Ghibli Museum in Tokyo battles pandemic in 20th anniversary year

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kazuki Anzai, director of the Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, rings a bell next to the Robot Soldier on the rooftop terrace of the museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, on Dec. 6.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought hard times to the Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, which marked its 20th anniversary in October.

The foundation that runs the museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, is making ends meet by drawing on a reserve fund set aside for repairs, but it fears that income from admissions and other sources will continue to fall.

In a bid to improve the situation, the museum has started selling related products online as a new source of income. Donations from Studio Ghibli fans in Japan and abroad have also helped it see some light at the end of the tunnel.

On the morning of Dec. 6, visitors were waiting outside the gate, even though it was a weekday. When the opening bell rang, they rushed into the museum, screaming with delight as the character Totoro from the 1988 Studio Ghibli film “My Neighbor Totoro” greeted them at the entrance.

The Robot Soldier from “Tenku no Shiro Laputa” (“Castle in the Sky”) watches over the facility from the museum’s roof terrace. The huge, fluffy Nekobasu (Cat Bus) replica on the second floor is so beloved by children that it’s soon damaged — the one currently at the museum is its 11th Nekobasu.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Children can play inside or on top of the Cat Bus at the museum.

“This warm-hearted atmosphere is so great. I’m glad I could see the Robot Soldier again,” said Asuka Tomatsu, 47, a self-employed woman from Nerima Ward, Tokyo, who came to the museum for the first time in almost 20 years. It was the first ever visit for her 11-year-old son, Rentaro, who happily said, “It’s like a dream world away from reality.”

Digging into reserves

The museum was created by Hayao Miyazaki, 80, who directed many of Studio Ghibli’s animated films. He drew sketches of the museum based on his philosophy that “the building must be … Put together as if it were a film” and “Small children are treated as if they were grown-ups.” The museum opened in October 2001 inside Inokashira Park, on a plot of land the city of Mitaka borrowed from the Tokyo metropolitan government.

Before the pandemic, the museum was so popular that reservations always reached the daily limit of 2,400, but after COVID-19 struck, it was forced to close down for a prolonged period.

The number of visitors in fiscal 2020 was about 90,000, a steep decrease from the annual average of about 700,000 before the pandemic. Admission income in the fiscal year stayed low at ¥150 million, down more than ¥500 million from the initial estimate.

To make up for the loss, the foundation, which includes the Mitaka municipal government, spent some of the museum’s repair reserves of about ¥350 million in fiscal 2020. However, a financial loss is inevitable this fiscal year because the museum is limiting the number of visitors per day to about 50% of previous levels, even though the infection situation has improved.

“Fewer visitors means lower profits for the museum’s shop. We’re being dealt a tremendous blow,” said museum director Kazuki Anzai, 56.

Global support

The museum and the city have been working to improve the situation. In tandem with its 20th anniversary in October, the museum started online sales of Ghibli gift items, including tableware and clothing. It also set up a stall outside the building to let people purchase plush toys of Ghibli characters and sweets.

In July, the city of Mitaka called for donations to help the museum through the furusato nozei hometown donation system. More than ¥10 million was donated in just one day, and as of Dec. 15, nearly ¥36 million had been collected.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The exterior of the museum

The city has also sought donations from overseas, beginning in December, and has received about ¥6 million from people in places including the United States. Contributions were accompanied by encouraging messages, such as “Please maintain the museum for fans all over the world” and “I want to visit the museum someday with my whole family.”

“The pandemic is hard, but we’ve realized anew that this museum is loved by so many people,” Anzai said. “We want to preserve the worldview of Ghibli, which we’ve been cherishing for 20 years, while taking on new challenges and reward people for their support.”