Last week, I had the supreme pleasure of visiting the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Japan and I must say that if you enjoy animation on any level, this museum is an absolute delight. Ghibli Museum is a modest but gorgeous building that informs the visitor about the history of Ghibli Studios, the step-by-step process of creating animation, and presentation of unique animation and techniques that you can’t find anywhere else. What is Ghibli? To start with, it’s the place that creates the films of Hayao Miyazaki, many of which you may know: Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and more. I’ll talk about the history of Ghibli and provide you a glimpse into what you can see at the Museum, which sells out months ahead of time and does not allow interior photography (but we do have official images to share as well as photos we were allowed to take of the exterior).
Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki. Miyazaki and Takahata had already had lengthy careers in Japanese film and TV animation and had worked together on Hols: Prince of the Sun and Panda! Go, Panda!. Suzuki was an editor at a popular manga magazine. The studio was founded after the success of the 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, written and directed by Miyazaki. For a time, the studio operated out of the Kichijoji area of Tokyo, near where the museum currently resides.
Their films hold near universal acclaim. All of Miyazaki’s films are extremely well-reviewed. They are also all top grossers in Japan. Spirited Away was the most successful, earning $290 million worldwide and also nabbing the Academy Award for Best Animated Film in 2001. In 1996, Disney became the international distributor of their films. The movies are noted for their high quality of animation as well as exploring themes of man’s relationship with nature as well as coming of age.
In 1998, Ghibli decided to open a museum to share details on the animation process as well as highlight their work. Construction was completed throughout 2000 and the museum opened on October 1st, 2001. The design was influenced by European architecture such as the hilltop village of Calcata in Italy. It’s worth noting that Ghibli is pronounced with a soft “g” sound: jib-uhr-ee. It comes from the name of the WW2 Italian aircraft the Caproni Ca. 309 Ghibli (which was pronounced with a hard “g”). The Italian noun “ghibli” is based on the Libyan-Arabic name for the sirocco, or Mediterranean wind, the idea being the studio would “blow a new wind through the anime industry”.
Hayao Miyazaki himself laid out the design of the museum. If you make a purchase at their gift shop, you receive a print of his original artwork design. Or at least you did during my visit. The museum itself has lots of walkways, stained glass windows, art frescos and clockwork. Photography inside is not allowed and it creates a deep sense of immersion. You must reserve tickets ahead of time and only a certain number are allowed inside every two hours. This keeps the place from being too crowded. It’s beautiful and relaxing. This can make it trickier to get tickets when you’re from out of the country, since it pretty much always sells out through the sole official channel a couple months ahead of time. In the U.S. only travel agency JTB can sell you tickets and they sell out very fast. Alternately, you can buy a ticket at a Lawson convenience store in Japan but you usually need to buy them a couple weeks ahead of time. I found an online service, Voyagin, that allows you to pay a Japanese resident a small fee (around $10) to get these tickets for me and drop them off at my hotel. It does require planning ahead.
The first thing that happens when you enter the museum is you exchange your ticket for a pass. This is a really nice set of movie cels in a thick cardboard case. You show this pass to get into a movie theater where one of 10 short films is shown. Each film is exclusive to the museum and lasts 15 to 20 minutes. I got to see A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail, written by Miyazaki and directed by Akihiko Yamashita. It’s based on the Japanese folk tale “Nezumi no Sumo” where an old farmer witnesses mice wrestling in the forest. After his house mice lose badly, the farmer and his wife prepare a feast for the mice to give them the strength and energy to win the next match. The films are in Japanese but are easy to comprehend even if you don’t speak the language.
Also on the main floor is a large exhibit room dedicated to the history of animation and its techniques. There are all sorts of zoetropes that show animation but arguably the most fascinating is a large model, not hand-drawn animation. It contains figures including Totoro in different poses. The wheel they are set on begins spinning one way then the light above it turns off and a flickering light replaces it. Instantly, the eye is fooled into seeing the figures staying in the same spot but jumping up and down. There are also areas that show layered cels to demonstrate how to convey depth in a 2-D artform and long filmstrips showing how light shined through the film works.
On the second floor, there is a gorgeous tour through a studio area demonstrating each part of the animation process, specific to Ghibli studios. The first room has draft tables with gorgeous pencil illustrations and the walls are covered in storyboards and character designs. Reference books for architecture, people and props are everywhere, along with music and novels for inspiration. Adjacent rooms show how color is selected, how backgrounds are painted and how the animation itself is painted. Again, reference material is stacked everywhere. Finally, a room shows how the elements are composited together (keyframing, cleanup) as well as how the film is arranged and cut.
Other elements in the museum include a massive Catbus (from My Neighbor Totoro) for kids 12 and under to play on. It was VERY popular. There is also a large gift shop called Mamma Auito (named after the sky pirates from Porco Rosso. Outside, on the 2nd floor, there is a restaurant called Straw Hat Cafe. It was very busy so we went with the small cafe beside it that serves hot dogs and drinks. There is also a spiral staircase from the 3rd floor to the roof. There you can see a giant robot from Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli’s first film). There’s also a nice little garden.
Finally, there is a rotating exhibit area. While we were there, it was a series of comic book pages illustrated by Miyazaki inspired by the story Ghost Tower, a 1939 mystery novel by Edogawa Ranpo. That book was based on Ruik? Kuroiwa’s adaption of A Woman in Grey, published in 1898 and written by British author Alice Muriel Williamson. Miyazaki, who first encountered Edogawa Ranpo’s Ghost Tower in middle school, took inspiration from the novel for his 1979 film The Castle of Cagliostro. In fact, after the pages, there is a massive model of the clocktower rescue in The Castle of Cagliostro.
A museum ticket is ¥1,000 for adults (about $10 US, maybe a little less). So it isn’t cheap. And you’ll probably spend about 2 hours there if you take your time to do everything. However, the attention to detail and the immersive experience is something you won’t really find anywhere else. The museum is located in Mitaka, a western suburb of Tokyo. The train to Kichijoji Station drops you off at the corner of Inokashira Park. It’s about a 15 minute walk through the Park but it’s a gorgeous one. Absolutely beautiful. On the way back, my fiance and I stopped to paddle a swan boat through the large central pond and watch the Cherry Blossom trees and picnickers. It is a lovely experience and I highly recommend it.