Where is the floating girl when you need her?

Yesterday I visited the Studio Ghibli Museum for the first time. It’s in Mitaka, Tokyo, close to my home, and is a museum about the development of animation in Japan, through the eyes of Miyazaki Hayao and the Studio Ghibli team. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ghibli, they are the creators of Japan’s most-loved Anime movies, including Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki Hayao has had huge artistic and cultural influence in Japan and was also a big influence on industry practice, and is genuinely a household name in a way that I think even Disney would admire. His movies (at least, the earlier ones) are amazing and well worth the respect the Japanese public offer them.

The Ghibli museum is set in a smallish building on the edge of Inokashira Park in Mitaka, about a 10 minute taxi ride from Kichijoji Station. The building itself is designed to resemble the classic style of the houses in many of Miyazaki’s movies, but is set slightly back from the road in amongst trees, to resemble a house in a forest. Inside it is built on three levels, with the Laputa robot on the roof, exhibition spaces on the bottom two levels and a shop and children’s play area on the third floor. The children’s play area is, of course, a Cat Bus. The building itself is small, and admission has to be booked up to a month in advance because of the limited number of people who can enter, but is itself cheap (¥1000). For the price of admission you get access to the museum and one-time admission to the movie theatre, which plays a different short film every month. Sadly only elementary school children can play in the Cat Bus (hrmph!)

The bottom level of the museum has the main exhibits, including a room containing a very brief history of animation, all expressed through Ghibli characters – this has an excellent example of strobe-lit animation using extremely cute Totoro characters, showing the basic process by which animation works. The next level contains an example of an animator’s studio, perhaps modeled on Miyazaki’s studio back in the day, which is very interesting. You walk through a room furnished as if it were a studio, with storyboards and sketches on the walls, books that Miyazaki used as sources, and examples of an animator’s workbench or the types of texts and background material he or she might draw upon – whole scrapbooks of pictures of plants, crystals, planes or animals cut from magazines and books, for example, or textbooks full of scenery from around the world. It gives an insight into how the animator develops their work from idea to final production.

The museum also contains a library of children’s books from around the world, all translated into Japanese (some of which can be purchased), and is constructed with bridges, nooks, crannies and mysteriously-placed windows designed to make it explorable for children – and certainly children were going crazy exploring the building while we were there. It also has a cafe, which I’m sure is very cute, but it was so busy we didn’t dare go near it. Finally, it has a cinema. The ticket to the cinema is a framed clipping of a couple of cells from a film reel, and can be kept as a souvenir. Our film was Chu Zumo, “Mouse Sumo,” which was a cute adaptation of an old folk tale, the story of which (in Japanese) is here.

Mouse Sumo

The basic story of this 13 minute film concerns an old couple who live on a steep mountainside. They are poor and have to work hard, and every day is spent farming on the mountainside with no break. Nothing interesting happens. One night, however, the old man goes outside to take a leak, and sees a bunch of mice sneaking off through the grass into the forest. One is carrying a firefly light, one is carrying a leaf as a penant, and the rest are wearing little sumo thongs. He follows and finds all the mice of the surrounding area gathered around a sumo ring to watch a bout between the mice of his house and the mice of a neighbouring area. These mice are bigger and white, and they wipe the floor with the mice from his house.

Horrified, he returns home and the next day he and his wife set about making the mice into great Sumo Rikishi. While she makes dango powder, he goes down the mountain to get some fish; when he returns they bake Tofu Dengaku (YUM!) and sanma dango, stitch together some better quality sumo thongs, and leave them out for the wrestlers. The mice come down to eat the food and put on the thongs, and immediately become stronger and bigger.

Soon there is another match, and of course the mice from the old man and woman’s house win in a tense battle, because of the strength they gained from the food and support of the old man and woman.

It’s cute for the simple fact that it involves mice, doing sumo, with a frog judge, and mice watching in the crowd, in a classic Japanese image of classic Japanese countryside. The old man and woman are done in classic Ghibli style: the old man’s brow is so furrowed that you cannot see his eyes, and have to read his expressions entirely in his pursed lips. They are, of course, sweet and kind and happy, as befits the classic Japanese stereotype of old people. So it’s a cute, sweet story with lots of funny moments (the frog referee, particularly, is hilarious), and a fine showcase of Ghibli’s talent and style. Screenshots can be seen here.

The movie is also an interesting allegory for common Japanese attitudes towards the state of modern Sumo. Here we have 5 small, weak mice who have to take on 5 bigger, more skilled white mice, from a foreign mountain, who always win. However, the story has us believe that if the wrestlers are supported by the locals, and given a bit of special Japanese magic (in the form of food and support) and just try a bit harder, then they will triumph. Of course, this isn’t happening in real Sumo. The big foreign mice are dominating the sport because all the local mice would rather not enter a sport full of bullies and old-fashioned training methods, which requires years of devotion and suffering for little gain. The local mice are already trying as hard as they can. What’s needed is a change in how they try, but this means changing the hidebound traditions of a near-mystical sport. It would all be so much easier if they could take a few performance-enhancing drugs and, with just a bit more support from the local old people, throw the bigger and tougher foreign mice. Sadly, that’s not how sport works. A change in organization style, structure and training – as well as recruitment practices – is needed before the local mice can beat the big foreign ones. No matter how much support the old locals give them.

The Studio Ghibli museum is smaller than expected and a little crowded, but it contains some interesting insights into the animation process and is very pretty and well laid out. It also comes with a movie that can’t be seen anywhere else. I recommend a visit to this place if you are coming to Tokyo. But remember to book ahead, or you will be disappointed!

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