When last we left our intrepid hero about a year ago, he was entering his final days in Japan. He knew it was now or never to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum; sacred ground for anime geeks as it’s a museum dedicated to the studio that’s made some of the best animation in the world. He braved the courage to ask the co-worker that didn’t like him for help in buying a ticket. From there, it was off to Mitaka and the museum. Sadly, he got lost in Mitaka and just about missed his entrance time to the museum. But, he got to the front gates just in the nick of time and entered the museum! And now, the conclusion….
I descended the wooden staircase to the main hall of the museum. My heart was still beating fast from almost missing the entrance. I relaxed as I continued into the main chamber. And then….
The Center Hall
Scanned from a Ghibli Museum postcard Wow.
I was at the bottom and looked upwards at the three-storied tower. It was a spellbinding creation of stained glass, moulded fibreglass, and wrought iron. I had been to my fair share of theme parks, but this was the first time I actually felt as though I had stepped into another world. The pallet was made of muted pastels. The stained glass windows featured characters from various Studio Ghibli films. And the iron railings had multicoloured glass orbs intertwined with them at various points. I was mesmerized. I think I can finally properly use the term “whimsical.”
I fumbled for the brochure and museum map that the ticket clerk had given me. Thankfully, she recognized me for being a dumb gaijin and gave me the English language version. I stepped aside as I studied the map and reviewed the rules. “No photography inside the building.” Just like every other museum in Japan. “Your ticket can only get you into the movie once.” Dude, I get to see a movie? I looked up from the map and over to the far side of the main chamber. Yup, a lobby to a movie theatre. I did know enough Japanese to read the sign and saw that the next showing was at 3. Cool. Lots of time. But where to begin? I looked up and saw an arrow pointing into the main display hall. I pocketed the map and trudged forward.
The main display hall was a darkened affair. The first thing you saw was this magical column, rotating. And inside was one of the giant robots from the film Castle in the Sky. He slowly rotated as a haunting melody played. To the right was a static display of a house, and each window showed a scene from a Studio Ghibli film. The plaques along the walls illustrated the history of Studio Ghibli and the animation process. Over to my left was a display showing the nuts and bolts of animation; the whole deal of drawings moving in succession creating the illusion of movement. This was accomplished with a massive, see-thru movie projector. There were other displays showing scenes from Ghibli films. From a multitude of DVD bonus features, I recognized them as multiplane camera plates. But, straight ahead of me, was what truly captivated my attention.
The Animated Models
Scanned from a Ghibli Museum postcard
It was a series of models depicting various characters from My Neighbour Totoro. These models were on a turntable. Soon, the turntable started spinning faster and faster. Then, the lights went out and a strobe light went on. My jaw dropped. The models came to life.
What was once a whole line of Totoro models was now a group of Totoros walking in a circle. The two little girls who were once a static depiction of jumping rope were now actually jumping rope. Consider my mind to be blown. And then, the strobe light went off, the regular lights came on, and the turntable spun to a halt. In later research, I discovered that such devices are called a “zoetrope,” and that they were popular amusements about a hundred years ago. Studio Ghibli was using one to demonstrate how animation worked.
I sauntered out of the main display room, quite impressed with what I saw. Not much more on the main floor, so I climbed the stairs to the second level. I could have taken the glass elevator, but there was a line. Again, the second level just caused me to totally geek out. It was a re-creation of an animator’s studio. But this wasn’t a cubicle, as I always see on those “how we made the latest Disney movie” TV specials. The drawing table was a magnificent oak desk. The walls were wooden, with a wood stove in the corner. It looked more like a lavish county office from 1890. But, tacked to one wall, for the animator to look at, were storyboards. Original storyboards from Studio Ghibli films. I could reach out and touch an original drawing of Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service. In fact, I think I did. It felt like it was drawn with just a regular pencil crayon.
The Animator’s Studio
From the Ghibli Museum Souvenir Booklet The next room was the animator’s library. The shelves were covered with various reference books on the art of animation. You were welcome to grab them and leaf through them, so I did. Also in the room was an animation camera. You could look through the viewfinder to see the animated scene, and you could manipulate the various levers to make the lens pan left and right, and how to make the background scroll.
The next room is where the rotating display was. Again, my lack of knowledge of Japanese was a detriment, but I knew it had something to do with flight. The half-sized mock-up of an airplane in the middle of the room and various sketches of flying machines on the walls kind of gave it away. One corner of the room was partitioned off with a black curtain. As I was walking past, the black curtain was flung open and people started coming out! They were showing a movie. It was a little Porco Rosso short film. Very cool.
