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    A whimsical world

    NAGAKUTE, JAPAN (AFP) – Beyond the gates, a whimsical world awaits, complete with a fluffy Cat Bus, the toothy grin of Totoro and a life-sized No-Face seated on a train: welcome to Ghibli Park.

    On Wednesday, media got a sneak peek at the highly anticipated new theme park from Studio Ghibli, creator of beloved titles like My Neighbour Totoro and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.

    It will open its doors to visitors on November 1, though initially only three of the five sections of the site in central Japan’s Aichi region will be accessible.

    Some local residents got early access through a lottery, including Yuki Asahi, a confessed Ghibli fanatic.

    “It’s the park everyone was waiting for,” he told AFP.

    Spread over 7.1 hectares of the 194-hectare park where Aichi hosted the 2005 International Expo, it features large open-air areas in keeping with the importance of nature in Ghibli works.

    Among the three areas that will open next month is the ‘Hill of Youth’, the gateway to the park that features an elevator tower inspired by several Ghibli films including Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle.

    Elsewhere, ‘Dondoko Forest’ evokes the retro peace of My Neighbour Totoro, with bucolic walking paths, playground equipment and an enormous Totoro figure.

    ABOVE & BELOW: A children’s play area featuring the giant Cat Bus from ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ ; and the character ‘No-Face’, from the 2001 film ‘Spirited Away’, sits in a train in at Ghibli Park in Aichi Prefecture. PHOTOS: KYODO

    The Cat Bus character from ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ inside a playroom in Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse at Ghibli Park
    Get an up-close look at the family home of Mei and Satsuki, where the sisters’ homemade bento boxes are laid out on the round dining table

    A major draw will be Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse, a hangar-like indoor portion of the park with various attractions, including 14 sets from 13 of the studio’s film classics.

    Visitors can stroll along an alley designed to look like the opening scene of Spirited Away, or perch on the red velvet-covered train seat in a carriage next to the movie’s instantly recognisable ‘No-Face’ character.

    Aichi is predicting an influx of 1.8 million visitors a year once all five areas of the park are open, from next year, with an estimated annual economic impact of JPY48 billion (USD328 million).

    Another resident, 34-year-old Yuiko Asai, told AFP she has watched Howl’s Moving Castle so many times she knows all the words.

    “I was really looking forward to visiting,” she said, explaining that she adores Ghibli films because “they are deep, even for adults”.

    Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by animators Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, and has captivated fans around the world with works blending nostalgia, courage, greed and interaction with the natural world.

    Miyazaki’s son Goro told reporters on Wednesday the park was intended to protect the local environment.

    “We chose a location that would have as little impact as possible,” he said.

    “The trees surrounding the park make the buildings look better… they look as if they have been there for a long time.”

    The park was originally conceived as a way to leave Studio Ghibli’s works to future generations, Miya-zaki said, in anticipation of his father’s expected retirement.

    “We didn’t want people to forget Ghibli’s works,” he said.

    “But we were betrayed again,” he added with a laugh. “He’s making a feature film now!”

    Tickets will be reservation only, costing between JPY1,000 and JPY2,500 (USD6.80-USD17) per area for adults. Studio Ghibli already operates the hugely popular Ghibli Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo, which offers tickets only at the beginning of each month, regularly selling out within hours.

    Japan is home to several major theme parks, including Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios in Osaka.

    After two-and-a-half years of tough COVID-19 restrictions, the borders re-opened fully to tourists on October 11, and a massive influx of foreign visitors is expected in the coming months.

    GHIBLI CLASSICS: FIVE OF MIYAZAKI’S BEST-LOVED FILMS

    Studio Ghibli fans can visit a new theme park in Japan from November, immersing themselves in the fantastical worlds dreamed up by director Hayao Miyazaki and his colleagues. Here are five of Miyazaki’s most beloved films:

    CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

    The first animated feature from Studio Ghibli, founded in 1985 by Miyazaki and fellow director Isao Takahata, remains one of its most popular.

    Following two orphans in a quest to reach a mythical castle in the clouds, the adventure is laced with danger, with air pirates and the military on their tail, but it also serves as a deeper meditation on the influence of technology in our lives.

    MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988)

    Shades of “Alice in Wonderland” are found in this tale of two sisters who go to live with their father in the countryside and discover an enchanting world of strange happenings and oddball creatures, including the lovable woodland spirit Totoro.

    An instant classic, delighting audiences in Japan and abroad, Totoro has since become the Studio Ghibli mascot.

    PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

    In this film, a box-office smash in Japan, Miyazaki explored the destruction of nature through industrialisation.

    The tale of a young prince and a girl raised by a wolf goddess in a forest where fearsome clashes play out between gods and humans boosted Miyazaki’s global profile thanks to a distribution deal with Disney.

    SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

    Scooping the 2003 Oscar for best animated feature, Spirited Away follows a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, whose family moves to the suburbs.

    She accidentally wanders into a world of spirits and finds her parents turned into animals – forcing the young heroine to combat the spirit world with a courage she never knew she possessed.

    “I wanted to make a movie especially for the daughters of my friends,” Miyazaki once said.

    HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

    The young protagonist of this film, which brought Miyazaki a second Oscar nomination – he later earned a third in 2014 with The Wind Rises – is transformed into an old lady under a witch’s spell.

    A less-than-majestic wizard and his troupe living in a walking castle are her only hope for breaking the spell, but she does not give up, in an enchanting defence of world peace.

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