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Studio Ghibli — The Last Bastion Of Quality Hand-Drawn Animation

Posted on:  February 6th, 2010  by  Ramona |  No Comments

Matt and I are huge fans of Miyazaki's films — “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl's Moving Castle,” “My Friend Totoro” (if you're drawing a blank on these, I suggest a round of Netflix is in order!) So, of course, we had to visit his Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.

Who Is This Miyazaki Guy?

Hayao Miyazaki is the Walt Disney of Japan — an artist who is best known for helping to move anime away from the fringes and into the mainstream movie world. If you're not a fan of “Japanimation,” thinking the stories are either too violent and nihilistic for your tastes, or too childish to hold your attention — Miyazaki will surprise you. His films are more universal and accessible than something like “Akira,” and certainly much more complex and thought-provoking than  “Pokemon” or “DragonBall Z!” It's taken the rest of the world a while to discover him, but Miyazaki has been quietly creating a cartooning revolution in the east for years. He is the first animator to win Picture Of The Year at the Japanese Academy Awards, the first anime artist to take home an Oscar — and if you can believe it, “Princess Mononoke” was the highest-grossing film in Japan (that's of all time, not just among animated movies) until “Titanic” came along. John Lasseter at Pixar (himself, one of the most brilliant animators working today) is a big-time Miyazaki promoter, and has been largely responsible for making sure his films are dubbed into English and released in the United States (thank you John!)
(photo by Ramona Creel — click to buy)

Studio Ghibli's work is original and creative and far outside the traditional formulaic western animation box. If you're sick of the latest traditional Disney fairy-tale rehash, check out some Miyazaki and you'll never go back again! No crappy songs, no bad one-liners, no sidekicks, no cliches — just amazing visuals and elaborate, fantastical worlds. You can not only see but also feel the influence of artists like Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, and the folks at Aardman Studios in his work — but even films that are inspired by an existing tale become something brand new, never-before-seen in Miyazaki's hands. His stories are powerful and filled with meaning, and his characters are never flat — always shades of grey rather than black-or-white, good-or-evil. But I admire the man because he's both ground-breaking and old-school — in a time when computers seem to have taken over the animation world, Studio Ghibli functions almost exclusively on hand-drawn cels and watercolors. Miyazaki has returned animation to its rightful place as a respected art form. And, let's be honest — no one out there can create an adorable anthropomorphic critter (with his soot balls, fat-bottomed mice, and teeny spirits of the trees!)

Off The Beaten Path

The museum itself is actually quite a ways from the central downtown area. It's one of the highlights of Inokashira, a sprawling green park in a lovely little burb called Mitaka City. The area reaminds me very much of the Woodley Park neighborhood in D.C., near the National Zoo — charming apartment buildings piled on top of cute little shops and restaurants and art galleries (I would live there in a heartbeat if we decided to move to Tokyo!) On the train ride out, Matt and I wondered whether we would be the only folks in attendance that afternoon — considering that a) it was a weekday in January and seriously off-season for tourists, b) most westerners we know have never even heard of Miyazaki, and c) you are required to have reservations to get in, no walk-ups. But we were pleasantly surprised to find the place packed, with both anglos and Japanese visitors (although most of the foreigners were European — I think we were the only ones speaking English, aside from a few Brits and a lively Aussie family with a pack of children bouncing around like a troop of wallabies!) Clearly, the world hasn't given up on 2-D animation in favor of CGI just yet!

The building itself is fabulous — a quirky mix of Disney, Lewis Carroll, and Tim Burton design elements, with a smidge of steampunk and a dash of old-world Japanese thrown in for flavor. They've actually tried to lay out the museum like a film, if you can picture what that means — but it's not a linear experience by any means. The philosophy is “come lose yourself with us” — there is no set pathway through the museum, everywhere you turn, you'll find a hidden nook or cranny holding a small display of cel art or models, there are dozens of staircases and doorways and cabinets to explore, and you feel a bit like Alice In Miyazaki Wonderland. There is a play area for kids (featuring the six-legged cat-bus from “My Neighbor Totoro” and a pit filled with soot-balls.) An overgrown outside terrace is guarded by the robot from “Laputa Castle In The Sky.” The library is filled with books which are specially recommended by Miyazaki, and children are free to park it in a bean bag for as long as they want. The interior is built to let in light and air, though skylights and stained glass and openings to the natural world outside. Each window, doorhandle, and fixture is representative of some character or scene from a Miyazaki film — Kiki on her broom, Nausicaa on her jet glider, Kodamas, you name it. If I had been allowed to take pictures inside, I would have filled a 4GB card in about 20 minutes — but photography is only allowed outside the building.

