Totoro To-torrrro, Totoro To-torrrro! If you’ve never heard those words before you a) haven’t seen My Neighbour Totoro. b) haven’t hung around enough Japanese children. c) haven’t lived!
The delightful animated films of Studio Ghibli are full of magic and fairytales. They can be dark, fantastical, melancholy, ecstatic, endearing, and wondrous. I admit that I came late to the Ghibli universe, after Jonathan Ross raved about the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away in the early noughties. After being awed by that I set about absorbing every other Ghibli film I came across.
Therefore it’s very clear that I got a little bit excited when I discovered that there was a Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. Often called Ghibli World that does make you think of a theme park rather than the reality. It’s a hybrid concept that blends the art of the films with the needs of a museum designed to simultaneously demonstrate the fundamentals of animation and whisk you into the imagination of Ghibli directors like Hayao Miyazaki.
The Museum is some distance from the centre of Tokyo, you have to catch a train to Mitaka station out in the western regions of the metropolis. From there you can either take the Ghibli bus for a few Yen, which is painted to look like the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro, or you can walk along the quiet and leafy streets to the park. We did the latter because we didn’t know when the next Ghibli bus was arriving.
You have to book tickets in advance. That fact is especially important if you are planning a trip to Japan, add it to the list of things that you need to organise before you leave home. We booked ours through My Bus which may look like a vaguely dodgy website but rest assured it’s all completely legitimate. Also, they have excellent customer service – we visited Japan soon after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear incident of 2011. Plenty of tourists were canceling their trips and My Bus contacted me to ask if I wanted to as well because they would organise a refund ASAP. Needless to say I declined their offer but it was pleasing to know that they cared about their customers enough to offer refunds without even being asked.
When we reached the park housing the Museum we could see the odd buildings poking out from the trees. Pastel yellows, greens, blues and pinks adorn the structure with an architectural style that I can’t really place. Somewhere between Portmeireon Village in Wales, Tatooine, and a giant Italian gelato shop. A derelict ticket office on the corner housed a huge plush Totoro who grinned at us in welcome. Rounding the building you come to the entrance where you exchange your voucher for proper ticket.
This ticket is a cardboard slip case with a film slide of a Ghibli animation in the centre. It gains you entry to the cinema in the museum, which plays a new animation every six months or so. Our one was about an egg princess, a dough man, and the typical Ghibli witch with a huge nose. And it was great fun. As usual.
The decor inside ranges from nautical themes to pure fantasy. You aren’t allowed to take photographs inside, which is sad as I would really like to have had a record of how it looked. There are winding staircases, little nooks that only children can fit through, comfy wing-backed chairs and plenty of small touches here and there that make the museum a gaudy work of art in its own right.
We explored the animation exhibits demonstrating various techniques of image capture and projection technology. Some of the Ghibli pantheon take part in these before your eyes and I can imagine that a child taking in these displays would be both absorbed and intrigued. The Museum is actually a huge advert for the career choice of animator. It grooms the hordes of children who visit by reproducing their favourite characters in front of them and lets them in on the secret that they too could go with Ponyo, Chihiro, Howl and Sophie, or Yu-Baba on their next adventure. Whilst these exhibits are pretty fun they are aimed at a very young age group.
Upstairs there’s a well-stocked shop, which we took full advantage of, and a 5 metre-long Cat Bus nestled in a soft play area for all the kids to tumble around in. Not-so-secretly I wished I could go and sit inside too, just for a minute. The balcony leads to a large and ornate metal cage on the side of the Museum, with stairs inside leading to the roof. Climbing those puts you into ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ with a 15 foot-high bronze statue of one of the guardian robots from that film. It’s a lovely thing, and just right with the small roof garden surrounding it as though it has been trapped, forgotten, for decades.
Head to the back of the roof and you find the command cube from the same film. A tiny Japanese girl was running around the area whilst I examined the stone and is actually hiding behind it in this picture:
Very cute. That’s the feel of the whole experience, very cute.
Even though I was happy with the day trip I was feeling ever so slightly disappointed that there weren’t some more adult targeted exhibits for us to peruse. We went around the shop again and were about to leave when wait… What’s this? A whole section we’d missed! And let me see… Yes, it’s all about the artwork process! This was super-exciting. The next series of small rooms are laid out to recreate the Miyazaki homestead, or an approximation of it. There are props all over the cluttered shelves, explicit evidence of where the Ghibli inspiration geysers from. Photo albums of research trips to Switzerland clearly relate to Howl’s Moving Castle, and Miyazaki’s obsession with steam power and flying machines is mirrored in the models dotted throughout. There are storyboards and displays of concept art which, just a few months later, I recognised in The Borrower Arriety. Half-expended tubes of gouache and watercolour lay like a rainbow across a well-loved old desk and huge glass jars of sweets suggested to the visitor the vision of Hayao hunched over a drawing and filling his smiling face with sugary treats to keep those brilliant neurons firing. It dragged us along happily and we both agreed that one day we would love our home to look like this.
This almost overlooked part of the museum was our highlight by a long way. It did for me what all the other exhibits were designed to do for children. It made me want to call up my employers and say ‘Sorry, I’ve found the best job in the world, I won’t be coming back.’