At the Long-Awaited Ghibli Park, a Spirited Stillness
Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed animation studio finally lifts the curtain on its long-awaited theme park, an anti-Disney oasis where visitors are afforded the mental and physical space to become their own Studio Ghibli characters.
There’s a spiritual quietude to Hayao Miyazaki’s award-winning films. In a 2002 interview, Roger Ebert commended how the Studio Ghibli founder conveys “gratuitous motion,” 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.” Miyazaki quickly identified that concept as ma, the Japanese word for “emptiness.” Studio Ghibli’s most memorable characters—No Face from Spirited Away, the rattle-headed kadoma spirits from Princess Mononoke—embody ma, affording viewers moments of pause and breathing space to contemplate the intangible.
Such is the surreal experience of attending the long-awaited Ghibli Park, which opened this past November in the suburban outskirts of Nagoya. Avid filmgoers have long dreamed about stepping into Miyazaki’s fantastical universe since the project was first announced five years ago—the studio’s poetic animation style and unparalleled world-building lends itself well to the thrills of a theme park. Where Disney’s sprawling operations swallow the world around them with concrete and plastic, Ghibli Park does quite the opposite. It’s ensconced within a leafy acreage of Aichi’s Expo Park, the site of the World Expo 2005. No trees were cut down to make way for its facilities. There are no rides, and it doesn’t have a parking lot.
This, of course, echoes common themes throughout Studio Ghibli films: reverence for nature and reckoning with progress versus tradition. Attractions are scattered throughout the park at great distances, accessible only by traversing windy wooded paths with minimal signage. They’re deliberately understated yet unmistakable, ranging in scale from a tabletop statue of Sosuke’s bucket from Ponyo to Spirited Away’s mysterious red gate and a to-scale replica of Mei and Satsuki’s quaint country house in My Neighbor Totoro.
The idea for Ghibli Park was hatched almost 20 years ago. Toshio Suzuki, a longtime Studio Ghibli producer and Miyazaki’s affable right hand, long dreamed of creating a real-world simulacrum of the old-style structure. When the 2005 World Expo invited Studio Ghibli to mount a pavilion, he enthusiastically accepted and enlisted Miyazaki’s son, Goro, and a select group of artisans to get the traditional woodworking right. He initially questioned whether fair attendees would even care about seeing a wooden replica from a cartoon, but the house became a sensation. Even though no soot sprites or Totoro could be found inside, the house attracted more than 600,000 applicants for 800 tickets every day. The studio fielded calls from across Japan to tour the house when the fair ended.
Today, the house is at home within Ghibli Park, imbued with a pleasant realism: actual dishes occupy cabinets, tatami mats line the floors, and water flows from a pump outside. It lacks the gimmicks of a traditional theme park attraction, which is the point. “We wanted to do something authentic,” Goro Miyazaki told the New York Times. “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 park offers its fair share of those elsewhere, mostly in Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse, where scale models of a Totoro play structure and No Face plaintively sitting on the train let visitors insert themselves into the studio’s most memorable scenes. But outside, and in Mei and Setsuki’s house, a stillness pervades, as if Miyazaki’s ma stepped out of the screen and planted itself into our surroundings.