October 22, 2021

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Home » Head in the Clouds: A Look Inside the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ Miyazaki Exhibition

Head in the Clouds: A Look Inside the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ Miyazaki Exhibition

Head in the Clouds: A Look Inside the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures' Miyazaki Exhibition


Through the pastel orange doors of the Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery lies the retrospective exhibition dedicated to Hayao Miyazaki‘s cinematic work. Once inside, visitors step into the shoes of Mei Kusakabe from My Neighbor Totoro. As you stroll through the “Tree Tunnel,” Totoro and his friends peek through the thicket gaps with the sound of “The Huge Tree In The Tsukamori Forest” echoing within the corridor. A sense of childlike wonder rushes through as the hall transitions to the first area, Creating Characters.


Hayao Miyazaki, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Photo by Joshua White, JWPictures/ © Academy Museum Foundation

“It’s really important to create a certain experience for visitors,” explained Jessica Niebel, curator of the inaugural Miyazaki exhibit. “It’s not just didactic learning, it’s experiential learning.” She emphasized the importance for visitors of any age to be able to have an interactive experience with the installations. “Hayao Miyazaki films are experiential in and of themselves. A lot of people lose themselves in these amazing environments.”

The Miyazaki retrospective reflects the filmmaker’s sixty-year career, features three unique interactive installations, and more than 400 pieces — many of which have never been seen outside of Japan. Each area is designed to be a friendly environment to all visitors regardless of age. Vice President of Exhibition Design and Production at the Academy Museum, Shraddha Aryal, spoke on how the Academy Museum has heavily collaborated with Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki himself to create the best reflection of Miyazaki’s films.

“From early on, about five years ago, the collaboration was a very involved process,” said Aryal. She explained how they built a relationship of trust and communication with Studio Ghibli, as there would be apprehension in loaning pieces that have never been outside of Japan. “We did a presentation on the three key elements we wanted to focus on from his films. There was a constant dialogue of what was working, and what are the areas that can be enhanced.”

The journey through the exhibition is organized thematically and chronologically with each gallery spread out through five rooms on the fourth floor of the Academy Museum. Those sections are as follows: Creating Characters, Early Works (with sub-sections labeled Making Of, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Studio Ghibli), Creating Worlds, Transformation, and Magical Forest.

The first gallery features theatrical projections and early concept drawings from My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, providing a look into Miyazaki’s creative process of bringing characters to life. To serve as an accessible introduction to the world of Miyazaki, this section is purposefully placed before the introduction to Miyazaki’s early career.


Hayao Miyazaki, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Photo by Joshua White, JWPictures/ © Academy Museum Foundation

“I want for people to be curious about his work, and learn more about his work,” said Niebel. “For experts and fans, I think there’s something new to discover here.” There’s an area in the center of the second room with several stuffed toy goats, a reference to the goats Miyazaki would put out by the window during the winter so kids in the neighborhood could see.

The Early Works section is dedicated to Miyazaki’s early animation work as well as his lifelong partnership with Isao Takahata, with whom he founded Studio Ghibli along with Toshio Suzuki. Here, visitors are given a taste of Miyazaki’s career outside of his feature films — such as Future Boy Conan and Heidi, Girl of the Alps. For Lupin fans, The Castle of Cagliostro is given a small cameo just before an extensive focus on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.


Imageboard, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), © Studio Ghibli – H

“[Nausicaä] is so indicative of who he is as a filmmaker and we wanted to give it a special focus,” said Niebel. “On our first visit, [Miyazaki] said it was so pivotal in his career. It’s also the first feature film he ever made and was based on his own original story.”

On the wall opposite of the “Nausicaä”’ display area, sits an animation desk given to the Academy Museum by Studio Ghibli. It stands in stark contrast to the sample Disney Animation desk on the third floor. The ones used by animators at Studio Ghibi are much smaller, modest, and simple. Eagle eye fans will catch the analog 1/24 frame stopwatch on the desk, which Miyazaki uses to measure frame rate. In Japanese animation, the average is 24 frames per second.

Of the storyboards, imageboards, layouts, backgrounds, and animation cels featured throughout the retrospective, there are many pieces of art from other art departments within Studio Ghibli. The cards next to each work indicate Miyazaki’s direct involvement, whether he worked on the storyboard himself or gave notes.

Transitioning to Creating Worlds, this section immerses visitors into the environment of Miyazaki’s imaginative mind. As the largest gallery of the exhibit, the backgrounds and concept sketches illuminate the disparity between the industrial settings of Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and the awe-inspiring, tranquil nature of Ponyo and Spirited Away. At the very heart of the gallery lies the Sky View installation, where visitors can lie down and take a moment to reflect as a Ghibli character would.


Imageboard, Castle in the Sky (1986), © Studio Ghibli


Background, Spirited Away (2001), © 2001 Studio Ghibli – NDDTM

“Sky View is representative of all the moments where the action slows down. You’re not looking at walls anymore. You’re looking up at the sky,” said Niebel. “Rest, take a break. Miyazaki allows his protagonists to do that, so we wanted our visitors to do that.”

Shifting gears, the second to last section — aptly named Transformation — shifts the exhibit’s tone from bright, inviting walls to a looming aura with pitch-black walls as a backdrop to large, ominous screens that display scenes evoking a sense of dread. This transition spotlights the darker subjects in Miyazaki’s films: war, pollution, the impact of humans on the world, and the challenges life brings. Poignantly, one of the clips featured here is Howl’s transmutation sequence from Howl’s Moving Castle; an astute example of how a character’s emotional state can physically manifest and consume them.

“Even though we have included more difficult moments in here, it’s in line with his films,” explained Niebel. “His films remind us that there are moments of beauty and life, that it is worth living — that we have to go on living — no matter how hard life will get.”

Following Transformation is the final section: Magical Forest. Standing above the walls and taking advantage of the open ceiling, Mother Tree looms over and invites visitors to look up and get lost in its graceful beauty. The forest aspect of the gallery comes to life as visitors are surrounded by background art of individual trees found throughout Miyazaki’s movies. From the camphor tree in Totoro to the many in Princess Mononoke, trees have an ever-present, spiritual aura to them. The Mother Tree installation stands beside a wall of flickering Kodama from Princess Mononoke, along with a handwritten poem from Miyazaki to his crew that conveyed insights into the atmosphere and themes of the movie.


Mother Tree, Hayao Miyazaki, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Photo by Joshua White, JWPictures/ © Academy Museum Foundation

Ending the journey is a red, decorated corridor featuring the two-faced dosojin statue standing at the front of the glass doors. The environment mimics the feeling of Chihiro’s exit through the Red Gate in Spirited Away. As visitors exit the magic of the gallery and back to reality, they are guided by the sound of footsteps from the speakers and return to the outside of the exhibit.

“I want, at the end of the journey, for people to feel inspired. Maybe reflect back on certain themes that they were exposed to in this exhibition, and hope that this experience will stay with them for a while,” said Niebel.

Overall, the Hayao Miyazaki inaugural exhibit alone is worth the price of the ticket as there is no other place to experience the unique, immersive installations and come face to face with pieces of Studio Ghibli history.


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