I'm Wits Toopid

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times…

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A bright-eyed young Japanese child sprints past me, hopping up the tiny, weathered red steps and standing perfectly in the little painted footprints. He claws at the windowsill and hauls himself up on his tippy-toes, allowing himself just enough height to peer in the bottom of the window. Inside, a veil of steam masks the magic of a fully working cafe kitchen. The magic of this scene resides less in what he is seeing than in the potential of what he could see. A simple magic, granted, but one which typifies that which the Ghibli Museum provides.

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This is the kind of museum I don’t want to make!
A pretentious museum
An arrogant museum
A museum that treats its contents as if they were more important than people
A museum that displays uninteresting works as if they were significant
— Hayao Miyazaki

I arrive on a groggy wet Japanese morning to Mitaka station, in the suburbs of Tokyo. Making my way out into the car park, I wander around for a while, trying to find the right place to pick up the bus. Finally I join a group of about 15 Japanese, quietly gathered under the barely shelter of a small, unassuming bus stop. I show my ticket, point and bow politely. (I’ve been in Japan almost two weeks at this stage and I know that this is how you work the tourist angle – point and bow, bitch, point and bow)

“Studio Ghibli?”
A look of confusion. I point at the ticket, point at the bus stop and bow politely “Ghibli. Studio Ghibli.”
“Oh, Jib-ru-li,” one man corrects me, “Hai, hai.”
I guess I’m in the right spot…

Studio Ghibli (pronounced Jib-ru-li in Japan, it would seem) is arguably the most exciting and original animation studio in the world (and for those not in the know, shame on you). Films such as Spirited Away, Howls Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro and (my personal favorite) Princess Mononoke, are just a few produced by the studio, and some of the greatest animated films of all time.

Set up by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985 after the success of the film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki and Takahata drew on their many years of animation experience but also tried to inject a social morality into their films.

Miyazaki’s films, in particular, have always managed to present worlds, often thinly veiled under the veneer of our reality, which maintain a childlike dreamish magical nature. I would also recommend, for any who have not seen it, Takahata’s 1988 Grave of Fireflies, a moving drama which presents, as good as any live action film ever will, a rarely seen view of the suffering and poverty that many experienced in a post World War II Japan.

Three Americans have loudly joined the group by the time the bus arrives. Being the only other gaijin, I’m kind of embarrassed of the Americans who, unbeknownst to themselves, are being very rude (at least by Japanese standards). I keep to myself on the bus as it winds through the suburban streets.

To make such a museum, the building must be…
Put together as if it were a film
Not arrogant, magnificent, flamboyant, or suffocating
Quality space where people can feel at home, especially when it’s not crowded
A building that has a warm feel and touch
A building where the breeze and sunlight can freely flow through
— Hayao Miyazaki

The Ghibli Museum opened in October of 2001. Designed by Miyazaki himself, the entire building was designed from the ground up through sketches and drawings. It resembles, architecturally, many of the castles and architectures of Miyazaki’s films with a healthy mix of European and Japanese influences. The motto of the museum is “Let’s become lost children together” (迷子になろうよ、いっしょに Maigo ni narō yo, isshoni )

“Whadayamean you have to purchase tickets in advance?” bellows the father of our American party as I depart the bus.
“Velly sorry. Velly sorry. Purchase tickets only. Purchase tickets only.”
The mother of the party gives me a dirty look as I pass. I feel quite bad, actually. Despite their lack of knowledge of Japanese etiquette I have to admire anyone who can find this museum, it’s not easy to find. And tickets are hard to come by. They are usually sold out months in advance and very limited for people outside of Japan. As well as this, the websites provided for the purchase of tickets for us foreigners are dubious at best. They definitely aren’t presented with the professional veneer of most museum booking sites and made me quite nervous about booking my tickets on them.

The bottom floor of the museum explores the history and science of animation with the Miyazaki mix of magic and Victorian invention. As well as a short animated film on the history of life from single cell organisms right up to modern day man (which runs through many sprockets and mini projectors around the room) the centerpiece is a fantastic three dimensional zeotrope, which explains fantastically persistence of vision.

