by Tom Clift
When you think of the films produced by Studio Ghibli, certain images inevitably spring to mind. A cat bus bounding across the fields in My Neighbour Totoro. A warrior leaping from rooftop to rooftop in Princess Mononoke. A little girl soaring high above the clouds on the back of a dragon in Spirited Away. These are moments of pure cinema, full of imagination and wonder. How appropriate, then, the title of this new documentary, that offers an unprecedented look into Studio Ghibli’s inner workings. If you’re a fan of the Ghibli canon or of Japanese animation in general, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a must.
Beautiful classical music accompanies the doc’s opening shots, as the camera floats gently through the company corridors and gardens, passing over pin-boards covered in hard-drawn sketches and storyboards. It’s a serenade to an animation house whose body of work easily measures up to the likes of Pixar and Walt Disney. In reverent voiceover, director Mami Sunada does her best to temper her enthusiasm, as if in fear of upsetting the tranquility of such a sacred space. Slowly, she introduces us to the upper echelon of the 400-strong staff. Producer Toshio Suzuki. Lawyer Nonaka.
Ushiko, the Studio Ghibli cat.
But the man who is of by far the greatest interest is studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Aged 73, Miyazaki’s name is synonymous with the Ghibli brand, having directed more than half of the studio’s films, including many of its most beloved titles. In early scenes he’s exactly how you might imagine him; fussy, friendly and packed to the brim with energy. Sunada chases him around the studio as he rushes from one place to another, seemingly unable to sit still. It’s fascinating, getting a glimpse into Miyazaki’s methods. Rather than scripts, he writes with storyboards. It’s as if the images craft the narrative, as opposed to the other way around.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness was shot in 2012, during the production of The Wind Rises. A dramatic biopic about Jiro Horikoshi – an aeronautical engineer who designed Japanese fighter planes during WWII – the film lacks the fantasy elements of Miyazaki’ early work, but it nonetheless carries through many of his signature themes, including a strong antiwar sentiment and an endless fascination with flight. It’s clearly a personal film for Miyazaki, whose father Katsuji owned the Miyazaki Airplane Company and manufactured parts used in Jiro’s designs. It doesn’t sit well with the filmmaker that his family profited from the conflict, especially as he recalls his hometown ablaze during air raids in 1945.
Indeed, despite his jolly smile, as the movie continues we slowly understand just how exhausted Miyazaki feels. Away from the studio, he reflects not just on the war of his childhood, but also on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, an event that has seared itself into the nation’s consciousness, as well as his own. Slowly, his sense of futility manifests itself as self-doubt. “How do you know if movies are even worthwhile?” he asks. “Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now?” It’s a sobering notion, that someone as brilliant as Miyazaki could have lost his passion for what he does. As movie lovers, we have a tendency to elevate our heroes to superhuman status. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness reveals the truth: filmmakers are human, with the same insecurities and frailties as everybody else.
Sunada could have delved a little deeper in this regard. At times it feels as though she’s too in awe of Miyazaki, and as such, seems unwilling to ask difficult questions. We never get any sense of Miyazaki’s relationship with his wife or, perhaps more relevantly, his son.
Goro Miyazaki followed in his father’s footsteps as a Ghibli director, yet seems less than enthusiastic about his career choice in the one scene in which he appears. Most frustrating, however, is the film’s failure to explore the rocky relationship between Hayao and his co-founder Isao Takahata, whose own film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, is in production at the same time that the doc’s cameras are running. At a press conference, a studio publicist tactfully refers to the two as “rivals,” yet unguarded comments by Miyazaki imply an animosity than runs deeper than simple professional one-upmanship.
It’s also impossible not to view the film through the lens of recent announcements, first of Miyazaki’s retirement, and then of the studio’s apparent creative hiatus. It’s a sad thought that we might live in a world without any new Ghibli stories. Yet while Sunada can’t guarantee us that Miyazaki will ever return to work, she can at least refute his fears that his life’s work has not been worthwhile. After making only the most sparing use of clips from Miyazaki’s films, a sudden montage of characters running, jumping and flying through the air reminds you in an instant of the emotions you felt the first time you saw them. Yes, Mr. Miyazaki, even now, it’s still possible to make movies that matter.
The Upside: Humanizes one of the all time legends of animation – warts and all.
The Downside: Doesn’t do much to convert non-fans. If you’re not already interested in the subject matter, there’s not a whole lot for you.
On The Side: Masakatsu Takagi’s original piano score is absolutely lovely.