I love animated movies – I think that this form of art, when done right, can be one of the most imaginative ways of showing stories and worlds fantastic. But, I somehow never really got into short-form animation. I have seen some great ones, yes (like our favorite Magnetic Rose or some of the Animatrix collection, for example), but somehow neither the technically outstanding shorts I find on YouTube nor the thematically deep art festival short animations fit my taste. I felt physically revulsed and upset when I tried to watch most of the critically acclaimed Love Death + Robots short animations on Netflix. I gave up on them as something trying to get attention by being as well made as disturbing and gory – which was quite a lot.
I was, delighted when I learned for the first time that there exists a throve of Ghibli-made short animations that I have not seen yet – these are ten (or a bit more depending on what you count) works that are being shown only at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, and nowhere else. You cannot stream them, cannot buy them on DVD or BluRay, and cannot rent them at a Tsutaya – these are exclusive only to the museum (at the time I’m writing this, anyway).
When Hayao Miyazaki envisioned the Mitaka Museum, he wanted twelve short animations, one for each month of the year, so people could revisit the museum many times and always have something new to see. The museum started with only two pieces ready but now has ten animations changing roughly monthly. The schedule is available online, so in theory, one can aim to visit the museum only to see the animation they want (it’s not random).
Still, it took me about ten years to see all of them! When I first came to Japan, I was not living in Tokyo, but even when I moved here to work in an animation studio, getting tickets was still difficult (the number of visitors per day is limited, and the tickets have to be reserved beforehand). But now we live nearby and are freelancers, so we can go visit the museum during the week too! I could finally pinpoint the few animations I was still missing and see them all!
Here are my short thoughts on the lot:
The Whale Hunt (2001)
This short is based on one of the very famous in Japan children’s books by Nakagawa Rieko, and it keeps true to the original’s drawing style, so at first glance, it doesn’t look so much like a Ghibli animation at all. However, as soon as the characters started to move, I completely forgot about that and enjoyed it immensely. This animation’s theme is children’s ability to imagine and stick to even the most absurd playtime schemes – in this case, the children imagine that they are going to capture a whale in a ship they built. The animation works great to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s made up in the most brilliant way reminding me how I also used to take part in such games and how for kids, the floor really can become lava or the deepest ocean.
Koro’s Big Day Out (2001)
The second animation that was produced for the museum is a bit more of a style experiment. It has an interesting but straightforward story – a small dog gets lost and walks around the city until it luckily finds its way back to its family. The interesting point for me is the art style in this animation. Especially the backgrounds that look like they were taken from a more children’s book version of Ghibli – with colorful touches of crayons and wonky, warm lines. They looked awesome! Apparently, Hayao Miyazaki thought so too, because he later incorporated this style into the more children-oriented movie Ponyo! Also, an interesting point about this animation is that, apparently, the whole puppy’s adventure takes place in a setting that is directly inspired by the neighborhood of Studio Ghibli itself.
Mei and the Baby Cat Bus (2002)
This short is probably the one a lot of Ghibli fans will be most eager to see – a proper sequel to My Neighbor Totoro so to speak! This is a truly unique thing, as I think it’s the only real sequel to a major Miyazaki movie! We get a short story following the main character of the original movie – the younger sister, Mei – as she manages to capture a small Cat Bus cub and basically forces it to take her on a ride. I don’t want to spoil the contents too much here, but the animation shows some details of the hidden spirit world that throw new light on the setting of the original movie too. I think this was the museum short movie I enjoyed the least, surprisingly, as I don’t like the voice acting for Mei, and the whole short felt a bit more like a passive “ride” through the world of Totoro than a proper story.
House Hunting (2006)
From the moment this animation begins, it’s easy to spot that it’s another one that contributed a lot to Ponyo. The animation style is more simplified (no shadows, simple style backgrounds, for example), but instead, a lot of what’s on the screen is moving, drawn in the “cell” style – something we see fully developed in Ponyo. We get a short story about a young woman leaving a noisy city full of cars to hike through fields and a forest. On her way, she meets various magical places and beings and A LOT of bugs. What’s interesting is that the voice actors themselves made all the sound effects used in this movie, and we also “see” the sounds represented in letters on the screen in written onomatopeia – like in a comic. This approach to sound design was a bit jarring for me at first, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed this animation very much – I think it’s one of my favorites.
The Day I Bought a Star (2006)
This short animation is another weird one. It was born from a collaboration between Hayao Miyazaki and the artist Inoue Naohisa who is well known for painting weird, fantastical, and whimsical scenes from his made-up world called the Iblard (I was convinced that it was called Iballad). The paintings were already featured as the base for the world the main character imagines in the Whisper of the Heart movie. Even though I’m not a great fan of the original Iblard paintings, I enjoyed this short animation immensely. The mash-up worked perfectly, giving us a very magical and whimsical movie with a strangely European-like setting that reminded me very strongly of Howl’s Moving Castle. The animation also touches on deeper themes, like being restrained by and running from family bonds and civilization’s pollution, so it is much deeper than I thought in the beginning. Definitely, one I enjoyed and would like to see again to dig deeper into the setting.
Mon Mon the Water Spider (2006)
Small bugs and how our world looks from their perspective is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s many fascinations. For many years he planned to do an animated movie about a caterpillar and was also fascinated by spiders living underwater. This short film was excellently made (drawing an underwater world where everything moves and shifts had to be a real challenge even for the skilled animators at Ghibli), colorful, and full of life. The spider and other characters were kind of cute, but somehow I did not connect with them so much. The movie was also full of action and a bit of cute romance even (!), but it’s the one I remember the least.
