Despite having been
boringly safely back in the UK for over a month now, I’m still only just managing to mentally process everything we saw and experienced in Tokyo. A major highlight for us, in fact one of the main reasons for going in the first place, was our trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum in the suburb of Mitaka.
Anyone that’s read this site in any detail before has probably picked up on how much of a Ghibli fanatic I can be at times. My obsession is over a decade old now, first triggered when my then new girlfriend, on finding out I had an NTSC capable VCR, gave me a dusty old pirated VHS video of a film her grandparents had given to her on her last visit to Japan, at the age of eleven. She wanted to watch it again, as the only machine capable of playing it at her parents’ house had failed years ago, but I could sense a slight trepidation in her face as she handed it to me. It was a children’s film, she explained, and it might not be as good as she remembered.
The film was My Neighbour Totoro, and despite the lack of any English subtitles or dub and the poor quality of the recording, for 90 minutes we both sat transfixed and enchanted.
It’s pretty fair to say that up until that point, with the exceptions of the works of Oshii and Otomo, I’d pretty much given up on anime. After the success of Akira over here in the UK, we had been flooded with over-priced but poor quality VHS releases of Japanese TV and OVA shows. Largely misjudging what us new-born anime fans wanted, distributors bombarded us with anything that had a hint of sex, violence and a regurgitated cyberpunk vibe. Releases were given rushed, poor quality English dubs, with the scripts edited to include cursing not present in the originals, in order to force a 15 or even 18 classification and give the impression of ‘adult’ material. Rapidly many of us lost interest, seeing works like Akira and Ghost in the Shell as one off artistic triumphs.
But sitting, watching that Totoro tape for the first time, I realised how wrong we were. It was clear just minutes in that I was missing out on something very, very special, and over the next few years, now with the internet as my spiritual guide, I found myself consumed by a new obsession.
Eleven years later the story of that lovingly pirated tape came full circle, when the two of us found ourselves stood just a couple of miles from her grandparents’ house, at Mitaka station. After the first official shuttle bus filled with excitable children and their parents, we were too impatient to wait for a second, so instead decided to walk the kilometre to the museum instead, the charming, regularly spaced signs counting down the distance heightening our already gripping state of nervous anticipation.
If you search for information about the Ghibli Museum online, what you tend to find – even in personal reports from bloggers that have visited – seems to be pretty sparse on details. I’d originally intended to try and break this mold, and to give you a detailed tour of the museum, room-by-room, exhibit-by-exhibit. But it was clear after just a few minutes of being in the building that there are three very good reasons as to way that’s not only a nearly impossible task, but one that I just didn’t want to undertake. Firstly, it’s largely a visual experience, and with the no photography policy strictly enforced by the firm but smiling staff, it’s not one that easily translates to words. Similarly, the sheer scale of some of the material on display defies not only description, but at times also comprehension. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t want to spoil it for you. If you can, you need to go and see this yourself.
The building itself, partly buried in the grounds of Inokashira Park, feels compact from the exterior but surprisingly spacious once inside; the main atrium decorated to feel exactly like you’ve stepped onto the non-existent set of one of Miyazaki’s beautifully crafted, European feeling films. The highlight on the ground floor is the animation room, where the aim of the museum is the show with light-boxes, models and layered cells how the art and theory of animation work together. From the very start everything is very hands on; there are dials to turn and levers to pull, and images hide behind little doors and shutters that need to be opened.
The centrepiece of the room though is the huge ‘Bouncing Totoro’ zoetrope, where 3D models of characters from the film are brought to life through strobe lights as the huge exhibit rotates. It’s breathtaking to watch, and even if you could take photos, they obviously wouldn’t do it justice. Similarly, the ‘Rising Steam’ exhibit employs optical illusions to project a holographic image of birds flocking around the iconic robot soldier from Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Again, it needs to be seen first hand. Trust me.
Also on the ground floor is the entrance to the Saturn Theatre. As you enter the museum, you’re each given a ticket to one free showing of an exclusive Ghibli short in the Saturn – luckily you get to keep these tickets, as each one is made of a few sequential frames in film cell form from a Ghibli movie.
There are six shorts they show in rotation, none of which have ever been shown outside of the museum. To be honest, we would have been happy to have seen anything, but I can’t express how thrilled we were when we found out Mei and the Kittenbus was showing. The 20-minute short is a sequel of sorts to Totoro, re-uniting some of the original’s characters for the first and only time in nearly 20 years. Even putting aside how lucky we felt to have seen it – I have Japanese friends who have been there multiple times and have never glimpsed it – it’s a magical piece of animation, and without embarrassment I can honestly say that watching it together, sat like wide-eyed children on the steps of the overcrowded theatre, was a touching, emotional experience.
The next floor up is dedicated to temporary and permanent exhibitions – the highlight of the latter being a recreation of what is presumably meant to be Miyazki-san and Takahata-san’s studies, or at least versions of them told in true Ghibli-fantasy style. As you slowly walk around these small rooms, your breath is stolen once again by the treasures on display. Desks are covered with illustrations and notes, concept art and character designs, blueprints and technical drawings. I’m sure they must be printed copies, but the quality of them conspires with the setting to convince you of their hand-drawn authenticity, and many are simply attached to the wall by just a single drawing pin, all so close that you not only can but are encouraged to reach out and touch them. At the end of the display sits a huge wooden bookcase, filled leather bound books just encouraging you to take them down and flick through them, revealing themselves to be sketch pads full of the movies storyboards. Again, they must be fakes, but their quality again fools you into staring at the pencil strokes and dreaming they’re from the masters’ own hands, and wishing you had a few days to sit on the floor like a kid, absorbing them all. The whole exhibit was my personal highlight of the museum, and to any Ghibli or just true anime fan it’s worth the entrance fee on it’s own.
The top floor houses the Catbus room, with a huge plush recreation of the feline transport that sadly only small children are allowed to climb all over. At the other end of the floor is the ‘Mama Aiuto’ museum shop, officially the most chaotic place in Tokyo. Forget Shinjuku JR at 5pm, nothing in Japan is as terrifying and noisy as a shop full of Ghibli loving kids and their parents in full consumer frenzy. I didn’t see any blood spill, but believe me my friends, I saw images of tears being shed and tantrums being thrown that I will carry with me to the grave. We got out alive, but with our wallets considerably lighter, and our bags heavy with books, DVDs, Blu-rays and ornaments, the details of which I will post up here in time.
The roof garden houses the now famous life-size statue of aforementioned robot soldier from Laputa, and is one of the few places where you can take photo. I got some pretty good shots, but again I have to say that the only way to really appreciate the intricacy and craftsmanship is firsthand. Also up here is the small open-air café, that sells some pretty good hotdogs and homemade soup, as well as a Museum branded beer – it was too early for drinking for me, but yet again the kindness of the Japanese revealed itself when a woman on a neighbouring table offered us an empty bottle to take home.
Anyway, I’m going to cut this short before I start gushing even more. The place is simply amazing. It sets out to, and easily achieves, the aim of the best Ghibli movies; to create a world for children that is so intricate, charming and believable that it sucks in adults as well and fills them with youthful fascination again. Go there.