Finding Totoro: A day at the Ghibli Museum

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Featuring some of its most well-loved characters, including Totoro and Mei from "My Neighbor Totoro," the Ghibli Museum still surprises on its 15th year. A writer puts on the lens of film animator Hayao Miyazaki and explores the museum without itineraries.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The summer before I started law school was the summer I discovered the existence of animated film director Hayao Miyazaki, nestled between the pages of our college yearbook in the write-up of a stranger who would, eventually, mean a lot to me. Miyazaki was how I was introduced to Studio Ghibli, Japan’s homegrown factory of delightfully inexplicable animated films: it was also how I, as a 20-year-old child pretending to be an adult, discovered the Ghibli Museum, which I had been visiting in my head for six years since.

The appeal of the Ghibli Museum, located beside a suburb and a lush forest-park in Mitaka, Tokyo, is best explained through the deep impression that Studio Ghibli and its most-renowned animators have made in the film industry. In Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki — who co-founded the animation house in 1985 before retiring in 2013 — directed and produced a veritable collection of stories that let things unfold on their own, and at the same time, paid tribute to the best facets of Japanese culture, by way of a medium that apparently wasn’t only meant for children.

There is a gamut of literature on the sublimity and impact of his work. One of his earlier films, “Princess Mononoke,” is a hard-hitting commentary on environmental harm as well as a richly-detailed orientation on the nuances of Japanese mythology. Its predecessor, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” has the same environmental stance, expressed through a dream-like post-apocalyptic world where a trilobite-like creature called the “ohm” can either make or break humankind’s survival. In the Academy Award winner “Spirited Away,” (and in “My Neighbor Totoro”) Miyazaki made soot sprites — literally balls of soot that collect in your house and in boiler rooms — appear fundamentally charming. In “Ponyo,” the antagonist is a giant tsunami, manifesting ecological imbalance and disaster brought upon by the playful Ponyo’s entry to land. In “Porco Rosso,” we meet a pilot cursed to be a pig, who nevertheless still flies, charms women, and lives a full life in the sky. In “My Neighbor Totoro,” (a personal favorite) he created a character well-suited for stuffed-toy immortality, but is also a guardian of the forest who makes things grow.

totoro1.jpg Vines crawl around the rounded windows of the museum's facade. According to Pixar animator John Lasseter, the building is reminiscent of German and Italian architecture, whose most appealing elements are taken and done in a fresh way for the museum.  

Other groundbreaking films coming from the studio include the tearjerker “Grave of the Fireflies” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (both directed by Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata), the latter of which is a mesmerizing visual meditation not only on an old Japanese fairytale, but on the wonders of hand-drawn animation through sketches that materialize before your eyes. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is Takahata’s last film, as “The Wind Rises” is Miyazaki’s; yet they leave a class of animators who could still move and thrill, if Studio Ghibli’s latest releases in “When Marnie was There” and the trailer of the upcoming “The Red Turtle,” among many others, are any indication.

The magic is in the details, as with Studio Ghibli’s films and the architecture of the Ghibli Museum itself.

The magic is in the details, as with Studio Ghibli’s films and the architecture of the Ghibli Museum itself, which I finally visited a fine day in September, when vines crawled around the rounded windows in the multi-colored wall to the left of the museum’s entrance. We were allowed entry at 4 p.m., as my Lawson ticket indicated, and as we had arrived early, there was time to examine the museum from the outside, which in itself was already rich with characters and images from Miyazaki’s trademark style. Miyazaki, who is the building’s architect and executive director, envisioned the museum to “be put together as if it were a film … where children are treated as if they were grown-ups … [and where] visitors are not controlled with pre-determined courses and fixed directions,” among others. He wrote this in some sort of poem when he first conceptualized the museum, which, according to Pixar animator and director John Lasseter (“Up,” “Toy Story 3”), “pulls the most appealing elements” of German and Italian architecture, “and then does it in a fresh way.” (Fun fact: Pixar animators worship Miyazaki; a Totoro toy may be glimpsed in “Toy Story 3.”)

Emboldened by Miyazaki’s inclusive vision, here’s a confession: ever since my first trip to Japan a few years back, I have been lugging around with me a small Totoro stuffed toy, a consolation for when I wasn’t able to visit the museum at that time. Totoro is my favorite Ghibli character (and here I join millions of children all over the world) and while we were allowed to take photos of the museum outside, I set my stuffed toy on different locations for his requisite photo shoot outside his home. There was Totoro on my shoulder, in the background the silhouette of that giant robot from “Laputa: Castle in the Sky.” There was Totoro, finally meeting his “father” near the ticket booth from the museum’s garden entrance, where he also met the soot sprites. There was Totoro and I on a park bench, communing with nature at Inokashira Park. There was Totoro, near the red-and-white clock, as we were finally called out to enter the building. The fact that I may not have appeared insane while doing this — my sister joined me on this endeavor, while a few passersby smiled — is testament to the impossible array of fascination that Miyazaki and his fellow animators welcomed in their films and encouraged from their captivated audiences.

totoro2.jpg Photos are not allowed inside the museum. Here, one of the last photos taken before entering the stained glass doorway.  

