A bus that is a giant cat, witches, dragons, and spirits made of soot — there’s no shortage of creatures to capture the imagination in Studio Ghibli’s films, arguably some of the finest works of animation ever produced.
Part of the magic stems from the efforts of founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who, in 1985, started a studio meant to foster a creative environment that puts artistic vision (and not commercial success) first.
The result, across the last four decades, is a collection of over 20 animated films, many of which flourished critically and commercially both in Japan and the rest of the world. Today, the relatively small animation studio is a household name.
Full of wonder and spirit in vivid, joyful detail, Studio Ghibli films have given us plenty to laugh, think, and cry about. Moreover, they’ve also introduced us to some of the most memorable characters to ever grace our screens. Here are some favorites.
Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989)
First up on the list is the titular character in Kiki’s Delivery Service, a 1989 film written, produced, and directed by Miyazaki, based on a 1985 novel by Eiko Kadono.
This magical coming-of-age film tells the story of 13-year-old witch Kiki, who leaves her hometown for the port city of Koriko, traveling on her mother’s old broom and with only her black cat Jiji as a companion. There, she starts to establish her eponymous delivery service — and flies into several obstacles along the way.
Probably one of Ghibli’s most recognizable films, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a tender, well-paced exploration of independence, identity, and self-confidence. Though not quite as out-there as some of the studio’s more elaborately imaginative worlds, Kiki’s world is one where magic is normal, and we find wonder instead in the characters we meet and the challenges they face.
For Kiki, a wide-eyed girl still finding her place in the world and figuring out the kind of witch she wants to become, her eagerness and ambition come laced with self-doubt. At one point, she loses her ability to fly and talk with her cat, which is devastating and, over the years, has resonated with audiences young and old alike.
“Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living,” Kiki says at one point in the film. Later on, she reflects, “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.” Although the character was written in the ‘80s, her story arc is a clear depiction of millennial creative burnout if I ever saw one.
But aside from giving us relatable screencaps, Kiki’s story is an ever-timely reminder to practice self-care. “Stop trying. Take long walks. Look at the scenery. Doze off at noon. Don’t even think about flying,” Ursula, Kiki’s painter friend, tells her, in a kind of checklist we should all probably follow — substituting the flying with whatever we’re burned out from, of course. “And then, pretty soon, you’ll be flying again.”
Kiki’s journey from her hometown to the big city is described in the film as a tradition for young witches. But in real life, burnout, recovery, and self-discovery are always possible whatever age we may be. Her story shows us that being vulnerable and being strong aren’t mutually exclusive, and sometimes, all we need are good friends and a little bit of bravery to learn to fly again.
Seita and Setsuko (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988)
Okay, so they’re technically two characters, but I absolutely cannot make an article on iconic Ghibli characters without talking a bit about siblings Seita and Setsuko Yokokawa. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find them in fan art or plushie collections like other characters on this list, those who’ve seen (and cried to) 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies would know that they’re impossible to forget.
Known as one of the greatest war films of all time, Grave of the Fireflies was written and directed by Takahata, based on a 1967 short story by Akiyuki Nosaka. Though there had been many offers to create a live-action adaptation of his work, Nosaka had turned all of them down. For him, recreating the scorched earth in the city of Kobe in the final months of WWII would be impossible, as is finding child actors who could play the characters convincingly.
He was initially surprised at Studio Ghibli’s offer to create an animated adaptation, but seeing the storyboards convinced him that it was the best (and only) way to tell the story cinematically. The resulting film, which runs just under 90 minutes, is a beautiful and achingly sad masterpiece that everyone, I think, needs to see.
There are plenty of war films in general and films about WWII in particular, but what sets Grave of the Fireflies apart is how it’s anchored on the experiences of its young central characters — especially with Seita, a teenager whom Takahata saw as “a unique wartime ninth grader.”
Wartime films, as a whole, tend to be pretty moving, but Takahata argues that they’re not very often made from the perspective of young people. For him, the practice of framing war stories in terms of heroes and villains fighting over abstract concepts like freedom tends to make it very hard for present-day viewers to relate with films and their larger-than-life characters.
