The Miyazaki Studio Ghibli exhibit at the Academy Museum is incredible

Hayao Miyazaki’s films have been the cornerstone of my love for animation, and a warm blanket to return to when things get difficult. I can mark the seasons of my life by the particular films I’ve fallen into, though I adore them all. 2001’s Take a Spirited Trip and 1986’s Castle in the Sky were regular rewatches as I navigated middle school, feeling uprooted and unsure of myself, hoping to steal a bit of Chihiro’s stubborn resolve and Sheeta’s pluck. In high school, I loved 2008’s PonyoThrough a love affair where we shared quotes from the movie, I was able to do so. In my early 20s, I fell for 2004’s Howl’s Moving CastleIt has been a constant throughout my life.

The opening of the Miyazaki retrospective “Hayao Miyazaki” at Los Angeles’ Academy Museum of Motion Pictures came at just the right time. After delays caused by pandemics, the opening ended up co-inciding with Take a Spirited Trip’s 20th anniversary. I arrived on its October opening weekend expecting to enjoy sketches and behind-the-scenes materials, along with experiential art pieces — insight into Miyazaki’s process I’d never gotten before, as the exhibit is the first retrospective of his work to debut in North America. Even with my long-standing love for Studio Ghibli movies, I didn’t expect the exhibit to be this powerful. This was my second museum visit in 2 years. It was well worth it.

A painted background from The Wind Rises showing a home and a beautiful blooming tree above

Image: Studio Ghibli

With more than 300 items on display, the exhibition gives you access to much. Beautifully displayed are storyboards and reference illustrations as well as hand-painted characters and backgrounds. High-quality projections of scenes from Studio Ghibli’s classic films are displayed on many screens throughout the exhibition, creating the impression that the art is moving. Some of the scenes can be set as a triptych. But it’s the way the curators set all these elements in conversation with each other, sorting theme by theme, that makes these pieces come to life. They’ve created an exhibition experience that felt like moving through narrative itself.

Each of these themes, and the art within, feels like opening a secret portal into Miyazaki’s head. The “Creating Characters” section is peppered with concept sketches of famous characters like Totoro and Kiki, the main characters of My Neighbor Totoro Kiki’s Delivery Servicerespectively. In “Transformations,” I saw the storyboards of two iconic scenes — Howl transforming into his bird-like monstrous form, and Chihiro turning transparent, approaching the spa for the spirits — and tons of artwork from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Though the Ghibli movie scenes are being screened in a size and quality that felt standard for a museum gallery, they’re inventively presented. The exhibit is filled with screens, which are intentionally integrated into the larger gallery’s scheme. This defies the usual film alcoves found in other museums. Projections are also part of the art installations, like at the end of a tunnel designed to feel like walking through Miyazaki’s worlds. This reflected the Academy Museum’s generally inventive use of screens; because the museum focuses on filmography, the exhibitions have a varied approach in how footage is presented.

A layout sketch for Kiki’s Delivery Service done in pencil, with Kiki laying in the grass and looking at the sky

Image: Eiko Kadono/Studio Ghibli

An imageboard from My Neighbor Totoro, which looks like a sketch of the sisters running towards the viewer

Image: Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli

It’s one thing to know, intellectually, that Miyazaki has done so much animation by hand, one painstakingly painted cel at a time. To finally be able to see Miyazaki’s films in their gallery-quality, close to the original reference drawings is an entirely different experience. It allows you to appreciate his artistry. I was never able to watch Miyazaki’s films in theaters before, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to walk right up to the projection to catch these details. The planes were finally beautiful. The Wind Rises Porco Rosso — which have the precision of an engineer’s sketches — as well as the striking density of Princess Mononoke’s Kodama-filled forests, and every gear in the lumbering castle-beast of Howl’s Moving Castle Scenes

These HowlParts of the retrospective made me feel like I was reading through my art books again. I’ve always related most to Sophie, the dowdy hat-maker who wants nothing more than to fade into the backdrop. A delightfully strange found family helps Sophie gain confidence: Calcifer the flame demon, Markl the young wizard in training, and Howl. In the understated, yet fiercely independent woman whose kindness and compassion helped her win wars and ultimately love herself, I found a heroine in this film that I was able to relate to. And the “Sophie’s cottage” scene, where Sophie emerges from the Castle’s magic door to a field of stunning blooms and the small cottage Howl gifts to her — that’s one of my favorite animated sequences of all time.

I happened to sit at a screening bench in the “Creating Worlds” gallery at the exact moment that scene was screened. I saw the field of flowers in exquisite detail, noticed the minute brush strokes that went into each petal, and felt the goosebumps rise in my arms as I daydreamed of my own little retreat — and the romantic ideal of someone enchanting a sea of blooms to make a meadow even more sublime. For so many years, this scene was my escape.

An imageboard for Porco Rosso, showing a plane flying low above the water in front of a port town.

Image: Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli

A painted background of a tree from Princess Mononoke

Image: Studio Ghibli

Production imageboard from Howl’s Moving Castle showing the castle-beast from the movie, from the midpoint down, mid-step

Image: Studio Ghibli

There are many other moments of joy throughout the exhibition. A wall of Studio Ghibli posters is displayed on one side. Miyazaki’s own desk is on display, behind protective glass. You can also enjoy interactive artwork and light effects. As I lay down on the green-carpeted, sloped floor, my friends and me watched as clouds floated through the air on a ceiling projection. I felt very similar to Jiro, Naoko, or Naoko. The Wind Rises. To find the Mother Tree, I went through a corridor. Princess Mononoke

I actually entered from the back, so it wasn’t until I headed out that I was able to enjoy the intentional entrance — designed to look like the cave Chihiro enters at the start of Take a Spirited TripThe one that takes her to the other world of spirits. It was also effective in allowing me to exit the normal, everyday world.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures charges $25 per adult, $19 per person aged 62+ and $15 for students. Museum members and children below 17 years old are free. Hayao Mikazaki’s exhibition is open from Sept. 30 to June 5, 2022. It is part of the admission price. This exhibition We will not be on tour

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