Rayna Denison gets lost in the Studio Ghibli Museum
“Let’s Get Lost Together!” said the first brochures for the Studio Ghibli Art Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. Fans were invited to wander the halls of the purpose-built, Miyazaki-designed spaces. Indeed, only the entrance into the Museum follows a defined pathway, where your pre-purchased ticket is exchanged for a new ticket made of framed cels from a Ghibli movie. But once you’ve walked down the curving staircase to the main foyer, you are free to explore any way you like (though you probably won’t actually get lost).
Going to the Art Museum is fundamentally like watching a Ghibli film – full of unexpected cul-de-sacs, intricately rendered details and beautiful imagery married to obvious commercialism. The Museum offers a good mix of exhibits that should please fans of all ages: there’s a permanent, children-only, giant fluffy Catbus (from My Neighbour Totoro) on the way to a roof-top garden featuring a large Laputa robot; there’s a cinema showing exclusive short films by Ghibli (these tend to have little dialogue, but come with no subtitles at all) and, being a Museum, there are also permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Make no mistake, this is not a theme park. Yes, the short films are perhaps more child-oriented than Ghibli’s feature films and, yes, the food is child-friendly. But, this is an Art Museum. It even has a book shop. Such a status is most obvious in the History of Animation exhibit, where you can see Ghibli-fied versions of the zoetrope and can watch Ghibli film reels on animated movement or human evolution whirring through old-fashioned machinery. There is also a permanent, and hugely romantic (the less charitable might say unrealistic), homage to the animator’s process, featuring cluttered workspaces and sketches from Ghibli’s most famous films. There are occasional moments that wouldn’t make it past a Disneyland designer – like the wall murals showing the all-male key animation staff, separated from their all-female supporting colourist counterparts. This aside, the details displayed are gorgeous, from popular characters depicted in stained glass, to specially designed tiles in the bathrooms, to the Mama Aiuto (Laputa again) shop.
While children have been playing on the Catbus since the Museum opened in 2001, now, for the first time ever, grown-ups can sit themselves inside their own life-sized Catbus in the Museum’s current special exhibition, “The View from the Catbus.” The special exhibitions change regularly, and often centre around Ghibli’s latest films or companies with whom Ghibli has important relationships, like Pixar. This current exhibition is all about Ghibli’s background art, which is brought to life, literally, in dioramas, making it possible to sprawl inside a Catbus, to pretend to eat noodles like Chihiro’s parents in Spirited Away, or to imagine yourself making hats like Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle.
Foreign fans get preferential treatment before they reach the Ghibli Museum. Japanese tickets (from the Lawson convenience stores) are time-limited, whereas we can buy tickets from MyBus London that allow us to stay all day if we want. However, a morning or afternoon should do the trick for most. If you want food at the Museum, the lunchtime queues are long at the Straw Hat Café, so try to dine off-peak. And though there is little actual danger of getting lost while ambling along the well-signed (and Totoro adorned) 15-minute route from Mitaka train station, a lot of visitors take the yellow bus from a special stand in front of the station, which costs an additional 200yen (one way) on top of the 1000yen (roughly £10) adult entry fee.
The Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, Japan is open 10:00-18:00, and is closed every Tuesday.