So Grave of the Fireflies focuses almost entirely on the personal tragedies and small triumphs of Seita and Setsuko, two siblings who lose their house and mother to a bombing in 1945. Unlike many other Ghibli films, the adventure the siblings then embark on — first to a distant aunt, and later on, to an abandoned bomb shelter where they release fireflies for light — does not contain any helpful spirits or talking animals.
It’s impossible to see the film and walk away unchanged by it, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it makes me cry to this day (I’m legitimately tearing up as I type). Part of this power is due to how real the siblings, as well as their joy, devastation, and love, feel.
Plus, the short story the film is based on is semi-autobiographical: Nosaka lost his little sister to malnutrition during the war, and blamed himself for her death.
No-Face (Spirited Away, 2001)
Though No-Face is not the main character of 2001’s critically acclaimed Spirited Away, he does steal the show from the 10-year-old protagonist Chihiro from time to time. As one of the most striking characters in a Miyazaki film full of odd-looking beings, he’s also become a face (pun intended) for Studio Ghibli itself.
No-Face is an intriguing character defined by his appearance. As the name suggests, this spirit doesn’t have a face and wears a mask where a face would usually go on a character. The rest of his black, tube-like body is nearly hollow. And because he mimics others, he also seems to lack an identity.
We first see him as a mysterious, quiet spirit, but his scenes are among some of the most chaotic and memorable ones in the film. That’s because he develops new attitudes and abilities based on the people around him.
For instance, when he is exposed to the materialistic nature of the bathhouse’s guests and staff, he develops a hunger for objects and food, too, demanding more and more as his body grows with everything he eats.
Just when you think he’s eaten more than enough, he starts eating the bathhouse staff — and starts exhibiting their personalities and opinions in the process. In the rush to satisfy his learned greed, we also learn that behind the simple white mask is an even bigger and more dangerous-looking mouth.
Though all this is more than enough to be scared of him and disgusted by his greediness, we soon learn that he’s simply a spirit that doesn’t yet know how to interact with others very well. When he begins to vomit out all the things that made him greedy, he becomes a more approachable spirit once more, and we better understand that all he wanted was to help out Chihiro / Sen.
At certain points in the film, his character is one that can easily make anyone anxious, and I seriously doubted if any good would come out of him. But in the end, we know that he manages to do well in a new (and better) environment.
Here’s a fun fact: No-Face also serves as the inspiration for a Star Wars character in Darth Nihilus.
Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988)
The eponymous Totoro in 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro appears as part of Studio Ghibli’s logo. To be chosen to represent the company among its vast repertoire of characters — well, you can’t get any more iconic than that.
Today, Totoro comes in the form of everything from stuffed toys to tattoos, lunch boxes to night lights. He even appears as a plush toy in Kiki’s room in Kiki’s Delivery Service and in Toy Story 3. And as a tribute to him and an iconic scene of him waiting for a bus in the rain, a pair of grandparents in Japan built his likeness in concrete and bricks right by a bus stop for their grandkids to enjoy.
Consistently ranking among the world’s top films, My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of Satsuki and Mei, two girls who move to a rural area with their father in order to be closer to their mother, who is in a hospital. Delighted in their new countryside lifestyle, the girls settle into their home and explore their surroundings, and the younger girl, Mei, is the one who first meets Totoro.
Written and directed by Miyazaki, the film is a whimsical, idyllic, and beautiful tribute to childhood and nature, which is why it’s hard to believe that it was released as a double feature alongside Grave of the Fireflies.
Though both films feature siblings, they can’t be more different. Where Grave of the Fireflies will make you need a minute (or ten) to quietly absorb the heartbreak on-screen, My Neighbor Totoro barely has a plot and invites you to bask in the sunshine and underneath magically growing trees, believing that everything will work out in its own time.
Interestingly, the film was originally a box office flop — the worst, in fact, of all Ghibli films — but there’s no denying the staying power that the film and its titular creature have today.
Totoro himself is a large, furry creature that you can’t fault Mei for falling asleep on. He’s just so cuddly, even though the name Mei gives him is a mispronunciation of the Japanese word for troll (Torōru). In truth, his design was inspired by different forest animals, like cats, owls, and Japanese raccoon dogs, called tanukis.
In the original drafts of the film, he was also able to speak, but I think I’m not alone when I say that he’s perfect just the way he is.
Who’s your favorite Studio Ghibli character?