Disney may be in the midst of another renaissance right now, dominating the box office with genuinely impressive movies like Zootopia and Finding Dory, but in the meanwhile, Studio Ghibli has plugged tirelessly away, quietly developing some of the most beautiful animation the world has ever seen over in Japan.
Most recently, the touching drama When Marnie Was There served as yet another reminder of Ghibli's timeless appeal, resonating with audiences both young and old through charming story telling that never talks down to its audience. In the world of Studio Ghibli, fairy tale tropes of good and evil are humanised, using rounded characters whose morality is rarely straight forward.
Hayao Miyazaki and his collaborators regularly create heroes who sometimes make mistakes and even villains can have a change of heart in their tales, driven by concerns that stretch far beyond money or world domination. Forget your moustache-twiddling villains cackling maniacally on the train tracks. Here's 5 Studio Ghibli villains who could just as easily turned out to be the heroes of their stories.
1. No-Face (Spirited Away)
Yubaba is clearly the outright villain of Spirited Away, forcing Chihiro to slave away in her bathhouse while searching for her parents, but the eerie character No-Face is arguably far scarier.
Wearing nothing but a pale mask and a black cloak, No-Face simply hovers in the background for the majority of the film, silently watching Chihiro on her journey through the magical realm of Spirited Away.
It's not until No-Face transforms into a huge, gluttonous monster that the fear really takes hold though, as the spirit proceeds to run rampant throughout the bathhouse in the film's most action-packed scene. However, after Chihiro manages to calm No-Face down by forcing him to vomit up his meals, we realise that the spirit isn't the malevolent force that we're first led to believe he is, and the two eventually move forward on their journey together.
2. Witch of the Waste (Howl's Moving Castle)
Plans for world domination aren't the easiest thing to relate to, but everyone's been burned by love before, which is one of the reasons why the Witch of the Waste is such a memorable villain.
Once upon a time, the Witch of the Waste was so beautiful that Howl did everything he could to pursue her and claim the enchantress as his own- but once he discovered that she used magic to look young, he abandoned the Witch forever. After she spots Howl with a young hat-maker called Sophie, the Witch enters her shop and curses the poor girl with a spell that ironically turns her into a 90 year old woman.
However, events take an unusual turn about halfway through the film when the King's advisor Suliman decides to drain the Witch of the Waste's power, transforming her into a harmless old woman who evokes pity more than anything else.
3. The Robots (Laputa: Castle In The Sky)
Totoro is undeniably the most recognisable character from Studio Ghibli, but the robots from Laputa are also integral to the company's image, taking their rightful place as a key attraction at the Ghibli Museum in Japan.
When one of the robots first appears in Laputa: Castle In The Sky, all hell breaks loose as the machine fights to catch up with Sheeta, destroying entire buildings with deadly lasers. However, once we understand what provoked the robot to attack, fear transforms into empathy, which is further compounded by the gentle way that the other machines tend to Laputa's garden in a later scene.
The robots possess a harmonious balance between peace and war that is symbolic of humanity at large, reminding audiences that we all have the capacity to love and destroy in equal measure.
4. Kodama (Princess Mononoke)
Of all the Studio Ghibli films, Princess Mononoke is arguably the darkest, exploring moral and environmental themes through brutal means that may be too harrowing for some children, but are of vital importance nonetheless.
The majority of mythological creatures featured in Princess Mononoke are surprisingly terrifying, whether they're intended to be gentle or not. Out of this assortment, the most eerie of all are the Kodama; tree spirits who remain largely incidental for the majority of the film's running time.
The Kodama never speak and their faces are always expressionless, yet their presence stays with the audience long after the credits have rolled. Despite not having an impact on the overall story itself, the creepy atmosphere of foreboding that the Kodama evoke gives way to a sense of hope by the film's end, as their reappearance signals the forests return.
5. Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke)
Princess Mononoke regularly subverts gender stereotypes, constantly redefining what animation is capable of throughout its two hour running time. So naturally, a mature story like this also features a number of morally complex characters.
In an effort to pinpoint the villain of the film, many would naturally gravitate towards Lady Eboshi, who destroys the forest where the spirits live in order to gain profit. Her numerous clashes with Princess Mononoke and the others who reside amongst the trees makes it easy to cast Lady Eboshi as the antagonist, but her motives paint a different picture entirely.
Yes, Lady Eboshi is a dark figure in many ways, but the money she earns through her nefarious deeds is used to care for lepers and former prostitutes who she protects and provides for. When protagonist Ashitaka travels through Eboshi's home, Irontown, the residents worship her like a god in gratitude for all that she's done for them, portraying the warrior woman in an entirely new light.
Studio Ghibli is filled with many other fascinating characters who will be remembered long after creators such as Hayao Miyyazaki and Isao Takahata pass, joining celebrated animator Makiko Futaki in that castle in the sky. Make sure you check out this starter guide for an overview of Studio Ghibli's best work to date, as there's far more gems to uncover than we've explored here so far.