That was about it for the second level. Up the staircase to level 3. There wasn’t much up there. As I’ve discovered, every museum in the world has 2 things: an overpriced gift shop, and an overpriced restaurant. Level 3 was where the gift shop was housed. I did a quick browse through it, but decided I wouldn’t buy anything until it was closer to time to go. The third level was also home to a life-sized catbus from My Neighbour Totoro. Well, not life-sized as much as kid-sized. Kids were playing on it, jumping on it, and having a grand old time.
The Catbus Room
From the Ghibli Museum Souvenir Booklet This wasn’t the top of the building, however. To the left of the giant catbus was a spiral staircase that took you to the roof. I climbed it ever so carefully, and standing vigil over the rooftop garden was a life-sized robot from Castle in the Sky. I was spellbound, as it looked very Iron Giant. I walked up to get a closer look, trying very carefully not to ruin any pictures. Lots of people were posing next to it and getting their picture taken. Hey yeah! I’m outside the museum! Rules say no pictures inside. I whipped out my camera and started snapping pictures of the robot. Sadly, this was still at the point when I didn’t have the courage to walk up to strangers and say, “Could you take my picture please?”
The Robot on the Roof From the top of the museum, I surveyed the surrounding park. The museum planners were brilliant when they decided to put the museum in a park. The hustle and bustle of the typical Japanese city was so far; so distant. Directly below me was the museum courtyard. It looked like that would be my next destination.
The Front Entrance I went back down the spiral staircase to the third level. No line at the glass elevator, so I rode it down to the main hall, savouring every moment. I consulted my map to find out how to get to the courtyard.
Scanned from the Ghibli Museum Souvenir Booklet Oh, I was lucky that it was such a sunny day. The courtyard was modest. You could tell that they’d gone out of their way to give it a distinct “out in the country” flavour. In the center of the courtyard was good old fashioned hand pump, and children were furiously pumping it and watching the water splash on the ground. It made me smile. A staple of my childhood was such a novelty to these people! Speaking of staples of my childhood, I saw a museum employee head over to the nearby woodpile and start chopping wood. I’d been told that fireplaces are rare things in Japan, and the museum literature makes great mention of the fact that they have a working woodstove in the restaurant. I stood for a moment and watched the employee attempt to chop wood. I tried not to laugh as he was doing it so completely wrong and making no leeway in splitting logs. I mused with walking over, taking the axe from him, and showing him how it was done, but ultimately decided against it. But still, I wonder how he would have reacted?
The Woodcutter Out in the courtyard was the requisite overpriced restaurant. I’d heard quite a bit about the restaurant. One of my students even told me that they have a microbrewery inside, and he suggested I try their very own Ghibli brew. However, the line for the restaurant was incredibly long, and I wasn’t very hungry. Besides, it was just about time for the movie.
The Straw Hat Cafe I headed into the main hall and to the theatre lobby. People were already lining up. I had no idea what the movie was or what it was about. Storyboards from the film decorated the lobby. Near as I could tell, there were at least three different movies. Oh, well. No more time to ponder, as the line was moving. The usher stamped my ticket, and I got a good seat down in front.
The Saturn Theatre
Scanned from the Ghibli Museum Souvenir Booklet It was a sequel to My Neighbour Totoro. I’ve already mentioned the catbus that figures into the film. Well, this film was about the main little girl from Totoro managing to meet and befriend…a kittenbus. Of course, a kittenbus is just big enough for a little girl to ride, so it’s not long before this little girl is joyriding in her kittenbus, meeting up with all other kinds of cat-vehicles, before encountering Totoro and a cat-Jumbo jet. Apparently, cat-vehicles love caramels. Afterwards, I discovered that it was one of three short films that Studio Ghibli made exclusively for the museum. I walked out of that theatre feeling very pleased.
Scene from Mei and the Kittenbus
Scanned from a Ghibli Museum postcard And now, I was faced with a dilemma. In Japan, I found that when I went to a museum by myself, I never quite knew when it was time to leave. When you go with a friend, your friend can always say to you, “So, have you seen enough? Ready to go?” But, when I was alone, I always found that to be a difficult question to ask myself. I’d ask myself that question, and I’d always reply with, “Well, I’m not sure.” But there was one thing I did know. One thing that haunted me in Japan ever since the company said they weren’t renewing my contract. Whenever I started falling into that “Have you seen enough?/Well, I’m not sure” redundant loop, a third voice would interject. That third voice would always say “Odds are you’ll never be here again. Make the most of it.”
