Spirited away: a tour of Ghibli Park with Miyazaki Goro

The creative mind behind the studio's theme park discusses the sublime world-building of his director father, Miyazaki Hayao, and his own attempts to craft physical experiences – rather than amusement rides – for Ghibliophiles from Miyazaki's films.

18 December 2023

By Andrew Osmond

Totoro sculpture at the Studio Ghibli park in Japan © © Studio Ghibli
Sight and Sound

I’m in a pretty wooden house in a park, just outside the Japanese city of Nagoya. The house has a Western-style gabled front, tatami-mat floors, a study piled high with books, and a wardrobe where you can open the drawers and inspect the contents. It’s far from spectacular; yet to many Japanese people, the house is a greater animation icon than Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

A replica of Satsuki and Mei's house from Miyazaki Hayao’s 1988 My Neighbour Totoro
© Studio Ghibli

It’s based meticulously on the family house in Miyazaki Hayao’s 1988 My Neighbour Totoro. Miyazaki once said the film’s crew all wanted to live in this old-fashioned house, but without compromising their modern comforts. The “real” Totoro house was built in 2005 as part of a world fair themed around nature, but it stayed after the fair ended.

Now the Totoro house is part of Ghibli Park, which opened in November 2022. It has no thrill rides or animatronics; its purpose is to let fans physically immerse themselves in Ghibli’s films. The park doesn’t have any attractions based on Miyazaki’s newest film, The Boy and the Heron, which takes a boy from the bleakness of the Japan of World War II into giddy fantasy realms as he seeks his dead mother. However, Ghibli’s back catalogue since the 1980s is represented extensively.

As well as the Totoro house, there are areas based on the films Princess Mononoke and Whisper of the Heart. A large new area will open next March, recreating the European bakery from Kiki’s Delivery Service and a British house from Earwig and the Witch.

The park also contains Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse, a grandiloquently refurbished former swimming pool, with multiple exhibitions and spaces to explore. One section takes visitors through the walls of a giant’s house, based on Arrietty, Ghibli’s 2010 version of Mary Norton’s children’s fantasy novel The Borrowers.

The Directors' Room, inspired by Spirited Away (2001)
© Studio Ghibli

Another section lets visitors photograph themselves on large-scale mock-ups of moments from Ghibli films. You can share a train seat with No-Face from Spirited Away, or punch a pig-faced pilot in the Quiet Man-esque comic brawl that ends Porco Rosso.

This section also features scenes from Ghibli films by Takahata Isao, such as Only Yesterday and Pom Poko, which otherwise go almost unmentioned in the park. Despite their critical esteem, Takahata’s films often seem sidelined by Ghibli, perhaps because they tend to have a more exclusively adult sensibility than Miyazaki’s works.

A different part of the Grand Warehouse evokes the bewilderment you may feel watching The Boy and the Heron. It’s a giant lumber room, in semi-darkness. You walk over a raised platform, looking down at higgledy-piggledy objects. Here are multiple models of the fish girl Ponyo on her chicken feet, and a serpentine dragon, and a forest diorama from Princess Mononoke. Included here too are non-Ghibli characters, such as the mouse armies from The Nutcracker.

This space is a genuine warehouse to store unused artefacts by Ghibli. For example, the mice come from a Nutcracker museum exhibition curated by Miyazaki Hayao in 2014. The objects’ playful lack of order, though, is entirely by design.

“Peeking into someone’s warehouse is a scary experience, I think,” says Miyazaki Goro, son of Hayao. It’s the day after the park visit; I’m interviewing Goro in Studio Ghibli itself, a mossy white building with multitudinous windows in a sleepy Tokyo suburb. “But at the same time, it’s exciting,” Goro continues. “Today, kids don’t experience dark spaces in their lives, I guess. So probably they don’t have the experience of something scary.”

