Japan Journal, Part 5: Gundam, Ghibli and Pokémon

5 May

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In my last Japan Journal (Part 4, April 28, 2016), I concentrated on the Suginami Animation Museum in Ogikubo, Tokyo and said I would save the other animation museums for another entry. Here I’m going to recount my trips to the Gundam Front Museum in Odaiba, Tokyo, the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, and the Pokémon Center and J-World Tokyo in Sunshine City in the Ikebukuro section of Tokyo, more proof of Tokyo’s status as anime heaven.

The Gundam Front Museum doesn’t have as many different exhibits and attractions as the Suginami Museum, but what it does have is pretty spectacular, starting with the giant model of the original Mobile Suit Gundam outside the shopping center where the museum is located.


For those unfamiliar with the Gundam franchise, a word about its history. It began in 1979 as a 43-episode animated series entitled, “Mobile Suit Gundam,” written and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, that dealt with civil war between the Earth federation and rebellious space colonies at a time when humans have moved off the earth in large numbers to set up “Sides,” giant, self-sustaining, temperature-controlled colonies floating in outer space. It was, I believe, the first anime space series with no monsters and no aliens. The focus is on Amuro Ray, a 14-year-old student on Side 7 and son of a Federation engineer, who manages to get control of a brand-new, state-of-the-art mobile suit combat robot called a Gundam during an attack by Zeon rebels and manages to fend them off, catapulting him reluctantly, along with several other young people, into military service during a series of pitched battles with the charismatic enemy officer Char Aznable and other Zeon warriors. This proves traumatic for young Amuro who has to constantly battle between the call of duty arising from his unique ability to pilot the Gundam and the emotional needs of an adolescent who’s been neglected by his divorced parents. This story developed into a series of movie and TV prequels and sequels, some featuring the characters from the original Gundam series, others branching off into new directions within the Gundam universe.


The latest Gundam series, “Mobile Suit Gundam UC RE: 0096,” premiered on April 3 while I was in Japan and I watched it that morning on TV Asahi in my Osaka hotel room.

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Getting back to the Gundam Front Museum, photography was allowed inside the museum.


In addition to the giant (life-size) Gundam outside, there were other large-scale Gundam mock-ups in the museum.


And a staffer took pictures of me:

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They had a planetarium-style theater that projected three specially-made Gundam shorts (all done via CGI animation) on a spherical ceiling with the action constantly shifting to cover the whole area. Viewers had to stand and hold onto bars in case they got dizzy.

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The three shorts were entitled:

“Competition of NEW GUNDAM -RED or WHITE-” (2015, 8 min.)

“Mobile Suit Gundam UC – Neo Zeong Strikes Odaiba” (2014, 7 min.)

“Gundam – Dive 2” (15 min.)

The films were mostly renditions of spectacular Gundam battles with occasional narration in Japanese. As I watched them, I thought, “This is better than anything in the Ghibli Museum,” which I’d visited a week or so earlier, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs. The second film, in fact, pictured a Gundam battle against the backdrop of Odaiba, where the museum is located.

Elsewhere in the museum you could see random screens showing Gundam clips:

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There was a Gundam timeline, but it was in Japanese only.

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I’ve seen episodes from most Gundam seasons, but not all have been released in the U.S. I once counted up the number of Gundam series that have been produced since 1979, but that was ten years ago and there’ve been a few since then.

There was a classroom for some kind of art activity, but I wasn’t sure of the nature of these activities.

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It seems to me there was more space devoted to display cases and merchandise shelves than anything else. There was a whole room devoted to Gundam models on display:


And a large store selling Gundam models, art books and other merchandise:


The young staffers appeared to be mostly female and I wondered why. Wouldn’t this be the kind of dream job most sought after by male Gundam otakus (fanboys)? I wish I could have asked someone about the preference for female staffers. Not that there aren’t female Gundam fans, it’s just that if I was a young Japanese male, I’d want a job at the Gundam Museum. (Maybe they simply don’t want fanboys working there. I can understand that.)


On to the Ghibli Museum. This is a museum devoted to the animated works of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio founded in 1985 by director Hayao Miyazaki and his mentor Isao Takahata which went on to create such films as LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, ONLY YESTERDAY, WHISPER OF THE HEART, PRINCESS MONONOKE and, most recently, THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA and WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE.



When I first inquired about getting a ticket I was told the place was sold out three months in advance, which ruled out a trip there during my visit. But I found a firm in Tokyo called Voyagin, staffed by English-speakers, that could get me a last-minute ticket—for a price. Figuring that I couldn’t miss out on it, I opted to pay the highway robbery cost of the ticket ($64!) for a two-hour visit at a specific time on a specific date. The museum is in Mitaka in Western Tokyo and required a ride on Japan Rail to Mitaka Station and then a bus from there.

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The museum looks impressive from the outside, but no pictures were allowed inside. I wonder if it’s because there really isn’t much on display. I went through the whole place rather quickly and was singularly unimpressed. The kids had the most fun, especially when they got to play on the Catbus, seen here in a picture taken from outside.


There were illustrations and dioramas inside, mostly from projects I didn’t recognize, including a 35mm animated film on evolution that played as a loop in a way where you could see the film unspooling and the image projected on a tiny screen that you had to bend down to view (although it was fine for the kids). I saw only a few items connected to Miyazaki’s or Ghibli’s famous films and most of those could be found in a couple of rooms that recreated Miyazaki’s work spaces, with desks, bookshelves filled with art and photography books and old literature, much of it in English, along with drawings and occasional animation cells framed on the walls. I would have felt much better if there’d been an interactive component where you could actually pick the books up and look through them and examine the drawings up close and go through the piles of stuff on the desks. I understand why they wouldn’t want that, but that’s what would have made the exhibit resonate with me.

