Before you even set foot in this strange, rather unique building, you’re presented with Ghibli’s opening gambit: Let’s lose our way, Together. You really do. There are no tour guides here, no ushers, no markings on the floor…but there is plenty of writing on the wall. The Ghibli museum manages to do something that a large proportion of these institutes fail miserably to; actually give you a true insight into the creative and technical processes involved in making a piece of animation.Let’s start from the top because even if the museum isn’t linear this article should at least try to be.
The building. It’s just fabulous .A sprawling amalgamation of wood, grass, earth and iron that is just as beautiful as it is clever. If you are coming from Mitaka station there is a bus service that you will drop you off just down the road from the place. There youwalk and speculate that you might in fact have come to the wrong area, it’s aquiet suburban stretch of road, one or two cafes but not a Starbucks in sight.As you walk up the road you enter shrubbery, trees and other random greenerybefore emerging into the courtyard of the museum. Plonked right in the middle of this quaint little place this could almost just be someone’s home, maybe a retired architect or a batty author having decided to seclude themselves from the world.
When your time is nigh, walk through the rather grand double-door entrance and down a winding hallway of polished wood before arriving at a large desk where some very kind Ghiblianites will give you your ticket (Three animation cells in a small frame. Fucking genius.) and simply point you in the right direction. The message is clear; go and do what you please…and that’s exactly what you do.
To walk into the main hall, with three floors above you, a theatre below, a garden on the roof, an elevator and a spiral staircase, is to walk into the epicentre of the Ghibli kingdom. If you wanted to you could work the place systematically but it’s a far greater experience just to walk around and stick your head into a random room. Think chocolate shop tactics, you don’t work your way through the entire stock one by one, you peruse, see what looks good, what looks tantalising.
Let’s say you decide to wander into the first room on your right, this is your first taste of what’s on offer; and there are two kinds of reaction that will occur. For the casual fan, the ‘I’m here for my kids’ people who have an appreciation but not an obsession will be awed and impressed, no doubts there. But people who truly love not only Studio Ghibli but also the dying art of cell animation itself,will be moved to tears. See the history of Ghibli movies, some character sketches and models in various stages of movement cycles, all very exciting but what is really impressive is the demonstration of how animation actually works;a glass case with a model tree, and several models of various characters (Totoro, the catbus, Kiki…the whole bunch) in what seems to be a pretty little carousel display. However, once every ten seconds or so the lights go out and a strobe-light stutters away.
It so happens that this light is synced to flash twenty-five times every second and it’s at this speed that the human eye can no longer distinguish individual pictures: The principle of animation in a physical,understandable and experiential format. Once that light goes and the characters start spinning on their axis (the tree), there is a split second of motion blur before you are watching in amazement as your most loved Ghibli characters are dancing, skipping, flying,driving and playing in front of your very eyes, and if that’s not the coolest thing ever then stop the world because you should just get off here.
As impressive as this room is, your not even part-way down the rabbit-hole yet, it just gets better and better. Take a walk up the spiral stair, past the Cat-Bus and onto the roof garden where you can look at and touch a life-size Laputan sentinel from ‘Castle in the Sky’, wrought in exquisite detail, rotting away with it’s inner workings displayed for all to see. Once Appropriate selfies are taken, head back inside for the best bit yet…
Two simple rooms, walk in one and out of the other. Within these walls is a definitively mapped journey of an idea, from conception to actualization and there are two respects which must be paid; firstly to the creators themselves, for the sketching, modelling, and colouring of the initial designs. Every landscape, every character, every house, vehicle and plant is beautifully drawn by hand and painted in stunning watercolour. The level of detail is unparalleled, with some of the plane and airship designs bordering on blueprints, this is perfection done the Japanese way…so it’s perfect.
The second kudos goes to the team that did the layout of the exhibition, this isn’t a soulless display of nothingness sat behind a rope or frozen in glass: this is creativity displayed creatively. The concept art is pinned to the walls willy-nilly, nestled in amongst each other, with desks and workstations set up as if the artists could walk back in, sit down and continue from where they left off. It’s a warm, comforting atmosphere; pots of sweets,jars of worn-down pencil stubs and weighty tomes of gardens, architecture,aviation and wildlife for the artists’ reference. An excellent touch? Ash trays full of cigarette butts. Walt Disney famously didn’t want anyone, children especially, to see him smoking. Just imagine what Miyazaki’s response to that would be, after all, we all have our vices to help us get the job done. At least these guys are honest about it.
The concept art isn’t the only element to receive the gentle caress of the artist’s brush, the storyboards are given an equal amount of love and attention; every single storyboard is hand drawn and painted to a level of such finesse they could be sold as a very elaborate (and lengthy) children’s book. This stuff all feels real , you can touch, smell and ruffle through the papers looking for your favorite scene. One shelf even contains the full storyboards for ‘Valley of the Wind’…all 10 books of them, which also serves to show what a massive undertaking one of these films is.
Still, amidst all the wonder and imagination there is a poignant, bittersweet note. Nestled in the back of this room there is what can only really be described as a memorial to the dying art of cell animation. Gone from the western world and even relinquished for the most part by Studio Ghibli itself, this is a testament to the commitment and skill of ‘old school’ animation and it’s presented in the most endearing way. Shelves of cell paint, a case of raw materials that said paints are painstakingly derived from and a wall of technique: showing the process of how each cell is painted and shaded. There is even a wonderful contraption that demonstrates how to layer up a shot(background, foreground, props and characters) and then film a panning shot in real-time. Seems to require a steady pair of hands and 20/20 vision…
So, with all of this wonder and excitement on offer you’d expect hefty lines, long waits and herding around the place like a cattle market right? Wrong. This isn’t Disneyland, Hayao Miyazaki isn’t the Hollywood King Midas that dear old Walt once was, here integrity reigns free and at 900 yen a ticket, no one will argue otherwise. It’s never been about getting as many people through as possible, it’s about sharing the experience and keeping the passion of truly great film-making stoked and burning. No branded, consumerist tathere.
Tickets are allocated strictly one per person AND they must be booked well in advance. If you miss your allocated time slot? Tough. No photography and if the seats fill up for a theater showing, wait for the next one. The rules may seem stringent but it’s all designed to allow a proper experience. Things may get a little busy at times, maybe in certain rooms you will occasionally have to wait a few minutes before you can move into poll position but it never becomes an endless slog. It never feels like the move-look-take-a-picture dross that organized tourism can end up slurring into and for that we can all be truly grateful.
If this article aims to offer any real advice, it’s this: If you are not a Ghibli fan, if you haven’t seen any of the films or a genuine interest in the creative process, if the museum is merely something mentioned to you in a guide book at a passing glance… just leave it. Don’t bother. Unclutter the halls and leave the tickets for someone who will appreciate them because rest assured that there is nothing more agonising than waiting to access a particularly crowded area and hearing some variation of “well I’ve not actually seen any of them but I’ve heard good things” or “it’s cool but it’s quicker just to use a computer”. There really are people that ignorant in the world and if you suspect you might be one of them, stay in Tokyo Disney with your Mickey-ears because Bob Iger will always love your money you.
Be warned, should you wander the halls and utter such nonsense, you may be tailed into the bathroom by an avid Ghibli fan. There won’t be any noise but they will most likely leave wearing you as a raincoat.
For photos and more information take a look at the official website here .