Like mecca for animation buffs, the Ghibli Museum is reason enough to visit Japan.
As Variety’s resident toon aficionado, my pilgrimage began with an invitation to attend the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival (this year’s theme: animation). John Lasseter, who produced opening night film “Big Hero 6,” used his own trip to Japan as an excuse to check in with Hayao Miyazaki, master Japanese animator and head of the Studio Ghibli toon studio.
For those of us without a direct line to Miyazaki, however, the Ghibli Museum provides the next best thing.
Despite its solemn-sounding name, the Ghibli Museum is neither a stuffy, hands-off exhibition space nor a full-blown amusement park, but an enchanting cross between the two. Conceived by Miyazaki as a place where fans of his films (which include “The Wind Rises” and Oscar winner “Spirited Away”) could discover the craft that goes into making them, the splendid four-story building gives visitors a chance to experience how it must feel to be a character in one of his movies.
Located in a quiet, woodsy corner of Inokashira Park, on the western outskirts of Tokyo, the museum feels wonderfully disconnected from the bustling city — and tiny compared with places like Disneyland (foreigners are advised to book tickets at the beginning of the month prior to their intended visit, since reservations fill up fast). Still, even as an adult, the scale of the building is such that one feels like a mouse exploring a large house whose owner has stepped away, but left the door open.
Miyazaki planned the museum nearly the same way he creates his movies, sketching out designs like storyboards, then handing them over to his team to bring to life. The steps of animation are presented in the museum’s various rooms, which demonstrate the animation process from the inspiration stage through drawing, painting and various special effects.
In a small theater on the ground floor, big windows surround the projector, so visitors can witness the celluloid unspooling, revealing one of nine (unsubtitled) short films made exclusively for museum guests. The program changes monthly, so time your visit carefully if you want to catch “Mei and the Baby Cat Bus,” a semi-sequel to “My Neighbor Totoro” that’s impossible to see otherwise.
In the meantime, Totoro — a furry, teardrop-shaped forest spirit who has become Miyazaki’s best-loved creation — patiently sits watch at the entrance of the museum, while a giant life-size Cat Bus awaits on the top floor, where children are allowed to climb aboard. The attraction has to be replaced every few years after thousands of tiny feet have worn down its plush fur coat, which is how a retired Cat Bus found its way from the Ghibli Museum to Lasseter’s office at Pixar. Everyone else has to make the trip to Tokyo to see it.