Studio Ghibli Films are some of the most defining content of my childhood. I have fond memories of camping out in the living room with my sister and watching Princess Mononoke into the early hours of the morning (this was on cable, so with commercials, it lasted over four hours). There’s a difficult to describe element that makes Ghibli films so distinct. This quality lives in every aspect of the work, in the animation, in the plots, in the environments, but most importantly, it exists in the characters.
Many of Ghibli’s most iconic films are written or directed by Hayao Miyazaki and in those works especially, what stands out most to me is his use of unconventional, supernatural characters. While the main characters are almost always human, it is these more magical entities that tend to define and inform the worlds that contain them. These characters are fun and unexpected, simultaneously driving plots forward while creating unique settings.
The magic and whimsy of Miyazaki’s work lives in these spirits and demons. But if you put them next to each other outside the context of their original films, how do they compare? Which of them give identity to the franchise as a whole?
To get to the bottom of it, I’ve compiled a list of the ten most interesting spirits, demons, monsters, and otherwise supernatural entities in the Studio Ghibli canon. To help narrow down the vast amount of characters to just ten, my focus is specifically on the Ghibli films that Hayao Miyazaki wrote or directed, and any magical, non-human characters are eligible.
10. Jiji from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’
JiJi isn’t a spirit and I think he would probably object to being called a demon or a monster, but he is vaguely supernatural, and I wanted an excuse to include him in this list. Kiki’s Delivery Service is an interesting entry in the catalog of Ghibli films. Ghibli movies often focus on a non-magical main character who finds themselves in supernatural situations, but Kiki’s Delivery Service takes the opposite approach, dropping a witch into what is otherwise a pretty normal town.
The only other magical character in the main cast is Jiji, Kiki’s talking cat. Depending on which version you’re watching (English or Japanese) Jiji’s personality differs pretty greatly. In the English dub he’s a comedic character, sarcastically commenting on the events of the movie. In the original Japanese version, Jiji is voiced by a female voice actor and spends less time quipping.
Toward the mid-point of the movie, we learn that Jiji is actually a normal cat and that it is Kiki’s magic that allows her to understand him. Jiji makes the list for his fun personality in the English dub and the flavor he adds to the movie, but due to his otherwise mundane nature, he finds himself low on the list.
9. The Forest Spirit from ‘Princess Mononoke’
Princess Mononoke explores humankind’s role in nature and the ways in which society’s development affects that environment and its inhabitants. This is largely illustrated by a literal war between the humans of Irontown and the animals and gods of the surrounding forest. The Forest Spirit becomes an important plot device for the movie, with many factions fighting to kill or protect it and direct the tide of war in their favor.
The real virtue of the Forest Spirit is its design. In the story, it’s said to have the body of a deer and the face of a man. While this is true for part of the film, it also has the ability to take on a larger, more ephemeral-looking form called the Night-Walker. In these scenes, the spirit is beautifully animated with a translucent body. There’s so much detail you can even see the organs in its body as it wanders through the forest. Ghibli films’ appeal so often rests with their aesthetic style and this spirit makes the list on the virtue of its design alone.
8. Kamaji the Boiler Man from ‘Spirited Away’
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a human girl who finds herself trapped in a bathhouse for spirits. The bathhouse environment is filled with a number of different spirits, and the first to make the list is Kamaji, a six-armed entity that runs the boiler and mixes the herbal solutions used in the baths, effectively controlling every aspect of the bathhouse’s product.
When we first meet him as a character, he presents himself to be cold and disinterested but we quickly learn he’s a kind and caring spirit. When Chihiro runs into danger at the bathhouse, Kamaji claims she’s his granddaughter and even gives her guidance on how to get a job at the bathhouse so she’ll be protected.
Kamaji’s design is imaginative but still fits the environment perfectly; he is exactly suited for his position in the boiler room. The juxtaposition of his rough exterior and his kind and friendly personality also make him one of the more interesting spirits in the canon.
7. Turnip-Head from ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’
Turnip-Head is one member of a large cast of endearing characters in Howl’s Moving Castle. A scarecrow with a turnip for a head, he has no way to move other than hopping and no way to emote other than a smile painted on his face, so he always appears happy and jovial. Sophie rescues him early in the film and from that point on, he always seems ecstatic to help her on her journey. He provides her with a cane to help her walk and guides her to the Moving Castle when she’s looking for shelter. He reappears throughout the movie as a friendly way to help push the narrative along.
By the end of the film, we learn his origins and his true identity as a final reveal. This helps the film feel complete with all the loose ends tied up nicely. In a movie with a number of dark undertones, it’s always nice to have characters like Turnip-Head to keep the balance between the serious and the whimsical. It is his overtly upbeat energy that earns him a spot on the list.
6. Soot Sprites from ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ & ‘Spirited Away’
These little guys may be one of the most iconic elements of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Creatures of Miyazaki’s own inventions, the Soot Sprites have no direct inspiration. In some American translations they’re referred to as dust bunnies or soot balls and they appear in two of Miyazaki’s most classic movies, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. In the former they live in the new house Mei moves into. In the latter they work for Kamaji in the boiler room, dragging coal into the furnace.
In both iterations, the Soot Sprites are adorable and helpful to the protagonist. The small gestures they make, like keeping Chihiro’s shoes safe and the playful sight gags of them running around help endear them to the audience. They’re a reminder that charm and kindness are endemic to many of Studio Ghibli’s worlds.
Also, their food looks like colorful sprinkles like the ones you’d find on cupcakes or pastries which adds to their adorableness. The Soot Sprites make the list because of how recognizable they are to the brand and how much charm they add to the worlds they inhabit.
