One of Japan’s most famous cultural exports is anime, and the anime that is best known and loved for its quality and heart is that produced by Studio Ghibli under its legendary illustrator and director Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps the best known characters are Totoro (from My Neighbour Totoro) and No-Face (from Spirited Away), but there are numerous films – like Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke – telling fantastical stories of monsters and demons, friendly and not so friendly.
Of course there is a museum dedicated to Studio Ghibli but it is not a normal museum. For one thing, its ticketing system is pure craziness! If you live in Japan, you can only buy a ticket on the 10th of each month, for any day on the following month. And often (maybe always) the tickets for the entire month are sold out by the evening. If the 10th falls on a day when you are working when the tickets go on sale at 10.00 am, you could miss out, as I did in July.
I thought the same would happen again in August as the 10th fell on a Saturday, but fortunately for me it was in the middle of the school’s 2-week summer break. So I made a point of being awake and at my computer at 10.00am. My days off are Tuesday and Wednesday but the museum is closed on Tuesdays, so I tried to book the earliest Wednesday in September. It took a couple of hours (memories of trying to book London Olympics tickets!) but eventually I got my booking confirmed. The tickets aren’t at all expensive, just really elusive!
When the day came I was a little sick. I’d had an innocuous cough for a few weeks but it had started becoming problematic and I was having difficulty sleeping as my lungs kept filling with fluid. I’d been promising myself to get it looked at but I didn’t want to forsake my hard-won Ghibli ticket.
Helpfully, the Ghibli museum is located at the far end of the Tozai line, which meant I could get there on one train from my local station. All the trains that go from there into Tokyo have the destination “Nakana” or “Mitaka” on the front, but I’d never been as far as those stations. On this day, I went right through Nakana and got off at Mitaka.
Mitaka seemed to be a pleasant little shopping district, with an attractive, decorated central avenue. I knew the museum was in a park to the south-east of the station so I followed a diagonal road, and was reassured when I saw a sign to the museum directing me down another side street. Eventually I bumped into Inokashiro Park and found a map-board, and realised I’d overshot a little, the museum was just to the north.
It was clear I’d found it from the queues of people waiting around outside (presumably like me they had tickets for a 12:00pm entrance). The Iron Man of Laputa standing on the roof of the yellow building was also a bit of a giveaway. My timing was good, only 5 minutes to wait before I could go in. The crowd seemed to be pretty evenly split between Japanese and international.
I joined the queue and went inside. They told me no photography inside the building, only on the outside areas. They gave me a little piece of card around an animation cell (from Tales of Earthsea, apparently – one I haven’t seen) and this was my ticket to the Saturn Cinema.
Pictures of Ghibli characters including Totoro featured in the stained glass windows of the reception area. The building itself was designed to be like a maze. There was a spiral staircase in a wrought-iron cage going right up to the third floor, and I couldn’t resist going up. At the top there was a very low archway – even Japanese have to bow, for me it was more like crouching, and on the other side was the Catbus!
The Catbus is a creature that is… well, half cat, half bus, summoned by Totoro to help his human friends travel around. In the Ghibli museum he is a large furry climbing-frame – sadly for kids under the age of 10, kids over the age of 40 weren’t allowed on. Inside, the floor of the bus was covered with Soot Sprites.
There was a door to the outside, so I tried to get a picture of Catbus without breaking the rules. I then took another spiral staircase up to the roof garden and the Iron Man. I had to double back on myself as there was no alternative exit, so I explored the third floor a bit more, finding a library, and the museum shop. It was pretty crowded and I didn’t see any souvenirs that leapt out at me.
At the back of the building there is a patio area with a fast-food kiosk and an indoor restaurant (the Straw Hat Cafe). It was pretty busy but I didn’t have much appetite with my illness, even for a cup of chips.
I went and explored the ground floor instead. I was pleased to discover a water feature with live fish in it. I took a pretty good picture of two mating dragonflies but sadly these turned out to be plastic. Inside there was a room showing some different animation techniques, including an ingenious kind of merry-go-round flickerbox, with characters in slightly different positions around the wheel appearing to come to life when the spinning and flickering started.
I used my ticket to get into the cinema to watch a short film “The Day I Harvested a Planet”. It was all Japanese, no English subtitles, but I guess it was easy enough to follow without understanding what the characters were sayings.
I hadn’t yet checked out the second floor so I went to see what was there. It had two main features – a guide to how the animations are created, showing how cells were coloured to a very specific colour palette – and a recreation of Miyazaki’s home studio, including lots of original drawings, lots of jars full of pencil stubs, reference books, and even the original storyboard books for Porco Rosso and When Marnie Was Here (the film I had seen most recently).
I stayed for about 2 hours in the end, I could probably have stayed longer but I wanted to get home and rest, so I made myself leave. I wandered through the park for a while – they had tennis courts and a zoo, and a boating lake. I ended up not going back to Mitaka but to the next station along, which was just as near.
It was an interesting day, but considering the challenge of the ticketing system and the reputation of the films as consistently wondrous and satisfying, perhaps I was expecting a little bit more. Robotic versions of the characters, perhaps, or flying castles, or rooms modeled like locations from the films. But then again, Ghibli isn’t a franchise like Disney, the films are all unique and stand alone on their own merits. The museum, well it’s just its own thing too, I suppose.