The central hall of the building is like a cross between medievil European, traditional and modern Japanese and an Escher painting. Little alcoves lead to littler alcoves which again lead to a tiny rooms which only a young child can enter with a small seat for him/her to sit on. The hall uses forced perspective to give the strange feeling that it is warped and an actual living, breathing space (much in the same way as, for example, Howells Moving Castle does in the film.)

Inside a small cinema, modeled to look like a steam-punk ship interior, I get to see Water Spider Momon. This exclusive presentation to the Museum is a short film and love story about two pond-scaters dancing and falling in love on a small pond. It does not scrimp and save on the fantastic imagery, animation and magic of Ghibli.

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For lunch there are two options. The aforementioned cafe has quite a long queue so I reluctantly decide to avoid it. Just another beautiful little touch is that seating (and shade) are provided for those waiting; and a small library of story and picture books for kids to read while they wait. I go for the second option which has the decidedly Japanese menu of hot dogs, dumplings, tea, juice, beer or ice cream.

The second floor of the museum contains a special exhibition as well as some fantastic rooms to explore. The rooms are as if the study of mad professor or somewhat witch or wizard. They are fantastically messy, with strewn sketches, maps and books filled with writings and studies. Throughout the rooms one finds thrown-together machines which look like they are about to fall apart at any second, churning and chugging and clanking and clogging, all marvellously Rube-Goldbergesquely achieving nothing.

The museum shop will be…
Well-prepared and well-presented for the sake of the visitors and running the museum
Not a bargain shop that attaches importance only to the amount of sales
A shop that continues to strive to be a better shop
Where original items made only for the museum are found
— Hayao Miyazaki

The museum has two shops; one for trinkets, DVDs, stuffed Totoro toys of every shape and size, etc; and one which sells only books. Of all the museums I have ever visited the book shop in the Ghibli museum ranks one of the highest. I have never seen a collection of art books the likes of this before or since. Not only do they contain (sometimes two or three per movie) making of the movie art books for all of the Ghibili films, but also books on matte paintings, scenery, animation, landscape, castles and many, many other subjects. Many of these books seemed exclusive to the museum (I certainly haven’t seen many of the titles before or since) and I bought as many of them as my wallet would allow me (I ended up having to post them home at great expense)

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They don’t allow you take photographs inside the museum itself (which I respect. One can find pictures of some of the displays if they look carefully on the internet but I would advise against it, it’s much more magical to discover it for the first time yourself) but they do allow you to take pictures outside the building in the surrounding gardens.

The gardens around the museum stretch from the well and courtyard down below to the roof garden above (which houses the guardian of the museum, who you may recognise from Castle in the Sky)It is, unfortunately, a little rainy on the day I visit to enjoy them fully but they offer a fantastic contribution to the overall feel of the place.

A museum that is interesting and which relaxes the soul
A museum where much can be discovered
A museum based on a clear and consistent philosophy
A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel
A museum that makes you feel more enriched when you leave than when you entered!
—– Hayao Miyazaki

I’ve used the words magic far too often in this piece but I really can’t think of any better words to describe the Ghibli Museum. The magic that the museum possesses isn’t the same as that of the Disney parks or a natural history museum or science museum or an art gallery, it is one which exists hidden under the surface, one which needs the spark of imagination to ignite. There is always the feeling that the magic is hidden; behind the steam in kitchens, behind the notebooks and inside the little alcoves of the central hall, briefly and flinchingly always caught in the corner of your eye. And this subtle magic is something that I have never really seen anywhere else before or since.

I highly recommend you discover it for yourself.

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For those in search of more information:

The Official Ghibli Museum Website (including information on how to book if you’re planning to go to Tokyo.)

Studio Ghibli Wikipedia

Also, if you have access, Film 4 are doing a Ghibli season this month. Check this link out for information on the history of the studio and on it’s more famous films.

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One Response to “STUDIO GHIBLI MUSEUM, Mitaka, Tokyo”

  1. Vicki

    I loved the Ghibli museum, and I hope to go back someday. You’re right, the tickets were very hard to come by, but somehow I managed to get it only a week in advance! Well worth it, though. Lovely pictures and wonderful write-up; you’re right, “magic” is the best way to term this place. 🙂

    Reply

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