On Saturday morning, Melrose “cute culture” shop JapanLA looked similar to the many other boutiques on the street — well, except for the giant Totoros, from legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki's ultra-popular film My Neighbor Totoro, and Jijis, the black cat from Kiki’s Delivery Service, in residence in the store’s current window display. That and the 300-people-deep line that stretched down Fuller, turned onto Clinton and then wound back around the block on Poinsettia, and only grew as the morning went on.
Dana, Darren and Danny Noguera started waiting in line outside JapanLA at 4:30 that morning. The occasion: opening day of the first official U.S. Studio Ghibli pop-up, which runs until July 24. And they weren’t even the first people to arrive on the scene. “That car in front of the store got here an hour before us, but they went to 7-Eleven. When they got back, there were 20 people in line already,” Dana said. Further down the line, people bedecked in Studio Ghibli clothing of all kinds (including a Totoro onesie) and costumes — some even sported Ghibli tattoos — sat on folding chairs and blankets, fanning themselves with fliers as the sun began to bear down on them.
The Noguera siblings would later earn the distinction of being the first customers to enter JapanLA’s Studio Ghibli space, a charming monument to the power, buying and otherwise, of Cute with a capital C. The interior design was reminiscent of a tastefully quaint outdoor cafe; music-box versions of various Ghibli film themes played in the background, while shopgirls in Victorian-inspired Lolita dresses and carefully curated Ghibli costume homages numbered tickets to hand out to those in line. (Only the “first” 800 people who showed up that day would be let in.) Small, white Totoro watering cans stood alongside real plants, while a giant (fake) tree rose out of a corner of the store, flanking an installation of yet more Totoros.
Plushes, figures, towels and toys representing characters from various Ghibli films covered tables and walls: Ootori-sama and No Face from Spirited Away; Jiji and Calcifer from Howl’s Moving Castle; the soot balls from multiple Ghibli films; and, of course, all kinds of Totoros. DVDs and beautiful hardcover books detailing the production of each Studio Ghibli film, including smaller (in the United States) releases such as When Marnie Was There and Tales From Earthsea, were sprinkled throughout the more populist-leaning merch.
Many of the people in line were in their teens and 20s, and Ghibli films such as Totoro, Spirited, Kiki’s, Howl’s and Ponyo were as much a part of their upbringing as Disney films and other animated fare. There were also many families present, including Geraldine and Oliver Chua's clan. The Chuas, cosplayers and fans on their own (they’d been part of a group Studio Ghibli cosplay at WonderCon), named one of their daughters Chihiro, after the protagonist from Spirited Away. She and her sister Chieko were both dressed up as Chihiro; the two have their own cosplay social media presence.
Kevin, Tristan and David, standing in line right behind the Noguera siblings, were also convention vets, having attended L.A.’s AnimeExpo and San Diego Comic-Con. Despite being big anime culture fans, this was their first time at the store. It was a motif that came up again and again: people being drawn to JapanLA specifically for Studio Ghibli in the hopes of landing rarer merchandise for themselves or to give as gifts. (Farther back in line, Sam Diego — wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with Ghibli heroines by the Japanese-American indie rocker Mitski — summed up this sentiment best: “I’m not too interested in buying that much. If I see something that’s really cute, I’ll grab it. I mainly just want to see it, and get something for my sister, who’s at college.”)
JapanLA owner Jamie Rivadeneira didn't seek out the honor of hosting this Studio Ghibli import emporium. The store has hosted similar events for other Japanese cultural characters, like Pokémon and Sanrio’s roster of beloved creatures, and it's become known for these super social media–friendly opening events, where dedicated fans gather for the chance to dress up, meet up and shop limited-edition or otherwise Japan-only products. The shop’s fan-centric focus was what inspired Ghibli to reach out to JapanLA directly about a year ago. “[Studio Ghibli distributors] showed up one day and I wasn’t here!” Rivadeneira says. One of her employees relayed the studio’s interest in hosting a pop-up, and Rivadeneira started ironing out the logistics of bringing over items that had previously been for sale only in Japan.
“It’s really hard to get the product from Japan; [the studio is] very strict about it, they want it to be a certain way," Rivadeneira says. "They really liked my store and the parties we throw, and they saw the superfans who dress up to come out to this thing. So, we had a meeting, and they were like, ‘Come to Japan!’ So I went to Japan!”
Rivadeneira, herself wearing a Totoro top that day, prides herself on both curating official brand experiences and pleasing fans with limited and rare items and tokens. For opening day, customers who spent more than $30 received exclusive JapanLA x My Neighbor Totoro enamel pins (while supplies lasted). There was a Totoro-themed photo booth for the afternoon. The store also made a deal with the store to create officially licensed clothing, specifically a gray satin bomber jacket covered in My Neighbor Totoro patches and embroidery, which Rivadeneira expected to sell out on day one. It’s perhaps the only officially licensed Ghibli merchandise designed and made in America.
Everything about the store is specifically meant to mirror the Japanese Studio Ghibli shopping experience, down to the fake tree. “We were like, I don’t know if we can build a tree, it’s really expensive!,” Rivadeneira says. “But my friend, the technical director at Groundlings, was like, I’ll build you a tree. He made that in three days out of papier mâché and got real branches from his friend. We pieced fake leaves on. We had to mock it up and show them exactly what we were doing. Everything has to be approved; they want to make sure that you have the same experience in the U.S. as you would in Japan.” These touches, along with other merchandise not normally available outside of Japan, such as the gorgeous Totoro music boxes, make the Studio Ghibli pop-up a shopping experience that die-hards as well as casual fans can appreciate.
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Studio Ghibli is clearly in the mood for expansion. Within Japan, it's breaking ground on a theme park based on its films, and animated film distributor GKIDS is hosting Studio Ghibli Fest (screenings of six of the studio’s films) in theaters across the United States. (In L.A., participating theaters are the Pacific Theatres in Glendale, the TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood and the Universal Citywalk IMAX.) Separately, spaces such as Gallery 1988 and Gallery Nucleus have begun to gather the larger L.A. fan community with pop culture–centric shows that cater to both broad and niche tastes. And still larger shows like Anime Expo and WonderCon continue to draw huge crowds to the L.A. area every year.
This pop-up was perhaps a test of the studio’s U.S. fan base — and its buying power. Based on the fact that JapanLA ran out of all 800 opening tickets by noon, only an hour after opening, it seems interest is not just there but is overwhelming. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched now to expect more and more Studio Ghibli events — plushes and pins and clothing in tow — happening stateside soon.