“A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel.”
This was the vision that Hayao Miyazaki, one of the founders of the widely successful Studio Ghibli and the Executive Director of the Museum, had for the Ghibli Museum. Having visited the museum, I stand awed and overwhelmed at the intricate yet utterly simple manner in which this vision was executed. This article is a call to all Ghibli fans, and the lovers of art, music, animation, stories and films, and all you dreamers and wanderers waiting to stumble upon your next inspiration – if you have to squeeze in one last stop in your Tokyo travels, let it be the Ghibli Museum.
A brief history of Studio Ghibli
The studio was founded by Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki on June 15, 1985, after the success of the film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), written and directed by Miyazaki. The compendium of 22 full-length animated films has been mostly produced by Miyazaki, and Takahata, whose most notable work was the widely acclaimed Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Since Nausicaa, Studio Ghibli has become one of the most revered animation studios in the world. Some of the most famous Studio Ghibli works are: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
Entering the Ghibli Museum, Mitaka
“Just follow your heart, and keep smiling.” – Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
You will find the colourful, quirky premises of the museum half-hidden amidst the trees of Inokashira Park, Mitaka. Totoro welcomes you at the gate and shows the way into the magical world. Be very observant for this museum does not hold glass-encased exhibits lined up. There are infinite Easter eggs and surprises all around; but you need to learn to look deeper.
So, when you step inside, take a deep breath and calm yourselves, and then look around with fresh eyes and an unburdened heart.
Pay close attention to the building design – the windows, the ceilings, the lamps –the whole premise has been crafted with great finesse and love, and you might find Ghibli characters woven into the designs.
The ceiling of the reception entrance is painted with frescoes – a blue sky cradling a smiling sun, with vines and trees stretching out from the center decorated with fruits, flowers and some Ghibli characters such as Kiki on her broom, Nausicaa on her glider, and so on. The tickets you are handed out are made of pieces of the actual 35 mm film prints that were used in theatres. If you hold your ticket up to the light, you can find out which scene from a Ghibli film is on your ticket. I was ecstatic to find a scene from Ponyo (2008) on my ticket.
The Central Hall
“The Earth speaks to all of us, and if we listen, we can understand.” – Castle in the Sky (1986)
The Central Hall extends up through the entire height of the museum, and it seems as if it opens up to the outside because of the airy windows and the large glass dome at its centre. You can hear the melodies of the wind and the trees if you listen closely, and you can see the sunlight reflect through the glass if you are lucky. The whole complex is a maze of spiral stairways and bridges of passages and terraces overhanging the hall which open to a myriad of rooms and spaces. Of course, the hall is painted at varied spots with colourful and bright images of nature and magic. The complex is reminiscent of the strange and quirky spaces that Studio Ghibli often portrays in the films. I felt as if I had stepped into the heart of Howl’s moving castle!
Keep a look-out for surprise spaces such as the low hanging quaint room designed as if for tiny creatures such as elves, brownies or gnomes. I discovered it along one of the stairways, so do take time to really explore the area. It might seem sorted out at first, but believe me, the surprises never end!
“Where a film is born” Exhibition, First floor
“Inspiration unlocks the future.” – The Wind Rises (2013)
Find the complex of five rooms on the first floor, accessed via one of the many staircases and passageways of the Central Hall, and step into the heart of the production of a Ghibli film. You will learn how the first animation movies were made, how sketch-boards are extensively drawn and coloured and how these pictures and colours become moving characters. You will also discover the working spaces of the Ghibli team through different times, and the private spaces of artists and film-makers.
My favourite spots of this absolutely inspiring exhibition were the motion exhibit and what is called “A boy’s room” on the Ghibli Museum website. The motion exhibit keeps running in short intervals and it showcases how static objects can produce a life-like scene with the use of rapid lights and movement. The boy’s room is filled with toys, books, sketches, illustrations and scrap-books; this is the centre and the origin of inspiration and magic. There were also glass bottles with mints and an ash-tray filled with cigarettes to lend the spaces a more realistic tone.
Inspiration is all around us – in the books we read, the films we watch, the music we listen to, the people we meet – all we need to do is to listen, to really see.