As I carried Totoro through the entry to the museum, I remember taking a last allowed photo of a stained-glass fixture through the door, where Totoro carried an umbrella, in a familiar image from the movie if you had seen “My Neighbor Totoro” even just once. Beyond the stained-glass door we were greeted by an attendant who handed out our tickets for the short film viewing later on in the Saturn Theater; my ticket, made of 35 mm film, featured a few stills from “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which I was able to see more clearly later on — but I am getting ahead of myself. The entrance hall is a marvel. Aside from the fact that another life-size Totoro was there, the ceiling was impressed with an awe-inspiring fresco of a smiling sun, surrounded by a vegetation of fruits and flowers where Satsuki and Mei, Totoro’s playmates, lingered. (If you look closely you could see another Totoro, the Catbus, and a beetle.)

Downstairs to the central hall, the windows were adorned with similarly stained-glass works depicting scenes from “My Neighbor Totoro.” I strongly advise one to approach the hall by looking up to the high ceiling, first, then gradually setting your eyes down. You’ll find a large rotating fan (was this from one of the planes in “Porco Rosso,” or in “Castle in the Sky”?), a fused-glass dome featuring the opening scenes in “Ponyo,” a narrow, spiral staircase that led directly to the third floor (or does it?), and an old-fashioned elevator for when you’re too tired to take the stairs. Down in the first floor, adults climbed to a hole in the wall to my left, some children flocked to a dark exhibit to my right, but it was the line forming around the wide, open area at the back which was the most inviting. We used our tickets and proceeded to view the short film “House Hunting,” an inventive take on how onomatopoeia figured in Japanese language. (I think I saw another Totoro-like figure in the film; clearly Miyazaki loves him as much as I do.) Inside the Saturn Theater, it is, again, a prerequisite to look up: here the sun and the moon smile back at you, before the windows close to dim the theater, as Studio Ghibli’s familiar opening credits played from the screen.

totoro3.jpg At the back of the giant robot in the Ghibli Museum, a few plants sprout. In the film "Laputa: Castle in the Sky," the robots likewise serve as a home for plant life, as they turn from weapons of destruction to guardians of a floating garden.  

From outside the theater one can proceed to the museum’s best treasure: the permanent exhibit room called “The Beginning of Movement.” It’s any film fan’s paradise, whether you’ve watched Studio Ghibli’s films or not. Perhaps it is fruitless to describe most of the displays here, except one: the three-dimensional zoetrope featuring a bouncing Totoro, along with Satsuki, Mei, the yellow Catbus, and a flying cat, while the sun rises and sets behind them. Mei and Satsuki play jumping rope through their quickly spinning figures. A bouncing Totoro, with his umbrella, smiles behind them. Satsuki rides her bicycle, the Catbus runs ahead, the flying cat oversees it all. I may have stared at all of them for quite a few minutes, even after all the others with me have left.

Lasseter says that the zoetrope display “communicates what animation does to people more than anything else,” which, for me, is to evoke not only a curiosity but an indispensable sense of wonder that prevents a nagging pessimism which, as an adult, only comes too often. Climbing the winding stairs to the third floor (or was it the second?) and emerging from a hole in the wall, we were greeted by two Catbuses: one where children played, and the other where both children and adults sat, sinking into the plush yellow-white fur. The softer-than-possible seats had the power to calm one down, and it’s almost a miracle people stood up to leave. But there was more to see inside the museum, more than what words can ever hope to articulate.


In another permanent exhibit room, called “Where a Film is Born,” Miyazaki invites us to what may possibly be his own idea space, scattered with sketches of drawings and rough paintings from some of his films (and other unfinished stories, perhaps), where books are scattered and stacked in messy piles and a few precious things are wanting to be picked up, touched, closely examined, and felt. The temptation to pick up these strange things is almost insurmountable, but should be resisted, because there’s a line of people behind you, among other things, all wanting to experience what it might have felt to be Miyazaki, to be inside his head, with all the Totoros and Chihiro and Nausicaä and his other characters who, because they are most imagined, are also often most real.

This is where the pain of Miyazaki and his contemporaries retiring sinks in, and where the museum seems to bear a bittersweet presence for all who have followed Ghibli from the beginning, if not solicitously followed its films from the point of discovery. As Ghibli is almost synonymous to Miyazaki, the museum may as well be a tribute to his life’s work. When he retired in 2013, it was stated that his “magic will be missed.” More than the magic, it is Miyazaki’s philosophy which will leave an amazing gap in the animated film industry, one that isn’t afraid to let only a few things happen while the viewer actively partakes in most of the imagination. This may also be the reason why Miyazaki opted to build a museum, and not a theme park, compared to Western animation studios such as Disney-Pixar. In the Ghibli Museum, the visitor is in a film, and there are no rides or surprise appearances to fuss about here. There is only a map, a maze, and Miyazaki-san winking back at you through his thick, wide-brimmed glasses, telling you that you are the main character, you are supposed to get lost, and his world is yours for the taking.