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As a lifelong fan of Studio Ghibli, which produces animated children’s feature films including “Spirited Away” and “Ponyo,” I was whisked back to my childhood on a family visit to the Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Japan, a suburb of Tokyo. Shaped like a European castle, the museum feels like it comes straight out of one of the studio’s films by director and studio founder Hayao Miyazaki. And just like his films, the museum is delightful for children and equally engaging for adults.
Instead of directing visitors along a path from room to room, the museum allows for a leisurely exploration of its interior. Its architecture invites children to crawl around and explore, with terraces, small spiral staircases and bridges overlooking the central hall.
Exhibits at the museum draw visitors into the world of Studio Ghibli’s films while also informing and entertaining. The current special exhibition examines lenses, allowing visitors to see how lenses can change an image and how they are used in film as well as in everyday life. Permanent exhibitions display storyboards and sketches from the studio’s films in their early stages, as well as showing the history of animation and how an animated film transitions from a concept to a final product. There is also a mock-up animation studio and a zoetrope that spins characters from the film “My Neighbor Totoro” into action.
Visitors can also see an exclusive Studio Ghibli short film in the museum’s theater. Walking into the theater, I was afraid that I wouldn’t understand what was happening in the film, since I don’t speak Japanese. I need not have worried, because the studio makes films that are clear and compelling simply through their images. I could easily follow the story of the short film I saw, entitled “A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail,” which concerned a group of underdog mice who cannot win their Sumo matches until an elderly human couple gives them a hand.
Upstairs, I discovered my favorite room in the museum, an interactive exhibit which I could only admire from afar. Only children 12 and under were allowed to participate in this room, called the Cat Bus. For those who are unfamiliar with “My Neighbor Totoro,” the film’s main characters travel in a giant, cat-shaped bus which bounds across the landscape, invisible to everyone except for children. The museum holds a life-size reproduction of the bus, as fuzzy and climbable in real life as it is in the film. Next to the Cat Bus are soot-black Dust Bunny toys modeled after the ones in the film “Spirited Away.” Children will delight at the opportunity to play with these real-life counterparts of magical Ghibli characters. The room made me wish I was five-years-old again.
My parents and I took a stroll of the museum’s rooftop garden, where visitors can find a statue of a Robot Soldier, based on the ones in the film “Laputa: Castle in the Sky.” Even the museum’s shop and cafe retain the museum’s magical atmosphere. The shop, Mamma Aiuto, is named after the sky pirates from the film “Porco Russo” and holds treasures galore, including the studio’s films on DVD, books and character toys and puppets. The Straw Hat cafe has a quaint feel and serves both Japanese and Western style dishes.
The museum is a short bus ride or walk away from Mitaka Station, which is a 20-minute train ride from downtown Tokyo.