Another Picture of the Centre Hall
Scanned from the Studio Ghibli Souvenir Booklet
I wandered through the museum and took in every display three more times. I must have spent a solid half-hour staring at that zoetrope. On the third level, I stopped at every stained glass window and took in every minute detail. I took a moment to watch the kids playing on the catbus. I read a whole book in the animator’s library. I pumped water in the courtyard. Odds were I’d never be back again. I’d never have another chance to do that stuff.
The Stained Glass Windows
Scanned from a Ghibli Museum postcard
Gift shop time. Now, this is where that third voice telling me that I’d never be here again and that I should make the most of it always got me in trouble. In situations like this, that voice always led me to overspending. There were lots and lots of high priced items. In the end I bought: a series of postcards of the inside of the museum, a series of postcards showing scenes from the kittenbus film, the soundtrack for the kittenbus film (although, a smarter idea would have been selling it on DVD in the gift shop, but oh well), a really cool postcard of a Hayo Miyazaki-style mermaid, the souvenir book all about the museum (in English) and the requisite postcard to send to Mr. Anderson and Yves. (I sent them a postcard from every place I went to in Japan.)
I also realized that I should buy something for my head teacher. I wouldn’t have made it that day if it weren’t for her, so I owed her. As she helped me buy my ticket, she confessed a love for the catbus, so I settled on a catbus cellphone mascot and a catbus postcard so I could jot down a thank you note.
And that was it. It was now getting late in the day. I stood in the courtyard, in front of the restaurant. My eyes were fixated on the exit, leading out into Mitaka Park. This was it. Odds are, I’d never be back in my lifetime. Was I truly done? Had I seen it all? I really wanted to stay longer. I so completely fell in love with that place. But, all good things, they must end. I closed my eyes, and stepped across the point of no return. I had left the museum.
Outside the Gates
I burned off my roll of film by wandering around the building and seeing what I had missed in my mad dash to make my entrance time. I eventually found the “false entrance.” The main entrance to the museum is actually tucked off to the side of the building. This “false entrance” was designed to look like the front of the building, and in the box office is a life-sized Totoro, welcoming you to the museum. Of course, this tends to baffle visitors until they see the sign that says, “The real entrance is over there.” There was a young Japanese couple there, also admiring the life-sized Totoro. They handed me their camera and asked if I would take their picture next to Totoro. Naturally, I obliged. When we were finished, I handed them my camera and said, “OK, now my turn!” and they took my picture.
Me & Totoro
I got back on the bus and headed back to Mitaka station. Because I knew my Tokyo Free pass wouldn’t get me home from Mitaka, I simply bought a ticket to Shinjuku. I wanted to stop over in Tokyo anyway and check out my favourite English bookstores…and have supper at Wendy’s. I returned to Kumagaya station at around 8 that night. I ran into one of my students at the station, and naturally, she wanted to hear all about my adventures. Either that, or I just couldn’t wait to tell someone about what a cool day it had been.
I can honestly say that the Studio Ghibli Museum was the most fulfilling museum experience I had in Japan. And, dare I say it? It was even more fun than Tokyo Disneyland. The Studio Ghibli Museum is an utterly fascinating place, full of nooks and crannies to be explored. I sincerely got the feeling that one day wasn’t enough. But oh…it was one of my happiest moments in Japan.
The Front of the Museum
Scanned from a Ghibli Museum Postcard
Oh, and there is an epilogue. I was at work the next day, and I was dying to give my present to my head teacher. Even though we close at 9, she had a late counselling session with a student, and wasn’t free until 10. I waited for her though, because I really wanted to give her my gift. After the student left, I walked to her classroom and knocked. She jumped. I had accidentally snuck up on her again. Because she just worked so much overtime, I guess you can figure out that she wasn’t in the best of moods. Trying not to make things worse, I quickly said my thank-yous and gave her my present and attempted to make a hasty retreat, lest she take out her bad mood on me. She looked down on her gift and smiled. Not the phoney smile she always gave when she was in a bad mood or trying to be diplomatic, but an actual, genuine, beautiful smile. It was the same smile I must have had on my face during my whole day at the museum. “Thank you, Mark-sensei,” she said. That’s the only time she called me “sensei” and wasn’t sarcastic about it.
My head teacher and I were completely unable to get along.
But we had our moments.
My head teacher, going home from work
Scanned from a Ghibli Museum postcard Special thanks to Kenten who’s article about going to Skywalker Ranch inspired me to finally finish this thing, and to do it with style.
Apologies to my family, who still lament that I haven’t told them enough about Japan.
Apologies to my classmates at NAIT who often lament that I don’t shut up about Japan.
And, once again, special thanks to Asami for helping me buy the ticket.