Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki became a household name in North America only after writing and directing Spirited Away, which won the 2002 Oscar for best animated feature film. At a time when computers had been taking over Western animation, it introduced a new generation of fans to the traditional, handcrafted art.
Equally quaint were the worlds depicted in Miyazaki's films: worlds of valves, steam and clockworks, of airships, trams and bi-planes, with a little magic and a lot of charm thrown in. Much of this nostalgia has been captured in three dimensions at the highly successful Ghibli Museum, in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka, and which celebrated its 10th birthday in 2011.
The museum itself is a single building in bright cartoon colours intended to be the antithesis to the average movie studio theme park: cozy and intimate rather than grand or spectacular. There are no rides, but nor is this the dull and static collection of props and posters common to some TV or movie-derived touring exhibitions.
The museum's motto is, "Let's lose our way, together," and a sequence of hands-on experiences specifically designed for children is tucked inside the dolls' house of a building with its labyrinth of bridges, balconies and spiral staircases that recall the style of interiors seen in Miyazaki's films without actually reproducing them. Even for children unfamiliar with Totoro or Ponyo this is a delight.
A giant Totoro (part-cat, part-bear guardian of forests) fills a ticket booth outside, but in fact the museum is so popular that tickets must be booked well in advance, and the real entrance is round one side.
Some of the displays present the various techniques historically used to produce the illusion of movement in static objects, usually with peepholes to look through or a handle to crank to make pages flick past or feed celluloid through machines themselves nearly as Victorian in style as those in Miyazaki's movies. The little girl May from Totoro skips, the Cat Bus flies through the sky, and the fire demon Calcifer from Howl's Moving Castle wolfs down his coal.
There's nothing in English, but that doesn't matter here nor in a sequence of upstairs rooms that playfully recreate tiny studios where ideas are formed and developed into full-fledged animations. Shelves and desks lie piled with art reference books and original watercolour sketches for Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso and others.
Beyond, a room is filled with a near life-size version of the Cat Bus, at a perfect size for children to climb in and finally stroke the furry interior much as they have probably wanted to do since seeing it on film. A small cinema shows short animations unavailable anywhere else in any medium.
There's much more, but perhaps the climax is the roof garden reached by a spiral staircase looking like a giant birdcage and protected by the five-metre-high guardian robot from Castle in the Sky, at whose feet almost every single visitor demands to be photographed.
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