The displays themselves are endlessly fascinating to those of us who love animation. The halls are lined with early drawings and watercolors, as well as the physical objects that served as inspiration for those scenes. Small 3-D models and wood-carvings of Miyazaki's characters are displayed on shelves and in cubbies, and each window contains a beautifully-done stained glass scene from a film. One series of rooms is meant to represent Miyazaki's studio, filled with hundreds of original sketches tacked to the walls, odd bits of memorabilia, and stacks of the books he uses in his work (including a “Barlett's Quotations,” the complete “Encyclopedia Britannica,” and one of the biggest volumes on botany I have ever seen.) Another darkened space contains illuminated mechanical re-enactments from a number of Studio Ghibli films — zoetropes and moving dioramas and multiplane glass cels that make you feel as though you are inside the scene. The technology is quite simple, but the result is magical — the way I imagine people used to feel at a world's fair demonstration or seeing a kinetescope for the first time.

Finally, you come to a section highlighting Miyazaki's latest work, which in this case is “Ponyo.” At its core, Ponyo is a modern retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's “Little Mermaid,” a goldfish who falls for a young boy and wants to become human — but this is far from Ariel and Sebastian!  There is no witch, no final battle between good and evil — just a loving look at life transitions and a lot of really wacked-out imagery. Consistent with Miyazaki's passion for nature, the ocean takes on a life and a personality of its own (he insisted on drawing every wave himself — a total of 170,000 separate images!) Matt and I love to see behind-the-scenes, and we could have stayed in this room all day — with its pencil sketches, free-form watercolors, video interviews with Miyazaki, and hands-on exhibits showing how he achieved some of the amazing effects in this film (all without the use of computer animation.) It premiered in the U.S. in August, but came nowhere near our neck of the woods — I'm waiting for the DVD to be released, because it looks absolutely enchanting!

I've Saved The Best For Last

At the end of the day, we stopped in at the Saturn Theater to see an entirely original animated short, drawn just for the museum. Our tickets (which we got to keep) were made from pieces of the 35mm film prints that were used in theaters — mine was a scene from “Howl's Moving Castle” and Matt's was a shot from “Princess Mononoke.” These shorts can only be seen on-site, although one would hope that, eventually, they will put out a DVD compilation. The one we saw was brand-new, just completed in 2010, entitled “Chu-Zumo.”

This is the story of an old Japanese man and woman who live in a remote rural area. Their lives are nothing but backbreaking work — hoeing, planting, gathering. You can see the weariness on their faces, and feel their exhaustion in every plodding step and sigh. One night, as he feels the call of nature (yes, Miyazaki is willing to go where Walt never would, and have his characters pee off the side of a mountain), the old man sees a group of mice leaving his house and heading purposefully into a nearby clearing. He follows, and discovers that a sumo match is going on between his rodents and a group of much bigger white field mice. The home team gets their asses kicked, and the old man spends the next day fuming over the loss. He is so put out by the idea that his mice lost, that he puts his wife to work — making fish-head dumplings and tofu-on-a-stick, which they serve to the mice. They grow fatter with every bite, until they are sufficiently bulked-up and ready to return to the ring. Of course, this time around, the mice are victorious, and the old man and woman are filled with joy at their accomplishment.

It's an endearing little film, filled with all of Miyazaki's best — adorable characters, fantastic facial expressions, and the ability to really convey a sense of place and emotion, even when viewers can't understand a word of the dialog (which was all in Japanese.) Matt and I enjoyed it all the more because we had just been to the sumo matches the day before, and we actually got the sports references — the throwing of salt into the ring, the foot-stamping, the belly-slapping, the judges stepping in to determine the winner of a close match. One mouse was clearly a “thruster” and the other was a “grappler” (I promise this is real sumo terminology — I heard the commentator use it to describe a pair of competitors.) And everyone found a reason to celebrate at the end of the match, winners and losers alike — there are no hard feelings in sumo. I walked out smiling, and found myself chuckling at random moments throughout the rest of the evening. That's why I adore Miyazaki so much. He's in that class of animators (like Chuck Jones) who can completely make my day with no more than 9 minutes of screen time!

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream with The Husbert and two fur-babies. Learn more at GettingOrganizedAToZ.com and RamonaCreel.com.

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