The visit happened last year and I’m just getting to recounting this event now. Tantamount to a religious pilgrimage the Studio Ghibli premises is landfall that I will treasure forever. After our visit to the museum (see the entry here) we headed for the studio in the quiet streets of Higashi Koganei. They remind me much of my neighborhood in my small city of Cavite when I was a boy (though, as it is everywhere in Japan, it is so much cleaner).
Around the afternoon all the houses are quiet, people were at work and the grandparents are asleep, light breezes carries over the front steps of family homes and small gardens. And just as you're feeling that an afternoon nap would be good around just then, there it is. The White building seems to want to blend in with all the other family homes,and though no one could mistake it for a home it’s welcoming as office buildings go. No gates or high walls. No hint of a security passage. It strikes me that for a world renowned studio with fans from all over the globe—and if I my idea of fandom is just like yours you know they can have no notion of boundaries—there seems to be no indication that it’s ever been necessary to guard against this.
We are met at the door by Rieko Izutsu-Vajrasarn of their International Division. She went to college in the U.S. and translates for us as she gives us a tour of the studio. We were not allowed to take any pictures inside the studio so this recounting will have to do. We stayed at their lunch area/cafeteria. All the glass surrounding the room makes it a pleasant area to have a coffee break but at this hour in the afternoon Enrico and I were the only people here. We proceed to go through all the rooms upstairs. Animation is busy at work on jobs for other studios (Japanese studios tend to help each other out from time to time) as well as some that were in-house projects. Earlier that day at the Museum we saw again the short of the little Cat Bus and May. Now, walking the floors of quietly working artists we are told that they are working on four shorts for the studio and the museum. It was great to see the paintings of the backgrounds and the characters that we’ll be enjoying in the future--and here we are standing around it being made (geek glee about this notion, obviously)!
The one thing that stands out about the paintings was that they were painted with Chinese brushes. Of course they would, we're in Japan after all. But after being in U.S. studios for all this time I’ve never seen this brush used professionally. I even remember a professor back home who pooh-poohed the idea of using such a pedestrian tool. But he’d be eating crow if he saw these paintings. Such craft and charm in the magic hands of these masters, all using poster color, a gouache like water based paint that I remember using as a teen (we visited Production I.G. of Ghost in the Shell and Innocence fame and they used the same technique).
We were shown to the wing of the technical director who is responsible for making the walking castle of “Howls Moving Castle.” He had the challenge of making master Miyazaki’s design retain its drawn qualities while utilizing the computer to assist in keeping such a complex array of disparate elements unified. It will gladden the heart of any 2D fan to know that the movie has no overbearing 3D elements that stick out like a sore thumb. And the results of this man’s work on the screen is magnificent and simplicity itself. The demo tied it all together and it made me think I could make a moving castle of my own.
(On a side note, I made sure that I saw the movie the day before this visit. Enrico had already seen it so I sought the movie out. It wasn’t hard. It is only the most popular movie in Japan that week of my visit. Like I said, it was easy to spot because all I had to do was look out for long lines. And there it was. A line snaking out and around this theater. I bought a ticket for the next show. The audience was mostly young and mostly couples. Miyazaki’s movies are date movies in Japan. Over in the U.S. it would be animation enthusiasts or Miyazaki fan parents bringing their kids. I love this country.)
There are two buildings that comprise Studio Ghibli, the second one is called, not surprisingly, Studio Ghibli 2. It was mostly for other offices and perhaps for when the full heat of production is on. It is very quiet in the studio overall. When we were introduced people smiled and bowed saying hello but just audible enough to hear and then they were back to work. Very few offices or cubicles, mostly tables were side by side with small shelves above for some and drawers. Any office set up you can name back in the U.S. is space extravagant by comparison.
We met with Ghibli President, Toshio Suzuki, who was just back from a trip to Europe, likely doing “Howl”work. He was very pleasant and welcoming, handing us CD’s and boxes of gifts to reciprocate the one gift we had for him. And after asking about John at Pixar and the movies he apologizes that he has to meet another visiting animator from Europe and could not spend more time with us. Earlier we were told that Miyazaki himself was on the premises but was asleep. Serves us right arriving right after lunch. In any case I managed to get a photo with Suzuki san for our files.
Sigh. There it was. My pilgrimage was complete. I will not be able to do this trip again any time soon and I don’t think that I will be able to top all the things I managed to do and see on this first visit. We left and said our thank you’s to Rieko. I was going to snap one more picture of the studio behind us outside, so I walked over to the street pointing the camera at Enrico and Rieko, with the notion that he’ll take one of me and her after. A group of moms of the neighborhood was walking by so I moved to let them by. One of the moms walked toward me, extended her hand gesturing to give her the camera in a very assured manner saying all that to me in japanese. Really, she would not have any of it and motioned for me to join Enrico in the photo. She snapped this photograph and handed me the camera back, waving me off as if to say,“See, wasn’t that much better?”
Can’t argue with that.
(Enrico is an old hand at visiting the studio and talks about his visit at Ghibli before "Howl" was finished in his journal.)