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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2001


The gift of Ghibli

When I first heard that Hayao Miyazaki was planning a museum in Mitaka dedicated to the films that his Studio Ghibli animators and he had created over the years, I imagined animation cels framed on beige walls. Save for dedicated fans, it wasn't the most thrilling prospect for a Saturday afternoon, especially if the lines were to stretch the entire 15-minute walk from Mitaka Station.

A robot soldier near Ghibli Museum Mitaka
Ghibli Museum's main hall
Totoro in the ticket booth

A likely scenario, given that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata have made some of the most popular films in the history of Japanese animation, including "Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa (Nausicaa Valley of the Wind)" (1984), "Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)" (1988), "Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)" (1997) and this year's "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)" -- the highest-grossing film ever released in Japan.

But Ghibli Museum Mitaka or, to give its Japanese name, Mitaka no Mori Ghibli Bijutsukan, is closer in spirit to Disneyland's Main Street -- Walt's vision of a Midwestern small-town paradise. Architecturally, it is straight out of a Ghibli film: a jumble of styles that hint at Mediterranean fishing villages and American Southwestern towns, painted with the warm, dry pastels that are a Ghibli trademark. There are old-timey touches, such as the hand pump under a cupola and the lift seemingly taken from an Art Deco-era Paris hotel, but the overall effect is less nostalgic than fancifully individual. Miyazaki is not remembering a better world so much as making one from his own richly stocked imagination.

What's inside? There are no fun rides, unless you count the big, furry Cat Bus for kids to romp in (without shoes, of course). There is, however, a gift shop selling Ghibli character goods and an outdoor cafe selling hot dogs, pop and other comestibles. There is also an 80-seat theater showing a new Miyazaki short, "Kujiratori (The Whale Hunt)," about a gang of little boys whose fantasy voyage in a ship of blocks becomes the real thing. The style is reminiscent of Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince," though the story and execution are pure Miyazaki. So far, the Main Street concept transposed to Mitaka, right?

All aboard the Neko BusS

Not quite. While Main Street features a Disney gallery as an afterthought -- and yet another opportunity to hawk merchandise -- the Ghibli Museum takes the second word in its name seriously. The whole complex is an answer to the questions Miyazaki and his collaborators have been getting for years from fans, journalists and critics: Where does it come from? How do you do it? In other words, it is not only the Ghibli world brought to life, but the inner gears of the Ghibli creative machine exposed.

First of all, the main hall's interior is, at once, spacious and soaring, with the ceiling reaching up three stories to a huge skylight and a slowly revolving fan, and full of arches and passageways that, especially for kids, are excellent fun to explore. The atmosphere is woody and cozy, light and airy -- closer to an upscale resort than a repository of pop culture. It is, in fact, an idealized version of the Ghibli Studio in Higashi Koganei, Tokyo.

The instructive part of the museum begins at the beginning, with colorful displays near the entrance that illustrate the basic principles of animation, including a large whirligig device that, when it starts spinning under the lights, brings figures from Ghibli films to eye-popping life.

The heart of the museum, however, is upstairs, on the second level. On the south side is what looks to be Miyazaki's personal studio -- connecting rooms crammed from floor to ceiling with books of all descriptions -- mostly illustrated foreign tomes useful for the animator wondering how to draw a World War I biplane or an Alpine vista. There are also shelved volumes of drawings from Ghibli films, all apparently original. The walls are hung with pictures, photos, memorabilia -- again a jumble of Ghibli and non-Ghibli, though the connections between the two are apparent. The work-spaces looked lived in, as though Miyazaki and his staff had just stepped out for lunch. Nearly everything is within reaching and riffling distance -- one hopes that the security people are on the alert.

On the north side are two rooms dedicated to "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi" -- Miyazaki's latest and possibly last feature film (after finishing it last summer, he announced his retirement). The walls are covered with paintings and cels from the film -- arranged so that visitors can follow the creative process from beginning to end -- as well as personal photos, work-progress charts, memos and other effluvia that were once posted in the Higashi Koganei studio and would have ended up in albums, filing cabinets and trash cans. Displayed in the museum, they re-create, with striking vividness, the working life of the studio during the biggest project of its 16-year existence.

Perhaps most striking of all is the huge glass case inside of which are, piled high, stacks of envelopes filled with thousands of drawings for "Sen." This display, more than any other, impresses with the sheer amount of human effort that goes into producing an animated film, while the artwork surrounding it testifies to the brilliance of the film's makers.

Before you go to Mitaka . . .

To keep crowds under control, the museum restricts entry to reserved-ticket holders. To get tickets, you must first obtain vouchers, stamped with a date and entry time, at Lawson convenience stores or from the Lawson Web site ( www.lawsonticket.com ). You can then exchange the vouchers at the museum for tickets, at 1,000 yen for adults, 700 yen for junior high and high school students, 400 yen for elementary school students and 100 yen for small children, ages 4 or older.

The museum is within walking distance of Mitaka and Kichijoji stations on Kichijoji-dori. Shuttle buses leave every 10 minutes from Mitaka Station.

The museum is open every day, except Tuesday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, call the museum at (0422) 40-2277 or see the Web site at www.ghibli-museum.jp

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