A GIANT red robot soldier stands over 20 feet tall in the long, wild grass of a roof garden, atop a pastel-coloured building surrounded by trees and hedges. It’s a strange sight, even for Tokyo, but also dimly familiar, like something you once daydreamed or doodled in primary school. The robot comes from Laputa: Castle In The Sky, which was the first feature-length cartoon to be written, drawn and painted by master animator Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli, the workshop he co-founded in the mid-1980s. Miyazaki has gone on make some of the greatest pieces of art in his medium – My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and especially Spirited Away. In the west, where recent Ghibli productions have been distributed by the Walt Disney Company, they are increasingly appreciated as such (the latter film won an Oscar in 2002).
In Japan, they are blockbusters. More inspired by Da Vinci than Disney, Miyazaki is also part-architect. Early this century, he was compelled to accommodate public demand with the closest thing to a theme park that his principles would allow him to design. “A museum which relaxes the soul,” he wrote in his plans for the building, which opened in 2001. “That makes you feel more enriched than when you entered. Not arrogant, flamboyant, magnificent, or suffocating. Where small children are treated as grownups.”
The opposite must also be true – this is effectively an art gallery for kids, where every exhibit is designed to bring adults down to their level. Physically, this means stooping on your way through the interior labyrinth of glass elevators, spiral stairs, iron bridges, hidden passages, and sunlit terraces hanging in space. Psychologically, it means submitting to Miyazaki’s motto: “let’s become lost children together”.
Unlike the Tokyo Disney Resort, there are no queues for entry, because all visitors are required to book in advance, and specify a time of arrival. There are no rides as such, unless you count the structure itself, which is drawn from the same mental blueprint as the castles, airships, and spectral cities that are common to Studio Ghibli movies. And a tour of the place need not be conducted in any particular order. I start mine on the roof, with the robot. My guide tells me this is Miyazaki’s own favourite spot.
“When he is creating a movie, he is so busy,” says museum publicist Akikio Omi. “But when he is finished, he likes to come up here to walk around, and think about it.” Omi is in her mid-20s, and says she wishes she could go back in time, to tell her younger self about the “amazing job” she would grow up to have. The first film she ever saw was Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, which is now considered a modern children’s classic – the story of two sisters who make friends with woodland spirits in post-war rural Japan. From this height, with a view over Inokashira Park and the relatively leafy suburb of Mitaka (most of Tokyo is much further removed from nature), we can see the large effigy of the title character, posted below us at the main gate.
Totoro himself, “the keeper of the forest”, is as famous as Mickey Mouse in this country, and his vaguely rabbity ears are no less recogniseable. The rest of him doesn’t resemble any other creature on Earth. He looks, as his name suggests, more like a troll, or a totem. Miyazaki is good with imaginary animals. Back inside the museum, the current centrepiece is his latest film, Ponyo, in which an amorphous little fish-girl meets a lonely schoolboy and literally changes his world, their friendship affecting the tides, flooding his town, and bringing ancient, dormant marine life to the surface.
This has already become a viable new fairytale since Ponyo was released in Japan last summer (an English-language version comes out in the UK early next year), albeit very loosely based on two older ones – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and the local legend of Urashima Taro. The theme song is a new national anthem for a generation of young viewers. Today I can hear their parents singing it too, often absently, under their breath, while they look at the displays of iridescent seascapes and sketches for fantastical aquatic beings. In the middle of the room is a monumental glass box, containing 170,653 sheets of paper, collated in the process of transferring these ideas and images from Miyazaki’s head onto animated cells. “We are not trying to promote Ponyo, or any other Ghibli film,” says Akiko Omi. “We just want to show how all this work is done by hand.” This is not an especially brand-conscious tourist attraction.
Other rooms have been aside to showcase fellow animators from around the world, including Russia’s Yuri Norstein, and Britain’s own Nick Park (Gromit, that long-suffering inventor’s dog from Wigan, is probably the UK’s most successful recent export to Japan) as well as Ghibli’s higher-tech American partners at Disney. But while that corporation and its cutting-edge subsidiary Pixar now make all their pictures by computer, Miyazaki still uses pencils and brushes. At the age of nearly 70, he claims to be too old to change. “If cell animation is a dying craft,” he said recently, “there’s nothing we can do about it. Civilisation moves on. Where are all the fresco painters now?”
As if to illustrate his position as the last Renaissance man in the field, there is a fresco in the Saturn Theatre, a screening room for short films by Miyazaki and his team. Characters from his earlier movies are painted across the ceiling – Nausicaa on her jet glider, Kiki on her broom, and Porco Rosso, the begoggled pig, in his fighter plane. Like Da Vinci, he has a thing for flying machines.
“Ghibli” itself is a Libyan word, meaning “hot desert wind”, that was previously appropriated by Italian pilots in the second world war, as a nickname for the scouting aircraft they flew over the Sahara. This afternoon’s show is a cartoon titled Yadosagashi, which roughly translates as “house-hunting”. In less than 12 minutes, it tells the elementary tale of a girl who leaves the city for a walk in the woods, offering red apples to the animals, rivers, trees, and winds as she passes through. At the end she is thanked by some kind of god with a picnic basket of produce. As ever with Miyazaki, the film shows deep concern for the natural world, and gently suggests another world just beneath or behind it.
There is no conflict, no drama, and no dialogue, but it must be saying something to the many pre-schoolers in the audience, because they watch and listen in silence. For a lone adult like myself, it seems to ring a distant bell, even if I’ve never seen it before. Miyazaki’s films often do this too, but the bell sounds closer and louder in his museum, amid his clockwork models. And then there is a suite of rooms that he calls “Where A Film Is Born”. Some of these are given over to the craft as well as the art, all paint pots and laminates, and model animators in flat caps, with mock cigarettes hanging from their lips. But in the centre is an area designed to look like a boy’s bedroom.
It’s wilfully old-fashioned and heavily idealised, a piece of sculpture in the old oak of desks and bookshelves, composed of every curiosity that might cross a bright and clean young mind – treasure chests, chemistry sets, globes and tools, maps of the constellations, model planes and nautical artefacts, storybooks and manuals with Da Vinci resting on top. I never had a bedroom like it. I hated chemistry, and was bored by the very idea of building or fixing anything. But I do remember the comfort and pleasure of clutter, and the way it filled my head.
“This room represents Mr Miyazaki’s brain,” Omi whispers to me. The drawings pinned from floor to ceiling clearly show what the old man tends to think about: burning ships on black seas, caravans of camels in gas masks, gigantic white wolves in the snow, metal birds crashed in a forest. Which is to say – more or less the same things he thought about as a boy. In the past, Miyazaki has expressed a sincere belief that “children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations”.
“As they grow older,” he said, “and experience the everyday world, that memory sinks lower and lower. I need to make films that reach down to that level.” I can’t speak for the small kids standing next to me, not least because I don’t know their language, but I seem to recall every one of these pictures and places from when I was roughly their age, before I knew that animation wasn’t “real”. I’m pretty sure that this is what the world used to look like.