5. The Radish Spirit from ‘Spirited Away’
The Radish Spirit has a small but important role in Spirited Away. When Chihiro needs to get to the top floor of the bathhouse without being noticed, the Radish Spirit helps hide her in the elevator from some bathhouse employees.
This character may have very little screen time, but he makes quite the impression. When he’s first introduced, his curmudgeonly disposition suggests he might be an obstacle for Chihiro. The tension only rises as he slowly follows after her implying that he might disapprove of her presence and intends to expose her, ending her journey before it has the chance to begin. Instead he helps conceal her from those who would get her in trouble.
The way this film sets up the Radish Spirit to seem insidious only to reveal him to be helpful later really makes him stand out. I also love his design. It reminds the audience how diverse the spirit world is; it’s not just dragons and witches, there are giant radish spirits out there too. It’s his design that secures him this spot on the list.
4. Totoro from ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘
Totoro is arguably the most recognizable character of any Studio Ghibli film. He makes cameos in many films, is prominent in the Studio Ghibli logo, and is often referenced and parodied in American pop culture. My Neighbor Totoro follows Mei and Satsuki, two young sisters who move to a new house with their father to be closer to the hospital their mother is staying in. Mei discovers and quickly befriends the Totoros, three spirits that live in a tree in the neighboring forest. The Totoro name is often applied to the largest of the spirits.
My Neighbor Totoro is ultimately a pretty low-stakes film; the focus is more on the magical journey Totoro leads Mei and Satsuki on and less reliant on a conflict-driven narrative. I think this makes My Neighbor Totoro a really special movie because the strength of the characters and the world-building are enough to carry the film. Much of that can be attributed to the charm of the Totoros.
Perhaps the most famous and referenced scene in My Neighbor Totoro is the one where Mei and Satsuki wait for the bus in the rain with Totoro. They exchange gifts, which solidifies their friendship. The image of Totoro waiting for a bus with a leaf on his head has been reproduced in endless cultural contexts. Totoro’s image is so inextricably linked to Studio Ghibli’s brand and Hayao Miyazaki’s name, it was impossible not to include it on this list.
3. The Ōtori-Sama from ‘Spirited Away’
Alright, I understand if this one feels like a cop-out – these duck-like spirits are barely in the movie, they have no lines, and no relevance to the plot. I was surprised to learn they even had an actual name. They exist purely as fixtures of the background. So, you may wonder, how did they beat out some of the most beloved Ghibli characters? Are they really worthy of being on the list? They are, and here’s why:
To me, Studio Ghibli films have always been about the whimsy and charm of the worlds these films create. The stories they offer are always interesting and novel, but the real magic of Miyazaki’s movies comes from the worlds characterized by impossibly delicious-looking food, strange realms full of beautiful landscapes, and unconventional characters to populate these spaces.
Without these contextual elements, these movies lose much of the charm that defines them. That’s not to say the plots aren’t important, but the world is so critical to the success of these films. Seeing all the spirits in the background helps illustrate what type of place we’re in without it ever really being addressed.
What makes Ōtori-Sama so important extends to all the bathhouse patrons in Spirited Away. Each spirit has a unique design, and if you pay attention to what’s happening in the background of the bathhouse scenes, you can always see little windows into the lives of these characters. There are tiny stories going on behind the main action. This makes this world feel populated; there isn’t just magic in this environment, everything is magic. Spirited Away would still be a great story without them, but it is so elevated by the inclusion of these spirits.
Any of the background spirits could have taken this spot, but I think these duck guys are the most fun which gives them a slight edge.
2. Calcifer From ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’
Calcifer is a deuteragonist of Howl’s Moving Castle who steals the show early on. A fire demon who lives the hearth of Howl’s home, Calcifer acts as an engine and controls the castle with his fire. His fate is inextricably linked to Howl’s due to a mysterious contract between the two of them, and much of the plot is driven by the goal of ending their mutual curse.
I’m very fond of how curses work in this movie; characters who have been cursed are not allowed to talk about the nature of the curse or how to break it. Calcifer makes a pact with Sophie, our protagonist, that if she breaks his curse, he’ll break hers. The mystery of what’s plaguing Calcifer and how it pertains to Howl and the castle set up a great payoff for the end of the movie. Howl’s Moving Castle is easily my favorite Miyazaki film and Calcifer’s story plays a huge part in that.
Beyond his relevance to the plot, Calcifer’s sassy personality is easily his greatest asset. He is played by Billy Crystal in the English dub which is a perfect fit for Calcifer’s witty and sarcastic personality. He’s cute for most of the movie, but there are several scenes where you get to see just how demonic he actually is.
1. No-Face from ‘Spirited Away’
Nothing captured my imagination as a child quite the way No-Face did. I loved the simplicity of his design, it was somehow both endearing and somewhat discomforting, perfect foreshadowing for what was to come. A transparent, masked creature, he at times presents meek and timid and at other incredibly intimidating.
After Chihiro mistakes him for a customer and lets him into the bathhouse, he starts to follow her trying to gain her affection. In the beginning, he’s timid and helpful but as he spends more time with the greedy bathhouse workers, he becomes more aggressive. He reveals a giant, hidden mouth in the middle of his body and begins eating bathhouse employees to gain their abilities.
At first, the bathhouse welcomes him because he has the ability to make gold out of dirt, but as he gets bigger, he becomes more dangerous and attacks Chihiro when she turns down his gifts. Once Chihiro gets him to release the people he’s eaten and leave the bathhouse, he loses the ability to talk and returns to his original friendly self.
Ultimately, I can’t think of any character in the Ghibli canon that stands out as much as No-Face. He’s a perfect representation of the type of content that Miyazaki makes. No-Face has a unique and memorable design, a charming aura about him, and he’s unexpected and unorthodox. No-Face is emblematic of the qualities that makes Ghibli films so iconic and for that reason, he’s #1 on this list.