The Saturn Theater
“It’s funny how you wake up each day and never really know if it’ll be the one that will change your life forever.” – The Secret World of Arietty (2010)
Here, you can watch an original Ghibli short film in a theater decorated lovingly with flowers and a blue sky. The theater houses only 80 people at a time. The movies are in Japanese, and there are no subtitles. The movie I watched was Hoshi wo katta hi (2006), or The Day I Harvested a Planet, directed by Miyazaki.
You can check out the screening schedule at the official Ghibli Museum website.
“Painting the Colours of Our Films” Special Exhibition
Special exhibitions are put up by the museum every few months and thus, are not permanent.
This special exhibition focused on showcasing the colouring and sketching techniques of the Ghibli studio provides a window into the world of animation colouring. You can discover how particular scenery is drawn to present reality, to express time and weather changes through lighting and choosing colours that depict details such as the texture, moods and emotions. You can read up more on the special exhibition on the Ghibli Museum website.
Do not miss these spots!
There is a Cat Bus room on the second floor, where you find a big soft toy Cat Bus which can be entered by elementary school children. My elementary school heart trapped in an adult’s body was sorely disappointed, but it nevertheless is a sight that brings joy.
Also, find a life size version of the tragic and much beloved character from Castle in the Sky, the Robot Soldier on the rooftop. Standing tall and proud amidst a roof set with pretty plantations and under the open sky, the Robot Soldier takes you back to the time you watched the movie for the first time and cried buckets at the end. The museum does not allow pictures inside the premises, but you can click them on the rooftop!
There is a reading room/library which holds recommended book from Miyazaki himself and the museum’s quirky and inspiring art collection. The Museum shop called “Mamma Aiuto!” named after the sky pirates in Porco Rosso (1992) offers many collectibles, toys, merchandise, for you to take home with you and reminisce the magic of Ghibli.
At the end of your tour, when your hearts are full with all that you have seen and felt, head over to the Straw Hat Café to fill your tummies as well. Keep a lookout for your cutlery and dishes which are sure to have Ghibli motifs and characters etched onto them. There will always be a long line for the café so plan your time well, and be prepared to wait for a while. We did the tour first, and went to eat at around 4 p.m. in the evening when the crowds had lessened. Even then, we had to wait for around 45 minutes. In case you are really hungry and out of time, there is a deck take-away stall where you can immediately order hot-dogs, soups and drinks.
Leaving the museum
We left the museum around 6 p.m. when it was lit up, and that lent a different beauty to the premises. We discovered an old-fashioned hand-pump well located between the café and the museum which seemed more enticing at dusk.
With a heavy heart, I exited the museum which, for many of us, symbolizes our childhood fantasies and aspirations; dreams we have inevitable given up on due to the pressures of real life.
We looked back one last time and were pleasantly surprised to see the Robot Soldier at the rooftop. It felt as if he said to us, “Farewell, I shall stand guard over your dreams and hopes, until you feel ready and brave to pursue them.”
Did you know?
- The name Ghibli was given by Hayao Miyazaki derived from the Libyan-Arabic word for Sirocco, a Mediterranean wind that originates in the Arabian or Sahara deserts and can develop into hurricanes in North Africa and Southern Europe during summers.
- One of Miyazaki’s vision statements for the museum is; Small children are treated as if they were grown-ups. Thus, even very small children can stand on the special platform at the reception counter/food counter to be handed their own ticket or meals.
- The name of the reading room is Tri-Hawks, which is a pun on Mitaka, where the museum is located. Mi-taka literally means three hawks.
Ghibli Museum information
1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, Tokyo 181-0013
- From Shinjuku Station, take the JR Chuo Line to Mitaka Station.
- From the Mitaka South Exit, the museum is a 15-minute walk.
- All admission is by reservation only. No tickets are sold at the museum.
- Visitors from overseas may purchase tickets through the museum’s partner vendors outside Japan or at the Lawson convenience stores upon arrival. Please visit the official website for more details.
- Over age 19: ¥1,000
- Age 13-18: ¥700
- Age 7-12: ¥400
- Age 4-6: ¥100
- The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Tuesday.
- The museum is closed for the New Year holidays and periodic maintenance. Please check the official website for further information.