sen!’Initially striking about Yubaba is how bizarre her design is – small body with a giant head and nose, she’s a withered old crone whose parts aren’t in proportion – she’s fantastic visually and when she leaps up, hair spinning with fire behind her, it’s really something to see and very threatening. She’s Spirited Away’s main antagonist and interesting in what she represents; her decadent living quarters, identity stealing contracts and focus on money, greed and class status suggest she’s a comment on a modern, capitalist culture. As a Miyazaki villain too, she’s not completely black and white, having a sentimental love for her overgrown baby which paints her as slightly more complex than just an evil witch – ambiguous villains are a staple of Miyazaki and expect to see more on this list.
8 – Sophie (Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004)
‘When you’re old, all you want to do is stare at the scenery. It’s so strange. I’ve never felt so peaceful before.’What’s most interesting about Sophie is how she grows. Starting the movie as a very bland, mousy girl with little self-confidence, she’s thrown into a world of witches and wizards (and in the process, turned into an old woman) and steadily, through her love for Howl and growing self-worth, becomes a strong, passionate woman. Even as an old woman, she’s still resourceful and tough, tying into another Miyazaki trope of elderly people not being useless, but it’s towards the end of the film when she begins switching between young and old Sophie – and variations in-between – that things get really interesting. The animation is superb and subtle to the point audiences don’t quite notice her changing back and forth, and Miyazaki keeps everything ambiguous – is she young Sophie when she feels confident, or is young Sophie how Howl sees her? Miyazaki leaves everything open and allows the audience to decide.
7 – Moro (Princess Mononoke, 1997)
‘Nago was afraid to die. Now, I too, carry within my breast a poisoned human bullet. Nago fled and the darkness took him. I remain and contemplate my death.’Moro makes the list for feeling like a deity. Gods on film tend to retain too many human qualities to be convincing on a mythological level, yet with Moro Miyazaki crafts a wise, powerful and ancient character which doesn’t feel human in anyway, and not just because it’s a giant wolf. There’s a grand elegance to the character, with a world weariness and disdain for humanity, but also a passion for the forest and an understanding that things are changing and that its place in the world is becoming obsolete. Sexually ambiguous – voiced by a male drag queen in the Japanese film and a ghostly, inhuman-sounding Gillian Anderson in the English dub, Moro is a fascinating character unlike anything else in animation.
6 – Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989)
‘Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly. Now I’m trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it.’Kiki is one Miyazaki’s most likeable characters – kind hearted and bursting with enthusiasm for life, she’s a 13 year old witch out in the world alone for the first time, with nothing but her flying skills and a talking cat to help her. She’s independent but flawed and a perfect representation of a teenage girl – Kiki’s Delivery Service stands as a coming of age tale, with Kiki gaining self confidence and learning about herself, but also being haunted by a desire to fit in, and a stubborn attitude which other characters find off-putting. When she loses her powers, it can be seen as a metaphor for both entering adulthood and losing one’s confidence – but what’s telling is that she still manages to fight through and save the day regardless. She’s an excellent role model for young children.
5 – Catbus (My Neighbour Totoro, 1988)
The catbus is one of the most original, surreal and strange creations ever put onto film. It’s one of the most iconic characters in animation and makes the list simply because there is nothing else like it in cinema. A bus which happens to be a living, breathing cat-monster, fantastically animated as it zips through fields and along telephone wires – in fact not having dialogue, the catbus’s personality comes entirely from the excellent animation. It reeks of so much imagination and creativity, with audiences watching and thinking ‘how do people come up with this sort of thing?’ and back in the late 80s probably caused some very green eyes over at Disney.
4 – Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke, 1997)
‘Now watch closely, everyone. I’m going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him.’Lady Eboshi is the primary antagonist of Princess Mononoke – the capitalist ruler of Iron Town. She’s a strong, confident leader who stands as one of Miyazaki’s most ambiguous villains. Yes, her town is responsible for cutting down the forests and killing the animals, but her town also provides humans with employment and lives. She takes in prostitutes and gives them fresh starts and employs lepers and treats them as human beings. She’s a practical woman with excellent fighting skills who isn’t afraid of the gods, neither a typical female character nor a typical villain, and she learns by the end of the movie. Miyazaki paints her in shades of grey but always justifies her motives, using Lady Eboshi as a rational counter to his environmental argument. There’s a maturity and complexity within the character often unseen in animation.
3 – No-Face (Spirited Away, 2001)
‘I’m lonely… I’m lonely.’No-Face is another interesting villain in that he’s ambiguous and changes throughout the film. Beginning as a quiet, shadowy wisp ignored by everyone, No-Face is drawn into the bathhouse and becomes lost in its greed, mistaking false attention for real affection and growing into a hideous monster of consumption, until Chihiro manages to rescue him and give him some purpose in life. No-Face can be seen more as a representation of the film’s themes as opposed to a character, illustrating loneliness and greed, and the fact that he is forgiven after his rampage – a wonderfully animated set-piece, reminiscent of Pinocchio’s Monstro – says so much about Miyazaki and how much more human his movies are than say Disney films, in which No-Face would almost certainly meet a gruesome death.
2 – Howl (Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004)
‘I give up. I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful.’Howl is a confident, charming, oddly sexy animated character and one of Miyazaki’s funniest. He’s complex – cool and in control sometimes, fighting against a great violent war and voicing Miyazaki’s pacifist ideals – but also cowardly – he hides from his problems, and throws tantrums when his hair gets messy. The character is childlike at times and more kind-hearted than he lets on, but also a womaniser, at times lazy and cruel. There’s a sense of him losing himself to magic and becoming a heartless monster, in a love story with parallels to Beauty and the Beast. There’s so much going on with Howl’s character and it’s surprising to see such a realistically conflicted figure in animation. Voiced by Takuya Kimura in the Japanese version and Christian Bale in the English dub, with Bale actually standing on top as the definitive Howl, giving a smooth performance which oozes personality and wit, it’s actually one of Bale’s strongest roles. It’s easy to see why so many fans have fallen in love with the character.
1 – Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro, 1988)
Miyazaki’s most iconic and most lovable character, the giant bear-like Totoro is a fantastic cinematic figure, cute and adorable and very surreal – there’s a lot of imagination behind Totoro, with his flying spinning top and borrowed umbrella, and he really inspires a sense of childlike awe and wonder. A forest spirit, he sends an environment message which isn’t heavy-handed in anyway – Miyazaki knows how to be subtle. Like the catbus, Totoro doesn’t have any dialogue and only speaks in noises and roars, so it’s down to the strength of the animation to portray the character, and Totoro’s vast amount of facial expressions speak volumes of personality, perhaps more than words ever could. It’s easy to see why Totoro has become so iconic, appearing recently in Toy Story 3 and even standing as Studio Ghibli’s mascot. Miyazaki’s most endearing and wonderful character; children will want to plant trees in his honour.
That’s all then! Let me know if you agree or disagree with the list!