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The Ghibli Museum: Miyazaki's Genius On Display

Get an inside peek! Tom Sito visits the construction site of what is sure to become a destination for animation fans worldwide -- the Ghibli Museum, honoring none other than Hayao Miyazaki, one of animation's foremost legends.

Tom next to Laputa's giant robot. All images courtesy of and © Tom Sito.

This past May I was invited to be a judge of student work at the Japan Digital and Animation Festival (JDAF) 2001 in Nagoya, Japan. My host was Professor Yasuki Hamano, who taught at Tokyo University and was director of the Akira Kurosawa Foundation. Professor Hamano was once a production assistant on Kurosawa's film Dodes'ska Den and Ran.

Over the course of the festival, I made friends with Mitsuhisa Ishikawa the producer of Ghost In The Shell and Jin-Roh, and Hiroyuki Kitakubo, the director of Blood Of The Last Vampire. Mr. Kitakubo told me he liked Rock & Rule, a film I worked on years ago.

Touring Tokyo

After the festival, I did a stop in Tokyo for a talk and was invited by Professor Hamano to tour several animation studios including Disney Japan and an outsourcing studio called Fuga. There I got to handle the Neo-Tokyo landscape background painting that was the opening shot of Otomo's classic Akira.

The highlight of the day however was a visit to Studio Ghibli, the famous home of director Hayao Miyazaki. The studio has produced such beloved works as Nausicaa, Porko Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke They are currently completing their new project Spirited Away.

Unfortunately, I was unable to meet Miyazaki-san himself. He was ill from overwork and not present the day of my visit. Feeling the same during the most intense parts of my own deadline on Osmosis Jones, I can well sympathize with his exhaustion and wish him well.

We met 20 years ago in Los Angeles at the offices of Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS). At one point the translator left the room. As he could speak no English and I no Japanese we just looked at one another. I smiled and said: "Sushi." He smiled and replied: "Hot-dog."

I was impressed that his own desk was not in a big penthouse office but was just another workspace alongside all the others without even so much as a cubicle wall. It was no different than any painter or inbetweener. The only signs of his habitation of that space were his slippers, an ashtray filled with cigarette butts and the beautiful story sketches strewn about. Plus he likes to doodle little Porko Rosso pig heads on the production flow charts.

The studio felt larger from the last time I was there before Princess Mononoke's release. I noticed many more SGI computers. Many use the TOONZ program. Miyazaki-san has stated he still prefers the hand-drawn look, but I noticed a lot of background manipulation and digital tricks in this next film.

Tom, along with representatives from Nippon Public Television, were taken on a tour by the Ghibli Museum's architects.

Onto the Museum Site

After touring the studio I was brought to inspect the site of the Ghibli Museum, currently under construction in Inogashira Park in Mitaka City in suburban Tokyo. Although called a Museum it was conceived not so much as a vault to collect Miyazaki's old artwork, but more a mini theme park where families and fans could visit the wonderful worlds introduced in his films.

Miyazaki planned the museum as he would one of his films. The architect guide constantly referred to a large folio of conceptual watercolors he carried with him. It was as though Miyazaki had storyboarded the creation of his museum. The project will cost $30 million dollars, money mostly raised by Ghibli and Nippon Public Television among other sponsors.

We donned hard hats, climbed up scaffolding and stepped gingerly over workers napping on their break time. Being of a rather rotund girth, I was the cause of much laughter when I couldn't squeeze through a narrow passage.

The Museum sits in the middle of a lovely suburban park and is comprised of several buildings connected. I was told jokingly that Miyazaki wanted to fit 30 rooms worth of stuff into three small buildings.


Here we see an example of Miyazaki's watercolor renderings of the museum to be. A worker enjoys an afternoon nap!

The buildings are painted bright playful colors and a replica of the giant robot from Laputa - Castle In The Sky looks down benignly from the roof garden. One room is planned to have a full size replica of the Catbus from Totoro for children to climb and play on. There is a screening room, souvenir shop with Ghibli merchandise and a cafeteria also planned.

Many of the rooms are direct full size reproductions of rooms portrayed in the various Ghibli animated movies. Miyazaki has planned every detail down to the ornamentation on the tiles in the ladies' bathrooms. No two stalls are painted the same. The projection booth in the theater is shaped to resemble an old subway car. It looked to me more like the cockpit of one of those big airplanes in Nausicaa - Warriors Of The Wind. The ceiling fans look like airplane propellers from Porco Rosso.

Professor Yasuki Hamano envisions the completed buildings as an architect uses Miyazaki's sketches to explain.

Even with all the rough construction and unfinished walls the overall feeling of the place is one of warmth and fun. One problem they are working on is accessibility. The Museum is a twenty-minute walk from the nearest train station and there is one municipal bus that goes by Inogashira Park. But after seeing the care with which details are being addressed, I'm confident they can solve this problem by the opening. if I can only interest somebody in an Osmosis Jones Museum...

The Ghibli Museum will celebrate its grand opening October 1, 2001, and welcomes animation fans from around the world to come and visit. The address is: 1-1-83 Shimorennjyaku, Mitaka, Tokyo. We wish them great success and good fortune and look for even more great films from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

Tom Sito is an animator-director who has worked extensively at Walt Disney, DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. He has just completed co-directing Osmosis Jones, which will be released in the United States on August 10, 2001.