Ghibli Museum: The Whimsical World of Miyazaki

We couldn’t have picked a better day the visit the Ghibli Museum.  It was raining lightly when we arrived, so the colors of the vine-covered building were especially intense; truly another world.  By the time we finished, feeling sunny from the wonderful experience we’d just had, the sun had come out.

We didn’t deliberately choose to go on a rainy day.  It just happened that way.  The Ghibli Museum is extremely popular, requiring advance purchase tickets just to get in.  We purchased our tickets at a Lawson’s convenience store nearly a month before-hand (very easy process–and helpful staff if one has problems).

Tickets are for both a specific day, and a specific time of day, although once you’re inside you may remain for as long as you like.  Our plan was to either walk from Mitaka Station (about 15 minutes, mostly along the Tamagawa Josui canal) or take the handy shuttle bus, depending on the weather, and arrive just in time for our 12 noon entry.  Alas, the walk was out, due to the rain, and the handy shuttle bus was full.  So we caught a cab.  The fare was only JPY490–definitely the best option in any event.

Totoro, one of my favorite Ghibli characters (also the favorite of my grandchildren), greeted us as we alighted from the cab.


Stepping into an airy frescoed hall around the corner, we exchanged our advance purchase tickets for a movie ticket, a map, and some quick instructions which, unfortunately, neglected to mention the existence of lockers at the bottom of the stairs leading to the ground level where our visit was to begin.  The museum was busy, but not overly crowded thanks to its ticketing system.  However, a number of visitors carried big backpacks (apparently they didn’t get information about the lockers either), which can’t have been comfortable for them, and certainly was bothersome to us, since those visitors were oblivious to the way their backpacks kept bumping other people.

Setting aside such small inconveniences, as we descended the stairs alongside adorable stained glass windows of Ghibli movie scenes, we stepped into a world like no other.  Overall the decor was reminiscent of the fictional European world of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but far more whimsical.  The central hall was open to a skylight at the top of the three story building, giving it lots of light.  The walls were plaster with lots of cast iron accents evoking fin de siècle decor, including a caged spiral staircase rising all three levels (watch your head!), a glass and cast iron elevator cage, and a sky bridge across the center.  And more stained glass windows featuring Ghibli characters and scenes from movies.  (I had never before realized how much anime and stained glass have in common.)

A short animation (about 15 minutes), specially created for screening at the Ghibli Museum is shown three times an hour in the movie theater.  The ticket is an actual 3-frame strip of movie film, also a keepsake for visitors.  The theater ticket office and the projection room look like two ends of a street car.

Interestingly, the short, entitled “Boro the Caterpillar”, depicting the world from the perspective of a caterpillar, had no dialogue, just sound and music.  This works especially well given the very international nature of the audience–I couldn’t even guess how many different languages I overheard spoken by the patrons of the museum during this visit.

The first exhibit hall, also on the bottom floor, is a permanent exhibit called “The Beginning of Movement”.  It includes displays on how animation began, including some shadow boxes to portray perspective and two zoetropes.  The first, just inside the door, showed birds fluttering around a character from Castle in the Sky.  The second, a much larger one called “Bouncing Totoro”, was a series of 3-D pieces including the famous cat bus, the girls jump roping and riding a unicycle, and a grinning Totoro ready to take flight with his borrowed umbrella.  It was mesmerizing and I could have watched it for hours had I not been curious to see what other delights the other floors of the museum contained.

The principle exhibit of the second level is a “preproduction room” titled “Where a Film is Born”.  Here, in a series of cosily cluttered rooms, visitors can see preliminary sketches, story boards, and other examples of how each stage of the animation process happens.  Some displays include murals of animators at work that blend into 3-D tables containing various animation paraphernalia.   One popular display allowed visitors to use a crank to move the background to make it appear an animated character in the foreground was moving.  Tricks of the trade revealed!

On the other side of the second level is a huge display devoted to food.  Visitors marvel at wax food models, drawings, and diorama, all featuring food used in Ghibli stories.   (If this makes you hungy, there is a garden cafe on this level too.

A pleasant and tempting reading room, and a shop selling all things Ghibli are on the top level.

While the Ghibli Museum displays are designed in such a way that they appeal to both little kids and big kids (like me!), there is one room particularly for the former.  Yes, it’s the Cat Bus room, also on the top level, where a giant plush cat bus and lots of plush dust sprites are waiting for small children to jump on, off and around.  It looked like fun, but somehow the attendant could not be made to believe that I was a primary school student.

Just outside this room, visitors can ascend one more spiral staircase to the roof garden, which evokes scenes from Castles in the Sky.  The central feature is the Robot Soldier, who seems to be looking down at the museum entrance; keeping guard, perhaps.

Other little touches in the roof garden are from that movie, too.

There are little decorative touches all over the museum that foster a sense of whimsy.  (Although some Ghibli stories are quite dark, it is still the Ghibli whimsy that I find most appealing.)  Besides the stained glass windows, one finds cast iron signs to the toilet, mouse-sized arched doorways as shortcuts, and Ghibli characters incorporated into signs as well as frescoes.  The use of Jiji, Kiki’s black cat, as a tap handle, is another example.

There are so many examples both inside (where photos are prohibited) and outside.  Someone needs to develop a Ghibli scavenger hunt to make sure visitors can spot and enjoy them all. (I hereby officially volunteer to study the situation…)

Yes, we emerged to sunshine that matched the sunshine our visit had injected into our spirits.  (No, we were not Spirited Away.)

© 2018 and Vicki L. Beyer
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