A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail (2010)
This is probably mine and Kana’s favorite animation in the museum series. Not only are we getting a band of very adorable mice that compete in mice-sumo tournaments judged by frogs, but we also get an equally cute grandma and grandpa couple that discovers what is happening, egg the mice on, and even help them. This animation based on a traditional Japanese tale has a lot going on for it: there is a lot of warmth and positivity about all the characters, and the animation is just top-notch. The action is a bit slower in this one, so we can really see how excellently the movement of both the mice and the old couple is drawn. The food looks delicious, the old-time-Japan setting is well-executed, the narrator’s voice is perfect, and the sumo scenes are just plain joy to watch!
Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess (2010)
This is by far the darkest and most disturbing somehow animation in the whole lineup – Hayao Miyazaki’s take on European children’s tales and especially on the wicked witch, Baba Yaga kind of character. The witch is properly scary, lives in an old crumbling castle, and makes bread from ground-up bones! She also has quite substantial fangs and talks in disturbing, scratchy noises – she is truly a dangerous non-human to be careful around.
The whole animation is fast-paced and revolves around an egg-princess character that tries to escape the witch’s clutches, helped by a knight made of the bone-dust bread doe. The culture around harvesting wheat, making flour, and baking bread is a prevalent background in the whole story – we get to see a whole great city of farmer bunnies that get terrorized by the witch.
This animation is a wild whirlwind ride kind of piece that even I had problems following on my first viewing – it helps to see it more than once. One more thing I liked about it was that instead of having any dialogue, the animation only has a classical music soundtrack and sound effects which ups the weird dark-fairytale style of the piece even more.
Treasure Hunting (2011)
This is the animation I have seen as the last one in my effort to check all of them out. It’s another short animation based on one of Nakagawa Rieko’s picture books for children. Two small kids – a human child and a bunny child – of the same age play with each other and compete to check which one of them is stronger. They run, try to wrestle, and finally do a treasure hunt. The animation brings to mind some of the more hilarious scenes from the old TV series directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Future Boy Conan (which also included two boys trying to outdo each other only to become best friends).
I was also charmed by the setting in this animation, which simultaneously manages to be fantastic (we have a bunny-boy and a bunny-grandma) but at the same time has a quite realistic city in the back. This fantastic realism is helped by the excellent quality of animation, which makes the characters feel alive – the way the children play, run or eat cookies by dipping them in their tea feels just so natural that we forget completely that one of them is a bunny.
Boro the Caterpillar (2018)
At this point, this is the newest of all short animated movies made strictly for the Mitaka Museum and, I think, the only one that includes some characters made using 3D computer graphics. As I mentioned before, Hayao Miyazaki wanted to make an animation that would follow around a small caterpillar for some time – he mentioned it many times in his documentaries. He even considered making a full-length feature movie out of this idea but was dissuaded by his producers. Finally, when he retired (temporarily) from directing big projects, he decided to give a shot at making this idea into a short movie with the help of 3D animators. This collaboration did not, however, go well (there is a documentary movie about this), and, in the end, a big part of the short was finished with traditional hand-drawn animation leaving just fragments of the character movement done in 3D. I liked this movie mostly because of the truly unique atmosphere it had – I could feel that Miyazaki was “brewing” this micro-scale world in his head for a long time. The way BORO sees the surrounding plants and other animals and bugs seems almost otherworldly. The main character also is cute – for a caterpillar.
And, that’s it, all the museum animations (for now) – checked! But wait, there is one more thing, one more animation, which isn’t strictly museum exclusive but is something very similar:
Imaginary Flying Machines (2002)
Weirdly enough, if we consider this one too, it might actually be my favorite Ghibli short animation. This work was realized as part of an exhibition about fantastic flying machines – something in which Hayao Miyazaki is very interested. He generally likes many things about aviation but has a particularly warm spot for the way how people of centuries log past imagined flying machines – we can see some of the designs inspired by the old woodcuts in Howl’s Moving Castle, for example (those weird buzzing things with a chair on top) and many, many other fantastic flying contraptions in other movies too. Here we get a short animated movie in which Miyazaki’s alter-ego pig character takes us on a journey exploring how people imagined flying would look in the future and how air travel actually turned out.
An excellent piece, full of bizarre machines, whistful imagery, fantastic animation (including a sky-pirate ship-to-ship cannon battle), and of course, narration by the director himself. I just loved this one, maybe it’s because I like weird machines and retro-futurism too, but the animation quality and the humor made it just so much fun to watch. This animation was screened in the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka when part of the Flying Machines exhibition was on display there, but it was also shown in other, bigger museums in Japan – so it’s not 100% exclusive and not on the official list on Studio Ghibli’s website either.
Lastly, I maybe should mention that two more short animations are displayed constantly at the museum as parts of the permanent exhibition. The first one showcases how film and projectors make things appear to move on the screen Film Guru Guru, and another short one is about sounds. These are, however, only loops lasting a couple of minutes that are parts of exhibits and not stand-alone works.
To wrap things up, if you like animation, especially if you like Studio Ghibli’s works, and you are in Japan, you must visit the Ghibli Museum and see one of the short animations. I don’t know which of them will be currently showing, but they all are excellent and certainly worth the trip to Mitaka.
All the photos come from pamphlets by Studio Ghibli and from the official Studio Ghibli website HERE and are © Studio Ghibli and others used only for movie review purposes.