Search This Blog

Monday, February 18, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 17 - Ghibli Films and The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

This week I feel it's time we talk about a subject that's long overdue when discussing Japan.  That would be Studio Ghibli.  Now if you don't know that this is, you're really missing out.  Studio Ghibli is to Japan what classic Disney animation was to American cinema in the 1930's and 40's.  It's made its reputation by turning out impeccably well plotted and animated stories that capture the imaginations of kids and adults alike.  

Studio Ghibli films don't operate like American animated films that try to relate to all ages.  You won't find "adult jokes" hidden in with kiddie fare.  Instead, Ghibli films pull adults into them on their own terms.  Even though they are animated, some deal with incredibly mature themes while others are playful and child-like. 

A great example of a Ghibli movie that aims higher than any Disney animated film is Grave of the Fireflies, a story about two young kids trying to survive on their own in the final days of WWII. It's absolutely heart-wrenching and pulls zero punches.  Disney wouldn't dare tackle a subject like that in the way Studio Ghibli does.

However, some of the most iconic Ghibli films are fun.  They include My Neighbor Totoro, about a young girl whose family moves to a rural area where forest spirits are actually real, Princess Mononoke, a fantasy/adventure set in feudal Japan that rivals the best American and British fantasy and Spirited Away, about a girl thrust into the spirit world who must find a way to save her parents from spending eternity as pigs and get back to reality.  You'll find toys based on these three movies in almost every single toy store you go to.  The films are so popular in Japan that there are even Studio Ghibli stores (Donguri) in Tokyo malls and the very famous (and very popular) Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo is sold out months in advance.

We decided that instead of trying to go to the museum, it would be more fun to visit places that inspired settings in the movies themselves.  This made it much more of an adventure.

First up, while walking to a train station after taking a boat ride, we realized we were right next to the famed Ghibli Clock.  This sits on the outside of Nittele Tower, the home of Nippon Television.  It goes into motion about 4 times a day.  The entire clock is animated and it tells a story of sorts as it begins to malfunction and various parts and pieces must come to life in order to get things set straight again.  Here's a YouTube link to show you how it looks, but I have to say this pales in comparison to seeing it in person.

Now, while there are many sites you can visit that will tell you to visit this place or that place to see a single location that inspired a Ghibli scene, I'm going to focus on one location that you should definitely check out if you're looking to see what inspired the animators.  And right now, I want to call out our friends Dan and Maria Borses for recommending this.

I'm talking about the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.  This is a collection of actual houses and other buildings that were physically moved from their original locations and brought here to be opened to the public.  They give you a glimpse of how people lived through different eras of Japan's history.  Word has it that the Ghibli animators used this as inspiration for a number of films and I have to say after visiting, I totally see it.

For instance, in the movie My Neighbor Totoro, the family moves into an older house in a heavily wooded area.  Soon, the youngest girl begins seeing woodland spirits and in her time of need, they come to her aid.  One of the most iconic images is that of the Cat Bus pictured at the top of this post.  

At the Open Air Museum you'll find this trolley car that's just a some legs and a smile away from being the cat bus.  You'll also find houses from the era that look suspiciously like the ones in the movie.

In the film Princess Mononoke, there is a battle for the very spirit of the forest raging across the land.  Visiting the open air museum, you can enter an Edo-era house, complete with cooking fire, thatched roof and a sleeping area for the guards.  It's straight out of the Ghibli film or should I say it's the other way around.

And then there's Spirited Away.  There are so many buildings here that were obvious inspirations for that movie that it's hard to capture them all.  The film is about a girl who accidentally finds herself in the spirit world and is put to work in a bath house for the monsters who populate it.  

This bath house at the Open Air Museum was an obvious inspiration.  Check out these amazing murals on the walls.  The bath house itself was divided between male and female and the murals depict scenes that would appeal to each.

Also in Spirited Away, our protagonist works with a strange half-man/half-something to create special baths for the monsters.  His workshop is filled, wall to wall, with drawers of ingredients.  They look exactly like this:

This is a stationery shop at the Open Air Museum.  There is no doubt it was the inspiration for that room.  

As you walk through the grounds, you'll find plenty of other examples.  Every building on this street alone shows buildings you can spot in films like Grave of the FirefliesKiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away.

So before you go on your trip, make sure to bone up on your Ghibli movies and then take the train ride out to see the Open Air Museum.  It's definitely worth your time.

No comments: