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The Great Read
What happens when the surreal imagination of the world’s greatest living animator, Hayao Miyazaki, is turned into a theme park?
A Totoro-like climbing structure.Credit...Rinko Kawauchi for The New York Times
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By Sam Anderson
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As an American, I know what it feels like to arrive at a theme park. The totalizing consumerist embrace. The blunt-force, world-warping, escapist delight. I have known theme parks with entrance gates like international borders and ticket prices like mortgage payments and parking lots the size of Cleveland. I have been to Disney World, an alternate reality that basically occupies its own tax zone, with its own Fire Department and its own agriculture — a place where, before you’ve even entered, you see a 100-foot-tall electrical pole along the freeway with Mickey Mouse ears. This is a theme park’s job: to swallow the universe. To replace our boring, aimless, frustrating world with a new one made just for us.
Imagine my confusion, then, when I arrived at Ghibli Park, Japan’s long-awaited tribute to the legendary animation of Studio Ghibli.
Like filmgoers all over the world, I had been fantasizing about a visit to Ghibli Park since the project was announced more than five years ago. I tracked the online rumors, inhaled the concept drawings, scrutinized the maps. Ghibli’s animation has always felt destined to be turned into a theme park. Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s co-founder, is one of the all-time great imaginary world-builders — right up there with Lewis Carroll, Jim Henson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak and composers of the Icelandic sagas. Even Miyazaki’s most fantastical creations — a castle with giant metal chicken legs, a yellow bus with the body of a cat — feel somehow thick and plausible and real.
Miyazaki started Studio Ghibli in 1985, out of desperation, when he and his co-founders, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, couldn’t find a studio willing to put out their work. The films were brilliant but notoriously artsy, expensive, labor-intensive. Miyazaki is maniacally detail-obsessed. He agonizes over his children’s cartoons as if he were Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. He will pour whole oceans of effort and time and money into the smallest effects: the way a jumping fish twists as it leaps, individual faces in a crowd reacting to an earthquake, the physics of tiles during a rooftop chase scene. Miyazaki insists that, although few viewers will be conscious of all this work, every viewer will feel it. And we do. Those tiny touches, adding up across the length of a film, anchor his fantasies in the actual world.
“Ghibli” is an Italian word, derived from Arabic, for a hot wind that blows across Libya. The plan was for the company to blow like a hot wind through the stagnant world of animation. It succeeded. For more than 35 years, Studio Ghibli has been the great eccentric juggernaut of anime, cranking out classic after odd classic: “Castle in the Sky” (1986), “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989), “Only Yesterday” (1991), “Princess Mononoke” (1997), “Spirited Away” (2001). In Japan, the release of a new Ghibli film is a national event, and the studio’s most popular characters are ubiquitous: plump Totoro, mysterious No Face, the grinning Cat Bus, googly-eyed soot sprites. As a kind of shorthand, Miyazaki is often called the Walt Disney of Japan.
I was dying to see, in person, how a Ghibli theme park might work. How could these surreal worlds possibly be translated into reality? What would it feel like to lose ourselves inside them?
In November, when Ghibli Park finally opened, I made sure to get myself there. And so, after many years, and much traveling — at long last — I found myself stepping into the wonders of Ghibli Park.
Or did I? Did I find myself stepping into the wonders of Ghibli Park?
My first impression was not awe or majesty or surrender or consumerist bliss. It was confusion. For a surprisingly long time after I arrived, I could not tell whether or not I had arrived. There was no security checkpoint, no ticket booths, no ambient Ghibli soundtrack, no mountainous Cat Bus statue. Instead, I found myself stepping out of a very ordinary train station into what seemed to be a large municipal park. A sea of pavement. Sports fields. Vending machines. It looked like the kind of place you might go on a lazy weekend to see a pretty good softball tournament.
There were some buildings around, but it was hard to tell which of them might or might not be Ghibli-related. In the distance, the arc of a Ferris wheel broke the horizon — but this, I would discover, had nothing to do with Ghibli Park. I wandered into and out of a convenience store. I saw some children wearing Totoro hats and started to follow them. It felt like some kind of bizarre treasure hunt — a theme park where the theme was searching for the theme park. Which was, in a way, perfectly Studio Ghibli: no pleasure without a little challenge. And so I headed down the hill, trying to find my way in.
Like many non-Japanese viewers, I first encountered Studio Ghibli through the 2001 film “Spirited Away.” It is Miyazaki’s masterpiece, a popular and critical supertriumph that won the Oscar for best animated feature and became, for two decades, the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. Critics all over the world simultaneously fell out of their armchairs to praise it in the most ecstatic possible terms. Nigel Andrews of The Financial Times rated it six out of five stars, justifying this mathematical impossibility (“Exception must be made for the exceptional”) with a flood of rapturous beat poetry: “What is the film about? It is about 122 minutes and 12 billion years. It sums up all existence and gives us a mythology good for every society, amoebal, animal or human, that ever lived.” And he offered the ultimate existentialist blurb: “Rush now while life lasts.”
I, on the other hand, am not a film critic. I am an ordinary American, someone raised on MTV and “S.N.L.” and CGI. Which means that my entertainment metabolism has been carefully tuned to digest the purest visual corn syrup. Sarcastic men with large guns. Yearning princesses with grumpy fathers. Explosive explosions explosively exploding. When I watched “Spirited Away,” at first I had no idea what I was looking at. In the simplest terms, the film tells the coming-of-age story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro. It takes place in a haunted theme park — where, almost immediately, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs, and Chihiro is forced to sign away her name and perform menial labor in a bathhouse for ghosts (ghosts, spirits, monsters, gods — it’s hard to know exactly what to call them, and the film never explains). A full plot summary would be impossible. The story moves at a strange, tumbling pace, with elements connecting and separating and floating around, revolving and recombining, as if in a dream.
But plot isn’t really the point. The majestic thing about “Spirited Away” is the world itself. Miyazaki’s creativity is radically dense; every little molecule of the film seems charged with invention. The haunted bathhouse attracts a proliferation of very weird beings: giant yellow ducklings, a sentient slime-blob, fanged monsters with antlers, a humanoid radish spirit who appears to be wearing an upside-down red bowl for a hat. There is a trio of green disembodied heads, with black mustaches and angry faces, who bounce around and pile up on top of one another and grunt disapprovingly at Chihiro. There are so many creatures, stuffed into so many nooks and crannies, that it seems as if Miyazaki has been spending multiple eternities, on multiple planets, running parallel evolutionary timelines, just so he can sketch the most interesting results. As a viewer, you have to surrender to the abundance. Crowd-surf into the hallucination.
Miyazaki knows that his work can be difficult — and he is, at all times, righteously defiant. “I must say that I hate Disney’s works,” he once declared. “The barrier to both the entry and exit of Disney films is too low and too wide. To me, they show nothing but contempt for the audience.” At home, Miyazaki is a celebrity, recognizable to the point of parody: caterpillar eyebrows, heavy, dark-rimmed glasses, sculpted white beard, cigarette. In 2019, the TV network NHK — Japan’s rough equivalent to the BBC — aired a four-part documentary chronicling Miyazaki’s creative process. It is a festival of grouchy agony, full of insults (“He’s not an adult yet,” he says of his then 39-year-old son Goro) and self-reproach (“I feel like a comb with missing teeth”). Miyazaki is the curmudgeon’s curmudgeon. Over the decades, he has dismissed everything from iPads (“disgusting”) to 1980s Japanese animation (“resembles the food served on jumbo-jet airliners”) to art created by artificial intelligence (“I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself”). Many artists have high standards. Miyazaki’s are in outer space.
Disney is, famously, a vast corporate content farm, with all artistic choices carefully examined by an assembly line of executives, marketers, focus groups, etc. Whereas Miyazaki’s vision is absolutely his own. Despite its global success, Studio Ghibli has remained quirky and unpredictable, a direct reflection of the personalities of its founders. To this day, Miyazaki insists on meticulously hand-drawing his own storyboards. When his sketches go to Ghibli’s larger team for the technical work of animation, he checks every image, and if he sees something he dislikes he will erase it and draw right over it — explaining the whole time why it was wrong. For as long as he possibly could, Miyazaki resisted computer animation. He still refuses, on principle, to make sequels. He has long told parents that children should not watch his films more than once a year. (“Whatever experiences we provide them,” Miyazaki has said, “are in a sense stealing time from them that otherwise might be spent in a world where they go out and make their own discoveries or have their own personal experiences.”)
Miyazaki is now 82. He has tried multiple times, without success, to pass the creative torch. “I trained successors, but I couldn’t let go,” he once said. “I devoured them. I devoured their talent. ... That was my destiny. I ate them all.” Even his elder son, Goro, has tried his hand at directing — with mixed results. Miyazaki has abruptly retired, and then just as suddenly unretired, by my count, four times. He is currently finishing work on a new film titled “How Do You Live?” It is now in production and should be out in Japan this summer.
All of which raises some huge questions for Studio Ghibli — questions so deep they are practically theological. What will happen to the company when the great Miyazaki is gone? Can such idiosyncratic imaginative worlds outlive the mind that made them? Would a theme park help (as it did for Walt Disney) to answer both of those questions?
More on the Walt Disney Company
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- DeSantis-Disney Rift:In the latest development in a battle between the Florida governor and Disney, Ron DeSantis has gained control of the board that oversees development at Walt Disney World, a move that restricts the autonomy of Disneyover its theme-park complex.
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“Spirited Away” is now more than 20 years old. Since that first confused encounter, I have watched it many, many times. I still find it strange and scary and disorienting — but also uplifting. Despite his crankiness, Miyazaki has always defined his artistic mission in inspirational terms. “I want to send a message of cheer to all those wandering aimlessly through life,” he has written. So when the real world gets bad — when I feel depressed, stressed, misanthropic, crushed by politics or deadlines — I often find myself stepping once more into Chihiro’s world. I find myself wanting to float around in Miyazaki’s imagination as the spirits float in the herbal pools of the “Spirited Away” bathhouse. I want to snuggle into the world of Ghibli like Totoro snuggling into a bed of ferns.
‘‘Do you recognize this?” one of my Ghibli Park guides asked me.
I did. Of course I did.
We were staring at a big old-fashioned Japanese gate: red, with dark brown wood and a green tile roof. It was a structure straight out of “Spirited Away.” Waiting on the other side, framed perfectly in the doorway, was one of my favorite things in all of Miyazaki: a squat stone statue, inscrutable and smiling.
My guides were two friendly members of Ghibli’s P.R. team, Mai Sato and Seika Wang. I met them up at the train station, after I finished puttering around the area, lost. They confirmed that yes, I had come to the right place. Unlike any theme park I’d ever been to, Ghibli Park was located inside a larger park, Expo 2005 Aichi Commemorative Park. And, like a very polite houseguest, it had tucked itself in without making much of a fuss. Its signage was subtle, and its attractions were spread around, at great distances from one another. The guides told me that our tour would take approximately four hours.
As my body passed through the “Spirited Away” gate, I felt a slight, shimmering thrill. That smiling statue on the other side was a spirit shrine, guardian of the other world — the first real sign, in the film, that Chihiro’s life is about to be transformed. As we approached, I wanted to stop and take a selfie and text it to everyone I know. But other tourists were doing that, and more people, over to the side, were waiting politely for their turn. So the guides and I walked on.
This is when we entered the forest.
If you want Miyazaki to love you, it might help to be a tree. He has a well-documented reverence for nature. Rivers and mountains and oceans are practically the heroes of many Ghibli films. Miyazaki’s forests are so distinctive that certain mossy shades of green automatically make me think of them. In fact, Miyazaki often compares storytelling itself to a tree. It’s not just about flashy ornamentation, he likes to say, it’s about the deep invisible roots that support the trunk that supports the branches — all of which, in the end, allows you to hang the ornaments that everyone will admire.
Ghibli Park was designed, as the official website puts it, in “close consultation with the surrounding forest.” My guides told me that, amazingly, not a single tree was cut down. Again I thought of Disney World, which was created at the expense of whole ecosystems — square miles denatured and paved to make way for lucrative, user-friendly worlds of plastic and metal. Ghibli Park, by contrast, is largely unchanged forest. Seeing its attractions involves walking, endlessly, through wooded paths. Some of those paths are new or recently improved. But many seem old. The forest’s trees were thin and twisty; they stretched over our heads like sunlit hallways. They tangled off into the distance. They just stood there, being trees. Staircases, wooden and stone, branched off up and down hills. Without my guides, I would have had no idea where to go. As we walked, the American in me kept wondering about lawsuits. Surely, someone would someday trip on a root and fall down a staircase. And wouldn’t that person blame Ghibli Park? At one point, we saw a warning sign, attached to a post, telling people to beware of snakes and hornets. It listed a phone number to call if you got into trouble.
Months before, in my first meeting with Studio Ghibli’s P.R. team about a possible visit, I was told that the studio would be happy to work with me but had one serious concern. If The New York Times published an article about Ghibli Park, they said, it might make more people want to come visit. This struck them as a problem. Like many Ghibli products, Ghibli Park is impishly non-user-friendly. This is true for people in Japan, and even more so for international visitors. Consider, for instance, its location. Unlike Tokyo Disneyland or Universal Studios Japan (in Osaka), Ghibli Park is not located in a tourist hub. Instead, it sits on the outskirts of an unglamorous city called Nagoya, in a region famous for being the home of Toyota — basically, the Detroit of Japan. And the park is not even in Nagoya proper. From my hotel in the center of the city, it took me an hour, and three different trains, to reach Ghibli Park. The website suggests taking the train because the park has no dedicated parking lot.
The website also does its best to lower expectations, declaring immediately, “There are no big attractions or rides in Ghibli Park.” The surrounding grounds are public and free to walk around, all day long. There are only three paid areas in Ghibli Park, and by theme-park standards the admission fees are laughably low: the equivalent of about $10 to $20 for each area. But tickets, at that time, were nearly impossible to get. There was a lottery system, and they were sold out for months in advance.
Occasionally, my guides would lead me to a modest little statue. “Do you recognize this?” they would ask. And it would be something from a Ghibli film: sitting on a bench, Mei’s hat and ear of corn from “My Neighbor Totoro”; standing near a tree, a tanuki from “Pom Poko”; on a table, Sosuke’s bucket from “Ponyo.” There are 15 of these objects, they told me, scattered throughout the park. A little fan-service scavenger hunt. I would pause, identify the item and take a photo. Other tourists would stop and do the same. And then we would all keep walking through the trees.
After a while I told my guides, only half joking, that Ghibli Park seemed like an extremely elaborate way to lure people out into the middle of an obscure Japanese forest.
Yes, they said. That is basically correct.
Studio Ghibli did not offer me an interview with Hayao Miyazaki. He was busy with his final film, and he almost never agrees to do interviews anymore. Besides, they said, Ghibli Park was not really his project. The man in charge was Goro — Hayao Miyazaki’s son.
In person, Goro Miyazaki is almost the opposite of his father. Miyazaki the elder is a spectacle — perpetually in motion, smoking and agonizing and clutching his hair. He looks like a Miyazaki character. Goro, by contrast, looks like an absolutely normal man. He is 56, clean-shaven, slim. He sits still and speaks softly, modestly, with none of his father’s bombast. His eyes are like deep pools.
Goro and I met at Ghibli headquarters, a leafy compound, designed by Hayao Miyazaki himself, that is spread over several blocks of a quiet Tokyo suburb. We sat in a meeting room featuring shelves of animation books and statuettes of Ghibli characters. Goro arrived carrying multiple large folders: his sketches and plans for Ghibli Park.
The Miyazakis, father and son, have what you might call a fraught relationship. Both men have been surprisingly open about this. During Goro’s childhood, the great animator was mostly absent, cranking out masterpieces. The little boy got to know his father like the rest of Japan, by watching his films. “I just wanted him to be there,” Goro says in the NHK documentary, with great feeling. “He feels alive only when he’s making a film.” And then he adds, resigned, “He can’t change now.”
“I owe that little boy an apology,” Hayao Miyazaki says.
Goro, meanwhile, was raised by his mother, Akemi Miyazaki. She taught him to love the outdoors. They were always going hiking, and they spent summers up in her father’s mountain cabin. In high school, Goro joined the mountaineering club. In college, he studied forestry. After graduation, he worked in landscape architecture. In his 30s, Goro led the construction of a quirky little Ghibli Museum in suburban Tokyo, designed by his father, which opened in 2001.
This is something father and son could share: a reverence for nature. And Goro brought this reverence to his design for Ghibli Park.
“There was a time when we considered making our own version of Disneyland,” he told me. “Here is the Totoro area. People can ride the Cat Bus. That’s great. But what about the environment around it?”
After all, the action of “My Neighbor Totoro” is inseparable from its natural setting: thick trees, grass fields, rice paddies. Totoro drops acorns everywhere as a kind of calling card. To love Totoro is to love not just a single creature but a whole habitat.
“It doesn’t feel right to have that kind of idyllic landscape in a theme park,” Goro continued. “You can’t have a rice field that’s green all year round.”
What about plastic? I asked.
“A plastic rice field contradicts the whole idea of Totoro’s world,” he said.
In Tokyo, I went to see Toshio Suzuki, the yin to Miyazaki’s yang, the most important person in the company’s history aside from Miyazaki and Takahata. Although he has held many titles (producer, president), most crucially Suzuki has functioned as a kind of Miyazaki whisperer: a combination of friend, critic, right-hand man, creative consultant, collaborator and business partner. When Miyazaki strains a major deadline, or decides out of nowhere to retire, or when he can’t decide how to end a film — Suzuki is the one who figures out how to make it all OK, to stretch budgets and schedules, to hire or lay off whole teams of people.
I met Suzuki at his office, the doorway of which features a Totoro welcome mat. We sat together at a long table, speaking through an interpreter.
While Miyazaki is famously grouchy, Suzuki is open and affable. He has a deep, hearty, easy laugh. He loves to talk — so much so that he hosts his own weekly radio show.
Suzuki told me that the story of Ghibli Park began, almost by accident, 20 years ago — with a quirky one-off project. It was Suzuki’s idea. For years, he had been fantasizing about building a real-world simulacrum of the cartoon house from “My Neighbor Totoro.” This was partly nostalgia: Suzuki actually grew up, in Nagoya, in a house like that — an old-style Japanese country house, with traditional woodworking. Finally, the real world gave him a perfect excuse. He learned that in 2005 a big World Expo would be held in this municipal park on the edge of Nagoya. Its organizers were inviting companies from around the world, including Ghibli, to create pavilions. And so Suzuki said: Yes. We will build this house.
The expo organizers loved the idea. Maybe you could put a Totoro in the house, they said. Or some of those cute little soot sprites.
No! Suzuki said. (In our interview, he actually yelled this right out loud, in English: “No!”) He was only interested in building the house. No characters. Nothing fantastical. Just the house! To this day, Suzuki is not sure why he was so adamant about that. He insists it was not some great principled stand. He just felt like saying no. When it came time to name the place, he didn’t name it after Totoro — he named it after the film’s two human children. “Satsuki and Mei’s House.”
To build the house, Suzuki enlisted Goro. Goro may not have had his father’s animation genius — no one really did — but he had other things. A similar obsession with detail. An iron will. Goro knew construction. He had a good practical head on his shoulders. He had built the Ghibli Museum. He would be able to solve any logistical problems. And he had people skills that his father lacked.
“The one thing that’s very different from Goro to his father, what sets them apart, is how they use staff members,” Suzuki told me. “Hayao Miyazaki is maybe not a great leader. But Goro is very good at making the team function. He’s very good at bringing the best out of each team member.”
The whole Totoro house project was a lark. Would the public even be interested in visiting an elaborate wooden replica of a house from a cartoon? Suzuki had no idea. But popularity wasn’t really the point. The impulse was deeper than that.
Well, it turned out that the public was interested. In 2005, when the World Expo opened, Satsuki and Mei’s House was an instant sensation. Such huge floods of Miyazaki fans poured in that everyone worried the house would be ruined. Its artisanal woodworking was not designed for so much traffic. They imposed a limit: 800 visitors a day. But the competition for those 800 spots was so fierce that, eventually, the expo instituted a lottery system. On an average day, 600,000 people applied. Everyone in Japan seemed to want to put their physical bodies inside the world of Studio Ghibli.
Suzuki is still amazed by this. It was just a house! When the expo ended, he said, Ghibli received calls from all over Japan — from north to south, Hokkaido to Okinawa. Everyone wanted Satsuki and Mei’s House to be moved to their city. Suzuki even received a call from the city of Toyota, which was interested in moving the house inside the car company’s headquarters.
What on earth was this insatiable hunger? I asked Suzuki. Why would so many people go to so much trouble to stand inside an ordinary house?
It’s an excellent question, he said. In fact, that’s exactly what the head of Toyota asked him. Toyota hoped that, if they could figure out the source of this public frenzy, it might help them sell their next car.
But Suzuki had no good explanation. And in the end he told everyone that Satsuki and Mei’s House would stay in Nagoya. Many years later, this odd building would become the anchor, and the guiding spirit, of Ghibli Park.
Goro started planning Ghibli Park in 2017. It was similar to Satsuki and Mei’s House — but much bigger, much more complicated. It would require all of his skills. His ability to lead teams of actual humans. His ability to haul his father’s imaginary structures, kicking and screaming, into reality.
Building that Totoro house, Goro told me, had been an incredible hassle. Architecturally, he discovered, the cartoon structure made very little sense. It was tricky to come up with a design that would be both recognizable to viewers of “My Neighbor Totoro” while also functioning as a real-world house. The traditional woodworking required a highly select group of artisans. They were proud, opinionated and stubborn. They argued with Goro over all kinds of things: the blueprints, the height of the ceilings. They didn’t want to build a temporary structure, so Goro had to promise to protect it even after the expo ended. Studio Ghibli had planned to paint the house when it was finished, to make it look plausibly old. But the artisans hated that idea and insisted on aging it in their own way: burning and rubbing the wood, lacquering it with persimmon juice. To make everything worse, the expo’s roads were blocked by construction, so carpenters had to drag supplies over a hill. Everything took longer than it was supposed to. When the expo auditors saw the expenses, they thought there had to be some mistake. It’s not possible to spend so much money on a single house! they said. We could have built a beautiful modern house for a fraction of this cost.
Nevertheless, Goro persisted. He overcame all the obstacles. He built the imaginary house. Unfortunately, however, that triumph did not last — because somehow, Goro agreed to step out of the real world and into the world of his father. He agreed to direct a Studio Ghibli film.
It did not go well. Goro’s film, “Tales From Earthsea,” lacked the energy that defined his father’s work: the throbbing physicality, the restless joy, the moral ambiguity. It was, to be blunt, stiff and humorless. The villain cackled. The hero was noble. At a screening, Miyazaki walked out after only an hour. “It felt like I’d been in there for three hours,” he said, despondently, before reluctantly heading back in. All of this was captured in the NHK documentary. Still, almost unbelievably, Goro went back for more. He proposed directing a second film. In the end, after some more father-son fireworks, this one, “From Up on Poppy Hill,” was — thank the Forest Spirit — much better than his first.
And then came this huge undertaking of Ghibli Park. A theme park, in a way, had higher stakes for Goro Miyazaki than any single film. This would be a public, physical, visitable, globally anticipated translation of his father’s imaginative worlds. And Goro would be absolutely in charge.
Eventually, after our very long walk through the forest, my guides and I arrived at Satsuki and Mei’s House. As an attraction, it is hilariously minimalist — almost more conceptual art about a theme-park attraction than a proper attraction in itself. It’s as if a giant hand reached into the film, plucked just this building out and set it down in a clearing in this forest. We stepped inside. The house was clean, small and crowded. Visitors had removed their shoes, as if they were visiting a real person’s home. And everyone was just doing house things: opening drawers, opening closets, turning faucets on and off. The place had been arranged, with perfect realism, as if a Japanese family actually lived there. Tatami mats covered the floor. Dishes filled the cupboards. I slid open a closet. Nice, actual blankets, folded neatly, sat on the shelves. The bathroom had a big round tub just like the one in the film. Outside, the yard featured a working water pump: pull the handle, watch it flow.
There was not a single image of Totoro — the most beloved of all the Studio Ghibli characters, the company’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse. Nor could I find any soot sprites. I stepped outside. On one side of the house, down at the ground, people were lining up to peek into a dark hole. In the film, this is the portal through which Totoro emerges. I got in line. Surely there would be a Totoro here. A pair of eyes at least. Finally! I thought. Ghibli Park had made me work for it, but I had found a Totoro. I waited my turn. I bent down. The hole was empty.
When I told Goro about this experience, he seemed pleased.
“We wanted to do something authentic,” he said. “Once you try to bring Totoro into reality, you can only do it with a doll, or a robot, or someone dressed as Totoro. It would just lose authenticity. I felt that it was more important to have the building give the feeling that Totoro might be there. When you sit in that tatami room, or if you look under the stairs, you feel like he might be hiding.”
The most theme-park-like area of Ghibli Park — the place that you will see all over Instagram — is called Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse. From the outside, it absolutely lives up to that name. It is a big giant warehouse: hulking, boxy, utilitarian. It looks as if it might contain a municipal swimming pool — which, in fact, it once did. (An identical building, right next door, still contains an ice rink.) Now the building is stuffed with Ghibliana: a dense bonanza of references and tableaus and scale-model buildings. It is colorful chaos. There are fountains and staircases and bright mosaics with Ghibli’s signature creatures worked into the patterns. There is a children’s play area featuring Totoro and a giant Cat Bus. There is a grand old-fashioned theater that plays charming short films never released in theaters. (I saw one about a group of preschoolers who imagine their way out onto the open sea, where they lasso a smiling whale.)
The Grand Warehouse’s main draw was an exhibition called, wonderfully, “Exhibition: Becoming Characters in Memorable Ghibli Scenes.” It is a series of life-size tableaus from beloved Studio Ghibli films into which visitors can insert themselves. You can run on top of a giant fish with Ponyo, pose with a robot from “Castle in the Sky,” enter the cluttered clubhouse in “From Up on Poppy Hill” or stand with the hunters from “Princess Mononoke.” Or, the most popular choice, you can sit on the train next to No Face.
Let’s pause here, briefly, to make sure we all fully appreciate No Face. The very best Miyazaki characters, the ones that hit on the deepest spiritual levels, are the ones that do not speak. Totoro, the Cat Bus, soot sprites, kodama (the little rattle-headed forest spirits in “Princess Mononoke”). And the greatest of all these — one of the great strange miracles in the history of cinema — is No Face. No Face is a lonely ghost who appears, out of thin air, in the middle of “Spirited Away.” He is so simple and deep, so eloquently silent, that it is hard to even describe him. Words themselves hesitate. This, in fact, is partly what No Face is about: the failure of language. He speaks in incoherent monosyllables (“eh, eh, eh”) — tender little noises that nudge their way toward language but never quite get there. And yet his sounds are full of feeling, full of all that wants to be expressed but can’t.
No Face, in other words, is quintessential Miyazaki. In a 2002 interview, Roger Ebert told Miyazaki he loved the “gratuitous motion” in his films, the way “sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or sigh, or gaze at a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.” To which Miyazaki responded: “We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” Miyazaki clapped his hands. “The time in between my clapping is ma,” he told Ebert. “If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.”
No Face is ma come to life. He is a living negation, an absent presence — a character so minor that he becomes extremely major. His body is a big black swoop. His face is a white mask, in which the eyes and mouth are just black holes. No Face’s body is semitransparent, so you can actually see the background right through him.
This was the one experience I absolutely wanted to have at Ghibli Park, the thing I had been fantasizing about from thousands of miles away: to sit next to No Face. I wanted to enter Miyazaki’s most iconic scene: No Face, sitting, expressionless, on a red velvet seat on an ethereal train near the end of “Spirited Away.” I needed to sit there with him, to put my real 3-D body next to his fake 3-D body. I needed to feel that I was gliding over the water, lonely but not alone, on his sad hopeful journey.
Unfortunately, this turned out not to be possible. Everyone else in Japan seemed to have come to Ghibli Park to take this photo. The line seemed infinite. My guides simply acknowledged that, given the time constraints of our tour, the wait would be too long. (They did not offer, even for a second, to let me cut the line, which I appreciated, because I almost certainly would have done it, thereby violating the whole anti-greed ethos of “Spirited Away.”)
As a consolation, my guides took my photo in a different tableau, one with a very short line. It was the climactic scene from “Porco Rosso,” Miyazaki’s story of an Italian pig-pilot. This is not one of my favorite Ghibli films, but I would take what I could get. In the tableau, a huge crowd cheers as Porco, his face battered and swollen, throws a punch. I stepped into the fight, tilting my body to absorb Porco’s punch, pretending to punch him back. It felt completely ridiculous. The P.R. team took my photo. It looks as ridiculous as I felt.
I left the Grand Warehouse feeling — I have to say — mildly disappointed. I had not sat with No Face. Nor had I enjoyed the concession stand that offers, as the website puts it, “local milk in a glass bottle with an original design.” (Another infinite line.) Despite all its color, the Grand Warehouse felt static, plastic, a little anticlimactic. Unlike in Ghibli’s films, nothing moved. Part of me — again, the American part — had been expecting to be shocked, entertained, thrown around. It was hard to imagine Hayao Miyazaki, the genius world-builder, the man obsessed with motion, building a place so oddly still. He would have built a rollicking theme park.
In fact, Toshio Suzuki told me, that had once been his plan. Not many people knew this, Suzuki said, but a long time ago Hayao Miyazaki went to Disneyland. And he loved it.
“He kept it to himself,” Suzuki said. “He never said that at home — that he had fun at Disneyland. But I know what happened.”
In fact, Miyazaki had so much fun that he came back to Japan dreaming of building a theme park of his own. He sketched secret plans of Ghibli-themed roller coasters. Suzuki saw them. But these plans never came to pass. Goro wasn’t interested.
The Grand Warehouse, Goro told me, was motionless by design. He felt that even the most advanced theme-park effects — rides, virtual reality — could never compare with the experience of watching Studio Ghibli’s films. So he didn’t even try. The absence of attractions, the lack of motion in the Grand Warehouse — it was all perfectly intentional.
“It’s the visitors that create the motion,” he said. “The characters don’t move, so the visitors have to move themselves. People get very creative, interacting with the scenes. Whether you enjoy it or not — and how you enjoy it — is up to you. And I think that is more Ghibli-esque.”
A couple of weeks before it opened, Miyazaki visited Ghibli Park. Toshio Suzuki went with him. Goro gave them a tour.
The park, Miyazaki said, “was something that I wouldn’t have come up with myself.”
“He looked a little lonely,” Suzuki told me. “Maybe thinking that his time was up.”
My favorite experience of Ghibli Park, the most “Ghibli Park” experience of all, came at the very end. It involved no lines, no merch, no Miyazaki characters — and yet somehow it felt steered, or framed, or made possible, by Miyazaki. Back at the train station, after my tour, I said goodbye to my guides. Then I turned and walked, over the sea of concrete, back down the hill. Past the Grand Warehouse, through the “Spirited Away” gate. And I followed the path back into the forest. The forest was, after all, the whole point of this park, its inspiration — the thing that father and son could always absolutely agree on.
I plunged into the trees and started wandering at random. The forest was not, like so many of the forests in Miyazaki’s films, ancient and primeval. It was younger, more modest. World War II left Nagoya and its surroundings in ruins. The city was destroyed by bombs. The trees were cut down. Much of the soil had been stripped to make clay. This forest was planted, in the years following the war, as an intentional act of recovery. Since then, these trees had been struggling to grow in that white, clay-heavy soil. That’s why they looked the way they did: lean, hungry, twisting. They had to work harder than trees in other places. This is part of why Goro was determined not to cut down a single one. When a few trees got in the way of Ghibli Park’s construction, he had them carefully moved.
I kept walking. I scaled steep wooden stairways. Very few other people were out hiking, so most of the time it felt as if we were all alone, me and the trees. I considered the Japanese term “forest bathing” — the notion that walking through trees cleanses your soul. I walked on boardwalks that stretched up toward the canopy. I thought about how this was a place I never would have visited in 100 lifetimes — this unfamous small forest in a municipal park on the outskirts of an industrial city in Japan. And how this was exactly Goro’s plan: to lure people here with the promise of Ghibli’s imaginary world — and then to give them this real one. This place was real, and I was real, and those two realities were overlapping. Trees, trees, trees. It was entirely up to me where to go, what to look at, when to leave.
I stopped to watch a spider working in some upper branches, building a large web, twisting and prancing, silhouetted against the blue sky. I passed clusters of fallen acorns on the ground — the forest replenishing itself — and they made me think about Totoro, and thinking about Totoro made me notice more acorns, and soon I stooped to collect some. I filled my pockets. I was happy. And it struck me that this was exactly what I went into Miyazaki’s films for, and what Miyazaki’s animation almost paradoxically did for me: It helped me to find reality, to really see it, to experience it as real, ordinary and strange, boring and surprising. Ghibli Park, in its simplicity, honored this spirit completely. Goro’s vision of a theme park was more radical than the grandest roller coaster could ever be.
As the sun started to set, I followed a steep path to the top of a hill. There was a little clearing with wooden benches. An old informational sign from the World Expo. It looked like a place no one had been in 10 years. I went inside a small wooden building that turned out to be a bathroom. Taped up on a utility closet, with thick green tape, was a single sheet of paper. It seemed to be some kind of sign. I examined it. It showed a blurry photo of a stout monkey, standing on all fours. There was some Japanese text underneath, so I ran it through my phone’s translation app. The sign was a warning for hikers. But in that moment it read to me like a poem, or a whole life philosophy:
Do not make eye contact with monkeys.
Do not feed the monkeys or expose them to food
After a while, we will move. not stimulating please.
Sam Anderson is a staff writer at the magazine. He has written about rhinos, pencils, poets, water parks, basketball, weight loss and the Fountain of Youth. Rinko Kawauchi is a Japanese photographer known for her images of elemental subjects collected in books including “Ametsuchi” and “Halo.” Her solo exhibition will be shown at the Shiga Museum of Art through March.
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