The Tree in the Middle of the World: Late Ghibli Animator Makiko Futaki’s Magical Picture Book

Makiko Futaki was one of the most important Studio Ghibli animators. Working with Miyazaki since Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979, she contributed to almost all Studio Ghibli films as a key animator, from Nausicaä to Marnie. She also worked on Akira and The Wings of Honnêamise. Hayao Miyazaki considered her one of his most trusted co-workers. Unfortunately, she passed away far too early in 2016 at the age of 57.

Aside from her work as an animator, she published a few picture books for children and designed the cover of the Moribito books by Nahoko Uehashi (I will likely dedicate a few blog posts to Uehashi’s works at some point).

One of these books, The Tree in the Middle of the World (世界の真ん中の木), originally published in 1989, was re-released as a hardcover collector’s edition (愛蔵版) for its 30th anniversary for 2500 yen. I read this book and want to share a few impressions. Avery Morrow translated the first six pages a couple of years ago – you can read them here.

Like Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, this book was inspired by the beautiful forests on the southern Japanese island Yakushima. I went there myself in March and can confirm that the mountain forests are stunning.

The story centers around a girl who lives close to a huge, huge tree – the world tree, you could say. One day, she sees a gigantic bird and is dazzled by its majestic appearance. With the goal to see that bird again, she begins to climb the huge tree and, on her way, encounters all kinds of animals and strange fantastical creatures living there.

However, these creatures seem to escape downwards. Some kind of murky water seems to poison the tree, making its leaves and branches wither. On her way up, the girl meets a talking frog and a boy from another country who accompany her on her quest to find out where that water comes from.

It’s a magical story. Not too original, one might argue. The theme of nature, pollution (this time not man-made), the interconnectedness of all living things and the absence of a good-and-evil duality are Ghibli staples. Indeed, the story is very reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Shuna no Tabi and one scene could be straight out of Nausicaä.

But the strong sense of wonder, the beauty of the drawings and the feeling of adventure still make the book very enjoyable. Not all strings come together as well as I had hoped, and the end feels a bit rushed, but overall, I had a lot of fun with The Tree in the Middle of the World.

I Visited a Yoshitaka Amano Art Exhibition

I visited a Yoshitaka Amano art exhibition at the Big Palette Fukushima building in Kōriyama last week.

Disappointingly enough, photos were not allowed, so I can’t post any of the actual event, but that is probably standard procedure at art exhibitions.

The building was part of a really big congress center and thus not overly charming. Exhibited were a large variety of Amano works, ranking from originals to Final Fantasy art and his works for a variety of other franchises. All pictures were originals, as far as I could see, and most of them up for sale. Not by Amano himself, but by private owners. So the main purpose of the exhibition may have been to sell these originals. The most expensive ones I saw were about 1,500,000 yen (~13,500 USD). The staff members there were eager to tell anyone interested more about the works.

After doing a bit of research, this seems to be the same kind of exhibition that was already done last year. At least a Reddit user posted about it and apparently got the same poster.

The exhibition also included 5 works by Amano’s son Yumihiko, who also has an interesting style. In addition to the usual Amano-style art works, there were also some chibi-style works exhibitioned – didn’t know Amano also did those.

I think I was familiar with the majority of the works exhibitioned, though definitely not all of them. Apart from some originals, one piece I particularly liked was this artwork from Final Fantasy IX.

Since entry was free, I was not surprised to see that the free mousepad I received as a pre-registration gift was really small and thin – not something I would actually use. The A2 FFX poster everyone got for free, on the other hand, is of good quality.

They also had a merchandise shop, selling posters, postcards, clear files, cups and other stuff. No art books, sadly, I would have definitely bought those. Instead I bought two postcard sets (2×6 cards for 1200 yen). The A2 posters were nice, but overpriced (~3000 yen).

So my final verdict is: Although a bit different and more commercial than I imagined, it was a good opportunity to see Amano’s art in real life – definitely a different experience, since he uses stuff like gold dust that can’t really be captures on photos. Would I go again? Probably not if it was the same kind of exhibition again. But I’d go to a museum-style exhibition that focuses on the cultural importance and historic background of the art rather than the price tags any day.

All images in this post except for the mousepad / post card photos are © Yoshitaka Amano / @ Yumihiko Amano.