A morning in the Ghibli Museum

In 2005, the New Yorker published a remarkable article by Margaret Talbot called The Auteur of Anime, about the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki.

At that time, I hadn't heard of Miyazaki or his Studio Ghibli, even though almost all of his movies have been brought to the US market and dubbed into English, thanks to the efforts of John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and a fan and friend of Miyazaki's. Miyazaki may be best known in the US for the movie Spirited Away. Most underappreciated of Studio Ghibli's work, in my opinion, is the indescribably soul-rending Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata. Talbot called it "almost unbearably sad", and those words were accurately chosen.

Talbot's article is pasted into my 2005 lab notebook. The thing that struck me most about her description of Studio Ghibli was the aesthetic that Miyazaki and his friends Takahata and Toshio Suzuki were striving for. Talbot could easily have been writing about scientists, and Studio Ghibli could easily have been a science lab -- the kind of lab I want to be part of. I have a few role models and I take them where I can, scientists or novelists or animators, and ever since the New Yorker article, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have been an inspiration to me. Fanatic attention to detail; a love of nature; a passion for hard work; a respect for the world as it is, rather than rendered into black and white and good and evil; simplicity, elegance, and beauty. My younger daughter Fio is named after the young Italian airplane designer in Ghibli's Porco Rosso.

The New Yorker article described a gorgeous museum, the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, just west of Tokyo. The museum's motto is "Let's become lost children together". Miyazaki designed the museum himself, a reflection of many of his strongly held views, and a paean to the skills and dedication of animators. I've hoped to someday visit.

Well, many many thanks to Yasu Sakakibara and the other organizers of the 2009 Genome Informatics Workshop in Yokohama, because that wish came true last week. Yasu personally took the time to show me around the museum, and it was even more fabulous than my already-high expectations. If you saw the Darwin exhibit when it passed through the Field Museum in Chicagoor the American Museum of Natural History in New York, you might remember the inspirational recreation of Darwin's civilized library and study in Down House. Miyazaki's recreation of an animator's library and study, taking up a corner of the second floor of the Ghibli Museum, is much the same in spirit, and just as beautiful. Thanks, Yasu. What a Christmas present.