Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Studio Ghibli Museum

It goes without saying that the Studio Ghibli Museum is a must-visit destination for the deepest, in-the-blood fan of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and their illustrious colleagues. It is a destination of a different sort from that enjoyed by fans of Walt Disney Animation. The Studio Ghibli Museum is not a theme park and, save for a plush Catbus playroom reserved for children, offers nothing to engage the seeker of thrills. No Castle in the Sky simulator ride, no Spirited Away roller coaster, alas. This destination is, indeed, a museum.

That is not to say that it does not engage. Rather than adrenaline rushes, the Studio Ghibli Museum offers massive doses of whimsy and charm that fill the visitor to the brim with the studio's creative prowess. Here, Miyazaki and co. once more play masterfully with our emotional, aesthetic, nostalgic and intellectual faculties. Here is the incarnated world of Studio Ghibli.

Unlike a theme park, the museum is not themed to any one film or collection thereof. There is no one land or room to recall Totoro's forest or Kiki's village. The only characters one will encounter are the static forms of Totoro in the museum's false entrance, the aforementioned Catbus and Laputa's robot soldier in the rooftop garden. Not that the studio's array of beloved characters are otherwise absent. They fill every nook and crany of the museum as motifs in grillwork and stained glass.

The whole museum lives and breathes the Ghibli aesthetic, designed as it was by Miyazaki. Though not themed after any movie in particular, it is like stepping into any Ghibli film. Shape and line, colour and material all conspire to craft the stage of a live-action animation into which you have entered to, as the motto says, "be lost together."

After passing through the true entrance, having your voucher replaced with a proper ticket enclosing a 3-frame strip of 35mm film (I received a clip of Howl's Moving Castle), and descending the grand staircase, you land on the first floor. To your left is the Saturn Theater, the venue in which animated shorts exclusive to the museum play. I was blessed to see Mei and the Kittenbus, a quasi-sequel to my favorite Ghibli film, My Neighbor Totoro. To your right is a room explaining the origins of animation, from zoetropes and panorama boxes to feature films. Imbued with the Ghibli aesthetic, these exhibits are beautiful, finely crafted and frequently feature Ghibli characters. One example of dimensional animation shows a 3-D robot soldier surrounded by flapping doves. Another massive model bathes sculptures of Totoro and co. in strobe lighting, creating the astounding illusion of moving, living forest spirits. When not the characters, the interests never drift far from Miyazaki's own. One panorama box - an open box in which plates of painted glass are arranged to produce a scene with apparent depth - features a scene of oceanographic exploration straight out of Jules Verne. When we reach the advent of film, flickering lights on minute screens or on the film strip itself shows a comic rendition of evolution from fish to human.

"Rising Sea Stream" and "Bouncing Totoro" zoetropes.

Two staircases challenge the visitor next. Does one take the main staircase up to the second floor? Or do they take the narrow, iron-work, spiral staircase to the third? If we assume the second, you are taken to the special exhibition gallery on the one side of the museum. During my visit, this rotating exhibit space featured the concept art, storyboards, and pencil drawings for Ponyo. The exhibit to inaugurate the space was the 'Castle in the Sky' and Imaginary Science Fiction Machines exhibit. Miyazaki's exhibit treatment outlined how "I want to stir the imagination of children by showing the strange and fanastic machines that were the imagined by man at the dawn of the machine age in the 19th century, connecting them with the world of Castle in the Sky which carries the same tradition." The exhibit included the short film Imaginary Flying Machines and full size "Alcione" ornithopter, as well as artwork and models for submarine vessels and the war machines of The Dark Shadows of Imaginary Science.

"Story of an Ornithopter" from Imaginary Science Fiction Machines.

On the other side of the second floor is a walkthrough of an idealized animation studio, "Piccolo Studios". With an Italian flair favoured by Miyazaki, Piccolo has the atmosphere of a warm, inviting house with separate rooms belonging to preproduction, background artists, staging, animation, ink and paint, and shooting/editing. Of course it bears no resemblance to the formal, antiseptic reality of an actual animation studio, but it ought to. The sense the maestro wished to create was that of a conceptual animation studio, the whimsical world inside the animators' own heads. The preproduction room is especially interesting as it is Miyazaki's unstated, mental environment. Models of airships and pterodactyls hang from the ceiling while copies of the watercolour concept sketches for every Ghibli film paper the walls.

If one went to the third floor, they would find the Catbus playroom, the bookstore and jam-packed gift shop, as well as a smaller gallery filling a corridor between the two. Again during my visit, the exhibit was a series of paintings of Japanese rural life by Ghibli background artist Kazuo Oga with associated artifacts like kites and live eels. One of the beauties of the Studio Ghibli Museum is the light it shines on the other artists inducted into the Ghibli family. Miyazaki obviously looms overwhelmingly large, but there is Kazuo Oga and Iblard Jikan's Naohisa Inoue. In several places throughout the museum, Inoue has painted Iblard scenes directly on the wall. This, it should be noted, was done during regular museum hours and considered an exhibit in itself. This is the lovely and creative tone of the institution.

Up the external spiral staircase and one reaches the rooftop garden, home to the robot soldier. Also, an engraved block fallen from the Castle in the Sky has landed on the rooftop. In the courtyard outside the museum stands the Straw Hat Cafe, which applies the same sensibilities to food, with home-cooked meals and a kitchen visible to interested observers.

Author with friend.

The Studio Ghibli Museum is a delightful oasis where the fantasies of perhaps the finest animation studio in the world have become charming, whimsical reality.


George Taylor said...


Absolutely stunning!

Now, I have another reason to visit Tokyo.

So, Cory, did you notice how the visitors reacted to the space and to a Ghibli museum? Did they hold it with reverence? Is Miyazaki that respected and loved?

Cory Gross said...

The Studio Ghibli Museum is definitely on the must-see list. In fact, you could probably make a pretty nice day of going to the museum followed by either the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum (which helped inspire Spirited Away and whose logo was designed by Miyazaki as thanks) or tracking down Whisper of the Heart locations in Tama New City.

As for the reverence... well... Westerners by in large were filled with reverent awe, since each of us there was making a pilgrimage of sorts. As for the Japanese, I'd say not so much. At least nothing that I could identify. It was a fun day out with the family. Gift shop was packed. But it's right in their backyard, so it's allowed ^_^

Daniel H said...

Wowsa. That goes right to the top of my Bucket List, yes sir. Thanks for posting on this!