Here’s a picture of a Miyazaki work space that I found on the web that comes close to what we saw in the museum, only it’s a little neater and fancier. Just keep in mind that we were not allowed to touch anything or walk around the space:

In addition there were machines for viewing animated scenes on 35mm film, including one equipped with a reel of film from SPIRITED AWAY, and a camera stand where you could move a background drawing under a character cell. I was happy to see a lot of 35mm film visible, especially in an era when fewer and fewer of the museum’s young attendants will ever be able to even see anything projected on 35mm. But I wish there’d been more paintings and animation cells from Miyazaki’s famous films on display, e.g. NAUSICAA, LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, PORCO ROSSO and PRINCESS MONONOKE. Not to mention the great non-Miyazaki films put out by Ghibli, e.g. ONLY YESTERDAY, OCEAN WAVES, WHISPER OF THE HEART and WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE. Why not a whole museum-quality gallery of artwork to keep adult fans happy? Would that have been much trouble?

Scenes like these:


They showed a short animated film—on 35mm—in the museum’s theater and the projection booth was behind glass so you could stand in the back and watch the projector if you so desired, as I did. The film shown was one of nine short films made expressly for the museum by Miyazaki and his staff. The one shown during my visit was called “Yadosagashi” (House Hunting), directed by Miyazaki in 2006, and focused on a girl who leaves home in the city for a night in the forest, choosing to stay in an abandoned cabin occupied by all sorts of quirky forest creatures. The sound effects were all made by human voices and were freaky enough to spook every baby in the audience, all of whom cried incessantly during the 12-minute film. Here’s an image from the film that I found on the web:

Later in the visit, I went into the bookstore in the museum and chanced to find picture books for “Yadosagashi” and the other eight films they could have chosen to show and was quite annoyed to realize that every one of the other films looked way more interesting than the one we saw. There’s even one featuring the character of Mei from MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. I would have been perfectly happy if they simply showed every one of the nine films in succession. But then nobody would have visited the rest of the museum in the time allotted.

On the roof is a life-size recreation of a robot like the one from LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY, although it has spikes like a similar robot from NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY THE WIND and I’ve seen it identified elsewhere as the Nausicaa robot although it looks more like the one from LAPUTA. In any event, everyone who went to the roof got to line up and take pictures with it.


After that, I had ice cream and a hot dog and met a young English-speaking mother whose child had been playing in the cat bus and who is married to an American soldier and had lived in California. That was a pleasant encounter. She even took some pictures of me.

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Overall, I found the Ghibli Museum to be quite a disappointment. Miyazaki apparently designed it all himself and I kind of wish people with backgrounds in museum architecture, animation history and art curating had designed it. And I speak as a huge fan of Miyazaki and someone who’s been reviewing and pushing his work in this country since first seeing LAPUTA in 1989. I think he and Ghibli deserve a better museum.


Other animation spots in Tokyo include the Pokémon Center in Sunshine City in the Ikebukuro district. It’s just a store selling Pokémon merchandise, but it was fun to be there.

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I’m all smiles:

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More Pikachus than you can shake a stick at:


A mother and daughter have to choose among Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle:


There were large mockups of key Pokémon characters, some life-size, some not.

Charizard and Pikachu:

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Mega Charizard X:


(I can’t help but think that if artist Jeff Koons had created these replicas, they’d be worth millions and be hailed as museum-quality works of art.)

A poster for the next Pokémon Movie (due out July 16, 2016):

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And the next Pikachu short:


Screens showing clips from Pokémon:


Westerners seem to like this store:


A Pokémon game area:


I even bought some items, a “Chespin” plushie for me and a Pikachu for my daughter:


And in the same complex was something called J-World Tokyo, something of a theme park for adolescents with an emphasis on manga series from the Shonen Jump publication, many of which have spawned anime franchises as well, including Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, and Naruto.

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There were interactive games that teens and adolescents would enjoy:


There were walls of blown-up manga pages from the manga, “Kuroko’s Basketball”:

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There was a big chamber enclosed by a nearly 360-degree screen on which images of anime characters would appear and utter short exclamations when visitors pressed their images on some kind of console in the middle.

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There were displays of merchandise, mostly tons of action figures for sale: IMG_1682IMG_1710IMG_1723IMG_1725IMG_1733Japan 722Japan 728Japan 718

But, overall, there was little that an adult fan would savor. Although I did enjoy seeing the “Capsule Archive” from Dragon Ball Z. I only wish there had been life-size mockups of some of  the great capsule creations found in that series:

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And in the same shopping center was a store called Moe Garden that specialized in Miyazaki-themed merchandise:


I will chronicle my trip to the Toei animation gallery when I devote a piece to the Toei Kyoto Studio Park. But here are some teaser pics:



One Response to “Japan Journal, Part 5: Gundam, Ghibli and Pokémon”

  1. squawk June 1, 2016 at 4:11 AM #

    Really liked the pics of the cute stuffed animals in the Pokemon Center, and the J-World Tokyo pics—especially of the cats and dragons—I was thinking that only the Japanese could make a doll with nothing but one big eye for a head cute and charming instead of creepy,lol. I was going to ask if there was a catbus at the museum,,but I saw that nice pic of it first. The Ghibli Museum items were interesting,too. I saw LAPUTA a couple of years, so seeing the robot statute was cool because I recognized where it was from. Still cool that you finally got to go to Japan,and that you enjoyed your trip.

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