Top 5 Most Memorable Studio Ghibli Characters
As a Japanese film obsessive, how could I not love the magic of Studio Ghibli? I personally prefer the quiet, poetic nature of work this animation studio produces to that of modern mainstream Disney, full of noisy energy, jokes and pop-culture references. Studio Ghibli focuses on folklore, drama and every-day life, introducing many imaginative and memorable characters that have become iconic in the world of anime. These are characters one learns from, one can relate to and one can see drawn from historical or mythological inspiration. Without further ado, let me share my top five most memorable characters of the Studio Ghibli series.
5. San (Princess Mononoke)
She is the fearless warrior woman of the forest adopted and raised by the wolf goddess Moro, referred to as ‘Mononoke-hime’ (‘Princess Mononoke’ – ‘Mononoke’ being a general term for monster or spirit) by the local villagers. San is the direct opposite to Lady Eboshi of Iron Town (an industrial settlement that frequently clears forests for charcoal) as San risks all to protect nature, continuously battling with the authorities of the town to stop them destroying her beloved woodland. Whilst she eventually learns from protagonist Ashitaka that not all humans are cruel to the lands, she teaches us the importance of caring for nature (a theme that director Hayao Miyazaki commonly explores in his work) and standing up for what we believe in.
4. Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service)
A young witch headed for her first independent year of training in magical arts, accompanied by her cute black cat Jiji, Kiki is a mature and kind yet stubborn girl, a flaw which she begins to learn to overcome as she lets her new-found friends assist her. Leaving home is terrifying enough for a young adult, and even though 13-year-old Kiki is confident she can sometimes be a little too headstrong and find herself needing assistance (coming from the local baker, a friendly dog and a young artist). Learning to let others in and help is as important as learning how to look after oneself and be independent. The film also teaches the importance of believing in oneself and never giving up, no matter how bad things seem. Kiki also demonstrates how being selfless and kind can go a long way. She is adorable and believable for a fantastical character.
3. Seita and Setsuko (Grave of the Fireflies)
Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is the most powerful, harrowing and emotional war film I have ever come across, and the centrepiece of it are the main characters, orphans Seita and his little sister Setsuko who try to survive during the firebombings of Kobe at the end of World War II and afterward, when no one wants to/is able to spare much food or help for them. Left to fend for themselves, Seita never leaves Setsuko and does as much as he can to look after her. Their tragic and beautiful story will stay with you long after the credits roll.
2. Chihiro Ogino (Spirited Away)
Chihiro is a self-centred girl who, when her world is turned upside-down, has to leave behind her childish past (symbolised when her name is stolen by the sorceress Yubaba) and mature to adulthood in order to save her parents. She has been likened to Alice of Alice in Wonderland and as a metaphor for Japan in status of limbo, seeking to reconnect with past values in the economic downturn of Japan occurring around the time Spirited Away was released. Chihiro is one of the most well developed characters in animation’s history, going on an epic journey not only from the fantasy world to the real world but also from selfishness to maturity, and from childhood to adulthood.
1. Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro)
This creature – named ‘Totoro’ by 4-year-old Mei, mispronouncing the world ‘troll’, visits two sisters (10-year-old Satsuki and her little sister Mei) who move to an old house in rural, post-war Japan to be closer to their mother, who is in hospital with tuberculosis. The girls’ father is a professor and is often working, so the girls often play together. Kindly woodland spirits, the Totoros (consisting of a small, white chibi Totoro, a slightly larger chu Totoro and a gigantic, grinning ō Totoro) emerge and become friends with the girls. Interestingly, the girls are the only ones that are able to see these spirits and their magic, supposing that either the girls are imagining the Totoros in play or that it is a magic that only children are sensitive to, adults having lost that sense in their maturity and sensibility (a lyric in the Japanese theme song, “Kodomo no toki ni dake anata ni otozureru”, reveals that the Totoro “visits you only when you are a kid”). When the girls tell their father of the Totoro, he tells them that they have met the “keeper of the forest”. When paralleled with the Forest God of Miyazaki’s aforementioned work Princess Mononoke, who was a very majestic, wise, regal stag-like character (somewhat like the Great Prince of the Forest in Disney’s Bambi), the Totoro – whilst seeming very wise – seems the opposite: soft and cuddly, mischievous and fun-loving. The Totoro represents the magic and joy of youth, that sense of discovery one has playing in the garden and finding bugs, leaves and seeds (the opening Japanese song, Sanpo, reflects this as it describes a fun walk in the woods). To the wiser and more serious forest lords in mythology like Cernunnos, Totoro is more like the playful Pan or Jack in the Green. He represents that part of us that seeks to reconnect with nature and find peace and joy in it.
Notable omissions: Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), Porco Rosso (Porco Rosso), Howl (Howl’s Moving Castle), Kaonashi (Spirited Away), Yubaba (Spirited Away), Ponyo (Ponyo), Makkuro Kurosuke (Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro), Kodama (Princess Mononoke), Jiji (Kiki’s Delivery Service)
Studio Ghibli is currently working on Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (due in Japan in 2013) and 2011’s From up on Poppy Hill (directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Gorō Miyazaki) should get a Western release date at some point in the near future.