There’s a brief moment in Howl’s Moving Castle that, for me, sums up everything remarkable about the animated film’s creators. In it, the protagonist – Sophie, a young girl by now transformed into an old woman by a wicked witch – is struggling up a windswept hillside when she spots a length of wood sticking out of a clump of shrubbery.
Hoping to use it as a walking stick, Sophie pulls the wood out of the greenery, only to learn that it’s actually the lower portion of a grinning, sentient scarecrow that has somehow gotten stuck in the undergrowth. This character, called Turnip-Head, becomes a recurring character through the rest of the film, remaining loyal to Sophie and bouncing around with the same fixed, enthusiastic grin.
The ability to create such memorable characters, and introduce them in such surprising ways, is a conjuring trick that lies at the heart of Studio Ghibli’s best films. Pick any Ghibli movie you like, and you’ll find that it’s populated with incidental yet adorable supporting characters.
This list, then, is devoted to those spirits, animals robots and strange creatures who aren’t necessarily pivotal to any given plot – and in most cases, don’t even speak – but the quality of their design and animation makes them impossible to forget…
Kodama – Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke is one of the harsher, darker Ghibli movies, with its scenes of destruction and violence making it one of the few PG-13 features to emerge from the studio. Nevertheless, its depiction of a war between humans and the spirits of nature is beautifully handled, and it ranks among Hayao Miyazaki’s most striking and moving films.
Princess Mononoke’s bleak moments are leavened by the presence of Kodama – a race of small, humanoid spirits who, according to Japanese folklore, populate the country’s treetops. In Miyazaki’s hands, the Kodama become melancholy, oddly beautiful creatures with mask-like faces, doleful, black eyes.
Although they don’t get a speaking role in the film, the Kodama are undoubtedly one of its most memorable features – and at its conclusion, their reappearance in the trees of a revived forest provides a welcome glimmer of hope.
Susuwatari – My Neighbour Totoro
Although these tiny creatures are entirely incidental, the Susuwatari (or soot sprites, black soots or dust bunnies, depending on who you ask) are a vital part of the animated ecosystem in My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki’s 1988 love letter to the wonder of childhood and the Japanese countryside.
Little more than blobs of soot who scurry around in the shadows of old houses, hiding from humans while quietly spreading dust everywhere, the susuwatari have nevertheless become one of Miyazaki’s most enduring creations.
They’ve appeared in shops as soft toys, slippers, and they even made a reappearance in the Oscar-winning Spirited Away – there, they work for the spider-like boiler operator, Kamaji, and can be seen dutifully carrying Chihiro’s shoes away in a cameo that’s sure to raise a smile from long term Ghibli fans.
Teto – Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind
Nausicaä was Miyazaki’s second animated feature film, and its success resulted in the creation of Studio Ghibli in 1985. Based on the animator’s own sprawling manga, Nausicaä contains all the themes and signatures of a great Miyazaki movie: the ecological concerns, strong-willed female protagonist and richly detailed flying machines are all recognisably his.
Dotted around Nausicaä’s epic, post-apocalyptic landscapeare the fox-squirrels – furry yellow creatures with distinctive long ears and striped tails. Although considered to be impossible to tame, the story’s titular heroine has one as a pet, called Teto. Teto and fox-squirrels in general pop up far more regularly in the manga than its anime adaptation, though this is unsurprising, given that the manga spans thousands of pages.
Miyazaki was fond enough of his creations to give them a cameo in his next film, Laputa: Castle In The Sky. Towards the end of the film, we see dozens of fox squirrels scurrying around in the flying island’s lush gardens. Unless an eagle-eyed reader can prove us wrong, we’re fairly sure a fox-squirrel has never appeared in another Ghibli film – though we must say, its distinctive appearance does appear to have inspired the design of the Pokémon, Eevee, a character which looks very similar to the one Miyazaki created over three decades ago.
Goldfish – Ponyo
2008’s Ponyo saw Hayao Miyazaki take a back-to-basics approach to animation. Although computers had been used sporadically in other recent works – most notably in Howl’s Moving Castle, with the building of the title brought to life using a mixture of traditional techniques and CGI – Ponyo saw Miyazaki revert back to purely hand-drawn animation.
Ponyo features a subtle change in style, too. There’s a fascinating interplay between the simplicity of its central character’s design – the young mermaid, Ponyo – and the extremely technical depiction of aquatic life. But in among the exquisitely detailed sea creatures are the strange yet captivating goldfish seen above – like Ponyo, they have human faces and bodies that shimmer in the water like a red dress. And like all the seemingly incidental characters in Studio Ghibli’s movies, they’re full of life, and light up the screen whenever they appear.