Miyazaki Goro, Ghibli Park’s Creative Development Director and son of Miyazaki Hayao
© Studio Ghibli

Goro has directed three Ghibli films – Tales from Earthsea, From Up on Poppy Hill and Earwig and the Witch — and he’s the Ghibli Park’s Creative Development Director. He was previously involved with the park’s seed project, the Totoro house. “You can relive Totoro with your physical body… You take off your shoes and go in, and you can feel the tatami mats and the wooden floor, everything. You can open the drawers and the paper doors (shoji)… Because you can touch it, it will be a rich experience.”

Goro’s father Hayao has long animated buildings and spaces, ordinary or fantastical, which viewers dream of exploring. The Totoro house is a prime case. At the start of the film, two girls rush through it joyfully, throwing open doors, finding every cranny.

“As I was making the Ghibli Park,” says Goro, “I was wondering why when I see a Miyazaki Hayao film, I feel like you want to get in that building, that living room, and experience it. There are many animated films in the world but you don’t feel like that (with them). Even if it’s a film by Ghibli, if it’s not Miyazaki Hayao’s film, you don’t feel that way. I’m still wondering why.”

This tendency is evident in Miyazaki Hayao’s work even before he started directing. As a young animator, he helped create a massive stone castle which characters dash around wildly in Puss in Boots (1969). The castle impressed Goro profoundly as a child, watching his father’s work. Goro also cites the castle in Hayao’s pre-Ghibli director debut, the 1979 swashbuckler The Castle of Cagliostro. Both films are recalled in the madcap climax to The Boy and the Heron, set in yet another giant castle.

Since 2001, a Tokyo building has combined the twisty, exciting confusion of Miyazaki’s castles with the cosiness of the house in Totoro. That’s the Ghibli Museum, for which Goro handled the overall design. It’s full of landings, bridges and spiral stairways, as well as dizzyingly dense exhibitions of Ghibli’s art.

The Ghibli Museum and the Ghibli Park are a hundred and fifty miles apart — two hours or so by bullet train — though some temporary exhibitions travel between them. They both show short Ghibli films, about fifteen minutes each, which can’t be seen anywhere else, such as “Mei and the Baby Cat Bus,” a vibrant mini-sequel to Totoro.

The cat bus play area in the park
© Studio Ghibli

“At first there weren’t many foreign people coming to the Ghibli Museum,” Goro says. “They started to come about ten years ago. Especially since Covid… Before, they were mostly from France, East Asia, Thailand, Korea and China. But these days, they’re from all over the world, from South-East Asia, even India, and from all over Europe.

“Nobody dreamed this this situation would occur,” Goro adds. The Museum was designed for people of Japanese stature. “When there are foreign people there, we feel the Museum is somewhat small. Nowadays I’m thinking we probably should have made it bigger: higher ceilings, wider corridors.”

Goro mentions one reason for the Museum’s international popularity is the fact Ghibli’s films are streamed worldwide, on Max in America and on Netflix everywhere else. Everywhere, that is, except Japan. Ghibli’s films aren’t streamed in their own country, where they’re only available in physical formats. It fits the studio’s reputation for honouring traditions from a pre-digital age.

Today Miyazaki’s films are being translated into three dimensions, not just in the Ghibli Museum and Park, but also on the London stage. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s award-winning production of My Neighbour Totoro is currently running at the Barbican Centre. In 2024, a subtitled Japanese stage version of Spirited Away will run at the London Coliseum from April to August.

Goro suggests such plays occupy a space between the films and the Ghibli Park. “Film is a more stable thing, I think. A stage play is more stable than Ghibli Park, but it’s unstable because it depends on the cast, and it’s different every time. The park is something you experience and of course you feel different depending on whether it’s sunny or rainy, or if it’s summer or winter.”

It remains to be seen if the park will essentially be a legacy exercise. Of Ghibli’s defining directors, Takahata is gone, and Miyazaki turns 83 in January. It seems very possible that The Boy and the Heron may be Ghibli’s last feature. The studio’s admirers can only hope that in some future year, the Ghibli Park will recreate a fantastical castle or a snug house from Ghibli’s next film, whether by a director old or new.

   ► The Boy and the Heron is out in UK cinemas on 26 December

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