The Ohmu, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984)
Any list devoted to the creations of Hayao Miyazaki is bound to be shortsighted, since just one of his features could produce a list with over a dozen entries. Take his dazzling second feature, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” which features no shortage of memorable creations, most charmingly the fox-squirrel sidekick Teto. But there’s always been something about the menacing design of the Ohmu that has given the movie its impressive visual wonder. These gigantic, insect-like creatures are at the center of the film’s conflict, as Nausicaä tries to find a way to protect them from being extinct by the humans. Despite their terrifying design, the Ohmu are relatively peaceful and compassionate, only becoming enraged and dangerous when scared or in need of survival. In typical Miyazaki fashion, it is the most hostile and foreign-looking creature that is the most kind and misunderstood.
Big Totoro, “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988)
You can’t have a list of Miyazaki creations and not include Big Totoro, the eponymous forest spirit that has become the defining logo of the Studio Ghibli empire and a cinematic cultural icon. Perhaps the reason for this is the spirit’s embodiment of childlike wonder. Big Totoro and his tinier brethren can’t be seen by everyone — it even takes time for Mei’s sister Satsuki to be able to see him — but whether he is driving the narrative or just watching as an unseen observer, Totoro manifests excitement, progress and pure joy in whomever graces his presence. A large rabbit-like creature, Totoro is a catalyst for the imagination, making him a worthy representation of the Ghibli name.
Catbus, “Me Neighbor Totoro” (1988)
Catbus is more or less Miyazaki’s surreal imagination on full display. Part feline (his grin brings back memories of the Chesire Cat from “Alice in Wonderland,” an inspiration behind many of the director’s films), part transportation, Catbus is the kind of bit supporting player that has no real need to be as inventively imagined as it is, yet because of such fact it becomes an integral piece of Miyazaki iconography. Catbus only serves the narrative of “Me Neighbor Totoro” once — he is summoned by the forest spirit to assist Satsuki in finding her missing sister — but his memorable design and sheer delight in being able to assist the young girl make him an unforgettable Miyazaki creation.
Laputian Robots, “Castle in the Sky” (1986)
In the rooftop garden above the Studio Ghibli museum in Japan, a full-size sculpture of a Laputian robot stands tall, which is especially appropriate given its technological advancement in Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky.” Though brief in screen time, the robots play an integral role in the story, protecting the protagonists on their journey to locate the eponymous floating kingdom of Laputa. Though old and rusty in design, the bots are capable of exacting great destruction and accessing even greater knowledge. They are revealed late in the film to be gardeners as well, having helped maintain the “eternal tree of life” at the center of Laputa; it’s in this intriguing mashup — a machine at one with nature — that the limitless harmony of Miyazaki’s mind becomes clear.
No-Face, “Spirited Away” (2001)
Despite all of the imaginative splendor on display in Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Best Animated Feature — including an abundance of dragons and spirits — no creation comes close to matching the memorability of No-Face. Perhaps because of his minimalist design, which makes him stand out even more in the film’s sea of eye-popping creatures, No-Face is a unique spirit that represents the director at his most transfixing. No-Face has a white, mask-like head and a transparent black body that resembles a hooded cloak, and while he only communicates in grunts and moans, he does have a complex relationship with emotions, having the ability to obtain other peoples’ personalities and physical traits. This attribute of his results in as much beauty (he seems to adapt the sincerity of the main character) as it does hostile danger (he transforms into a monster in one of the movie’s most breathtaking sequences).
Moro, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)
There are wolves and then there is Moro, a 300-year-old wolf goddess capable of speaking human languages and displaying divine knowledge and great maternal protection. How’s that for your lovable animal sidekick? The adoptive parent of the titular Princess, Moro is both mother and warrior. Her devotion to her kin makes her an integral figure throughout the movie. Whether she’s putting herself in harms way to help rescue the Princess from a rampaging demonic boar god or risking her life to fight in the movie’s climactic battle, Moro is loyalty personified and anthropomorphized. Few animated animals are as badass as she.
Porco Rosso, “Porco Rosso” (1992)
Miyazaki has long had an infatuation with aviation and the history of the World Wars, which makes “Porco Rosso” one of his most personal features ever made. The eponymous character at the center of this high-flying comedy-adventure is an Italian WWI ex-fighter pilot who has been turned into an anthropomorphic pig thanks to a weird curse. When we’re first introduced to Rosso, he is living as a freelance bounty hunter with a mission to chase down air pirates in the Adriatic Sea. With his dashing bravery and suave charisma with the ladies, Porco Rosso is like some kind of Hollywood Golden Age hero…only in pig form.
Monmon the Water Spider, “Mizugumo Monmon” (2006)
Miyazaki is well known around the globe for his critically acclaimed feature films, but those who have had the chance to visit Japan’s Studio Ghibli museum know that he is just as visionary when dealing with narratives in the short film format. “Mizugumo Monmon” is a delightful 15-minute short centered on a sensitive diving bell water spider who falls in love with a water strider. As is the case with many a Miyazaki creation, Monmon isn’t the most beautfil creature to look at — his creepy crawly legs and front teeth remain true to the unflattering aesthetic of insects — but his personality and vulnerability overshadow his physicality in ways both warm and charming. And, of course, there are his big eyes, which expose his true love in ways soul-searchingly deep.