Jiji – Kiki’s Delivery Service
Miyazaki’s 1989 film is all about the difficult move from child to young adult, and this transition is beautifully summed up in the protagonist’s changing friendship with her cat, Jiji. According to the film’s lore, witches are reared from birth with their familiars, and Kiki and Jiji enjoy a close kinship through much of the film.
Jiji’s animated with simple elegance, and his (or her) keenly observed movements typify Studio Ghibli’s attention to detail. Jiji’s invested with such character that, when Kiki grows to the point where she can’t communicate with her childhood friend anymore, the moment is rendered all the more bittersweet.
Chibi Totoro – My Neighbour Totoro
Totoro, of course, is in no way an incidental character. The loveable keeper of the forest is inarguably the most iconic creation to have emerged from Studio Ghibli, and it’s not surprising that Totoro has effectively become its mascot. Equally worthy of mentioning, though, are his smaller brethren. There are medium sized, blue ones (Chuu-Totoro), and most adorable of all, are the little white ones, called Chibi-Totoro.
In one of several references to Alice In Wonderland, the young Mei sees one of these Chibi-Totoros lurking in the grass near her rural home, and it’s when she follows it into the hollow of a tree that she meets the rotund, slumbering Totoro.
More than any other Ghibli film, perhaps, My Neighbour Totoro captures a sense of childlike wonder – and the Totoros are undoubtedly a major part of its lasting appeal.
No-Face – Spirited Away
With little more than a pale mask and a black cloak, Miyazaki created an eerie yet unforgettable character in the shape of No-Face. Although Spirited Away is packed full of all kinds of dragons, animals and magical beings, it’s the silent, minimal No-Face who leaves the most indelible impression. First appearing as a ghostly figure whose cloak suggests a humanoid figure beneath, No-Face briefly transforms into a gigantic, gluttonous monster during one of the film’s most chaotic scenes, only to be returned to his more serene form with a well-placed dumpling.
Heen – Howl’s Moving Castle
Although only in the movie for one or two scenes, Heen the dog – actually a spy despatched by Madame Suliman – is still one of the most charming Ghibli characters of recent years. He also features in a particularly funny scene, in which heroine Sophie thinks the dog’s the wizard Howl, disguised as an animal.
On her way to see Madame Suliman at her opulent palace, Sophie carries the inexplicably heavy Heen up a huge flight of stone stairs. It’s only much later that Sophie realises that Heen is really just a normal dog – a spy dog at that. Heen proves to be more loyal to Sophie than his former master, though – probably because he’s so lazy. With his sullen eyes and wheezing bark, Heen’s one of the most captivating characters in a movie stuffed full of gentle charm.
Catbus – My Neighbour Totoro
It may seem like a bit of a cheat to place three characters from the same movie in one top ten list, but then again, we couldn’t compile a list of incidental yet memorable Ghibli characters without mentioning Catbus. A weird mix of public conveyance and feline, the creature’s clearly inspired by the Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland, but Hayao Miyazaki gives the character his own inspired, individual twist.
Catbus is such a beloved character that Studio Ghibli created Mei And The Kittenbus, a 20-minute film which reveals that Catbus isn’t the only one of its kind – there are young ones (the Kittenbus of the title), one resembling a Japanese bullet train, and best of all, a gigantic old one that looks like a colossal steam ship.
Catbus appears to be based on the Bakeneko of Japanese folklore, which suggests that if a cat reaches a great enough age, it will be able to take on other forms. Quite why this particular breed of cat should want to take on the shapes of various vehicles isn’t explained, but it doesn’t need to be – it’s all part of Ghibli’s surreal magic.
Robots – Laputa: Castle In The Sky
It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to describe these towering, incredible robots from Laputa as incidental, since they’re so pivotal to the plot at certain points, but they’re yet another example of Ghibli’s remarkable ability to create memorable, striking characters who don’t have to speak to be able to lodge themselves in our memory.
The creation of a long-gone race of scientists, the Laputian robots are both gentle and powerful – their laser beams are capable of destroying a fortress in seconds, but as we learn later in the film, they also serve as high-tech gardeners in Laputa’s deserted gardens.
Although Castle In The Sky’s one of Ghibli’s earliest films, the Laputian robots rank alongside Totoro as the most recognisable and beloved characters in the studio’s canon. At the Ghibli museum in Japan, a full-size Laputa robot stands proudly on its rooftop garden – a symbol of its lasting impact on both fans and the studio itself.
Howl’s Moving Castle and Tales From Earthsea are available on Blu-ray now.
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