The Agenda: Culture | Monocle

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cinema japan

Brought to life

Identifying the rustic locations that inspired a Studio Ghibli animation is a game that fans like to play. The picturesque fishing town in Ponyo is based on Tomonoura in Hiroshima prefecture. Meanwhile, the leafy forest in My Neighbour Totoro is modelled on Sayama Hills in Saitama. 

Sense of scale

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s urban world is equally thrilling. His extraordinary eye for detail zooms in on the unconscious elements that make Japanese cities so distinctive. It’s less about landmarks than about the sense of scale, street signs or even the railings that skirt the road. 

Many of Miyazaki’s most memorable locations have been figments of his imagination. Films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service occupy a specific part of the Ghibli worldview; their cities are part-European, part-fantasy, and wrought with such precision that viewers could almost believe that they exist. At Ghibli Park, the studio’s theme park in Aichi, buildings from those places have been brought to life. There’s the bakery that Kiki worked in – the architectural details perfectly replicated, the baked goods real – and there’s her little attic room. And over here’s the hat shop from Howl’s Moving Castle, recreated as though Sophie, its heroine, had just stepped away from her work. 

Structure from ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’
Fantasy landscape

Like any good theme park, Ghibli Park is an escape from the grime of any actual city (less of a contrast in Japan where streets are low on crime and litter). Some consider Miyazaki to be an unsung urban designer, citing examples such as Koriko, the imaginary city in Kiki’s Delivery Service, with its lively streets and old-fashioned low-rise buildings. 

Among the leaves

Ghibli Park opened partially in 2022 but Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son and the director of the park, opened the final section this spring. Even if you had never seen the films, you can enjoy the experience. Howl’s Castle clanks and steams, Kiki’s washing is hanging on the line. It’s a relaxingly analogue outing and visitors are encouraged to walk between attractions. There are no rides, apart from a merry-go-round where visitors can twirl at a stately pace to a suitably Ghibli-esque tune.

The exoticism and completeness of Miyazaki’s urban vision has long piqued the interest of the Japanese viewer. Perhaps its time that some architects, urbanists and property developers took a closer look for inspiration too?

The comment

Industrial magic

Guy de Launey steps inside a historic former bicycle factory in Ljubljana to explore Center Rog, a new creative hub seeking to democratise a culture of making.

The wheels are turning again at the old Rog bicycle factory in Ljubljana. But this is no longer the facility that provided self-powered mobility to citizens of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Today the new Center Rog is facilitating different forms of production. The city authorities have carried out an extensive and remarkably rapid transformation of the site since they controversially repossessed it in 2021 from the squat that had occupied it for 15 years. The heritage-listed façade of the original 1951 structure remains intact, facing the Ljubljanica river. But the other side is all glass, giving a clear view of the facilities within. 

Center Rog’s mid-century façade

“It’s a place where we turn ideas into products,” says Center Rog’s director-general, Renata Zamida. “We don’t just facilitate the projects of professional creators and makers. Anyone is welcome to work here, turning their ideas into tangible objects.”

The amenities include “production labs” on the ground floor, work studios on the second and third floors, and artists’ residences on the top level. The first floor houses a branch of Ljubljana’s public library that holds 20,000 items in its almost 300 sq m space; there’s a children’s section, a classroom and a newspaper reading room there too. Zamida says that this encourages people who might be unfamiliar with (or intimidated by) the idea of a “creative hub” to stumble across people and facilities that could help to unlock their creativity.

A standard membership fee of just €15 a year opens the door to Center Rog’s nine production facilities. The FabLab has rows of 3D printers, laser cutters and soldering stations. Adventurous interior designers can “learn how to make furniture from mycelium” at the Green Lab. And the Food Lab’s offer of “experimental research and the conquest of new skills” can be tailored to anyone, from home cooks to professional chefs.

Creative minds
The centre welcomes all-comers

The occupants of the generously sized studios, which are granted rent-free for a period of one to three years to projects deemed worthy, also take full advantage of the labs. They are currently creating everything from sustainable snacks to a high-performance electric boat and Center Rog’s version of vertical integration lets them move quickly from concept to production without so much as leaving the building.

“It’s perfect,” says industrial designer David Tavcar, who is creating a range of furniture from deadstock metal. “I can draw something on a computer and then go down to the workshop, where I can produce my own prototypes. I’m completely hands-on.” So far, more than 1,200 people have become members of Center Rog, well beyond the management’s five-year plan. In the old bike factory, a creative revolution is under way. — L

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