When it comes to anime heroines, Studio Ghibli has some of the best around. These characters are not always saviors of the planet, but they do all feel like real people forced to endure extraordinary circumstances. Some are simply powerless people trying to achieve their goals on a small scale, while others are messiahs ready to salvage the world from ruin.
But which of Studio Ghibli's various female protagonists rank among the most memorable and impactful? Let's count down the top 10.
Anna (When Marnie Was There)
Depending on your personal experience, Anna is either one of the more frustrating Studio Ghibli heroines or one of the most painfully sympathetic. When Marnie Was There is a journey born out of depression and self-loathing. Anna is a depressed main character who others describe throughout the film as wooden and detached.
But all of this is a means to deal with her sense of insecurity and detachment from the world. She also might be one of the few Studio Ghibli heroines who aren't straight -- depending on how you read her relationship with Marnie as it appears, at times, that Anna has a one-sided crush on the girl after their first meeting.
Haru (The Cat Returns)
Haru from The Cat Returns possesses one magical power: she can talk to cats. That connection is, in part, what results in her stumbling down a rabbit hole, like Wonderland's Alice. Before then, Haru's first major action in The Cat Returns is saving a cat from anime's greatest serial killer: a truck. From there, she's gradually transformed into one herself.
There are several Ghibli heroines who are tossed down the rabbit hole -- Chihiro from Spirited Away being a noteworthy example -- but few just take all the wildness in their stride as Haru does. There's something really charming about her and her adventure because of it.
Chihiro (Spirited Away)
Speaking of which, Chihiro is the ultimate "down the rabbit hole" Ghibli heroine, in that her adventure to another world consists of her continually reacting to increasingly fantastic events and spirits around her. On the surface, Chihiro isn't much of a typical heroine. She's essentially a spoiled brat without any means to defend herself, especially from the supernatural.
Despite that, and despite having her name stolen from her, she rises to the challenge and as a result, Chihiro's arc over the course of Spirited Away has her gain a greater appreciation of the world around her. Everyone she comes in contact with, she leaves better off. There's something truly beautiful about that.
Taeko (Only Yesterday)
Taeko from Only Yesterday is a unique character for Ghibli. Most Ghibli heroines are children, teens or very young adults who are dealing with life as it comes to them. Taeko, on the other hand, is seen from two perspectives in Only Yesterday: one as a young girl and the other as a 27-year-old woman.
Because of this, Taeko's journey back to her hometown and down memory lane is one that is more meaningful, especially when viewed through an adult lens. She's arguably one of the most human of the adult Ghibli characters, as her journey is one of personal reflection, not external triumph. For some, this makes Taeko more forgettable. For others, it makes her more profound.
Shizuku (Whisper of the Heart)
Shizuku is a creative young girl who strives to do something great. While Whisper of the Heart's fantastic adventure exists only in the realms of her imagination, Shizuku's journey crafting this imaginative world is what makes her so compelling. Sure, Whisper of the Heart is mainly a story about young love, but Shizuku's personal journey, about artists finding their place in the world, is also important.
Your appreciation of Shizuku as a character might be determined entirely by how much you can relate to a young writer struggling to come up with an idea, and their emotional intensity when someone else responds honestly to that work. Again, much like Taeko, Shizuku's arc is very internal. However, unlike with Only Yesterday, Whisper of the Heart is more cathartic.
Sheeta (Castle in the Sky)
Sheeta is a seemingly normal girl who embarks on the grandest of steampunk-inspired adventures in Castle in the Sky. Over the course of the film we learn that she's the rightful heir to Laputa -- the titular castle in the sky. But what makes her interesting is that she's really just an ordinary girl.
On the surface, she might not seem super distinct in the pantheon of Ghibli girls -- she even looks like Kiki once her braids are shot off -- but few other of the studio's heroines are put up against a threat as dangerous as Castle in the Sky's main antagonist, Muska. Consider this: she's the only Miyazaki heroine to kill the villain in her movie.
Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)
Nausicaa is Nausicaa's titular Princess of the Valley of the Wind. For fun, she travels into toxic jungles, collecting spore samples and shed Ohmu shells. Nausicaa can, at times, be a little too perfect for this good world -- but then again, she is an actual Messiah destined to unite the warring human race with nature.
However, in many ways, Nausicaa is a perfect heroine for the Ghibli canon. She can see the potential for good in everything, even the chaotic, destructive forces of the Toxic Jungle. And ultimately, she is the closest Ghibli has ever come to bringing a real, world-saving superhuman to the screen.
Kiki (Kiki's Delivery Service)
Kiki is a young witch who travels away from home on her own for the first time, eventually making a living as a young delivery driver for a local bakery in a city. This might not sound like the grandest of heroics, nor an incredibly compelling mission for a witch, of all things, to partake in. However, what makes Kiki such a strong Ghibli protagonist is how real and raw she feels.
Over the course of Kiki's Delivery Service, we watch Kiki optimistically take on this mundane job while gradually feeling more and more burned out by her failures. For this, Kiki's character arc in Kiki's Delivery Service is one of the most realistic depictions of burn-out ever put on screen, and her journey is one that anyone watching can find relatable.
San (Princess Mononoke)
San from Princess Mononoke is undeniably one of Ghibli's most badass heroines. Abandoned as a baby to be raised by wolves, San identifies as more wolf than human, leading her to wage war against Lady Eboshi and the people of Iron Town.
Her inner journey, meanwhile, is one that forces her to understand that coexistence between humanity and nature is essential. She's very reasonably seen as a villain by the humans for how brutal her methods are. Yet, despite her feral appearance, there are several moments in which San shows her humanity, which allows you to better understand her emotional state.
Sophie (Howl's Moving Castle)
Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle is an incredible protagonist. Her adventure appears simple at first: she's turned into an old woman, encounters the wizard Howl and falls in love. Below the surface, however, she encapsulates just about everything great about the other Ghibli heroines mentioned here. Much like Marnie, her journey is one that forces her to overcome her own sense of depression and inferiority. And like Chihiro and Haru, she goes down a rabbit hole to a hidden fantasy world.
However, what makes her the most incredible is, despite being an older and 'feeble' woman for most of the film, she ends up helping to end a massive war, restoring something precious to Howl, and, ultimately, leaving everyone she encountered better-off. Ironically, the curse that should have destroyed her life allowed her to let go of her inhibitions and have the adventure she was always too scared to go on. It's a beautiful spin on the fairy tale structure. Howl's Moving Castle isn't Ghibli's best film, but Sophie is the studio's best female protagonist.