Documenting the “cursed dreams” of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and the future of his Studio Ghibli legacy.
Time will tell, but if The Wind Rises remains Hayao Miyazaki’s last ever film as a director, consider The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness a beautiful coda to a glittering career. Gaining access to Japan’s fabled Studio Ghibli through the making of The Wind Rises, from its painstaking production to its bittersweet release last year, Mami Sunada’s impish documentary is perfectly poised to capture the Midas touch of its master animator and the mood of a retiring artist who, at 71 years old at the time of filming, is ideally placed to contemplate his mortality and creative legacy. Opening with sun-dappled shots of the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Sunada’s camera in these hallowed surroundings is clearly in awe of Miyazaki’s family of artists and associates, not to mention the inner sanctum it has gained unprecedented access to. It’s literally where the magic happens, which makes this eye-watering documentary a pure pleasure for anyone cast under the Studio Ghibli spell.
While it goes without saying that The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is unmissable for any self-respecting fan, as a tantalising proposition—a golden ticket to Miyazaki’s dream factory—its very existence raises the question of whether pulling back the curtain risks eroding the mystique of the Ghibli universe. Crucially, there isn’t a single privileged moment that feels unwanted here, both in terms of the filmmaker’s presence and what we get to witness behind the scenes as curious onlookers. The romance of hand drawn animation is certainly as strong as ever, and the time spent with Ghibli’s unsung artisans only enhances the miracle of their movies, 20 at last count with Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya screening at this film festival. What is demystified by the documentary is fascinating: the openness and camaraderie of the studio’s personnel, the modest size of the operation (particularly, for such a labour-intensive art), and the humble persistence of a cottage industry in the face of Pixar and Hollywood’s digital effects might. (Incidentally, Pixar chieftain John Lasseter visited Miyazaki during the making of this film; his scenes were cut from the final version.)
Isao Takahata (left) and Toshio Suzuki (centre) with Hayao Miyazaki.
Despite our perspective being limited to Miyazaki’s quarters with Takahata’s sister studio largely off limits (The Tale of Princess Kaguya comes across as a troubled project compared to the relatively breezy production of The Wind Rises for this reason), we are still able to form a picture of the animation utopia that Miyazaki has cultivated since establishing Studio Ghibli in 1985 with fellow director Takahata and their shared producer, Toshio Suzuki. Theirs is a fraternity committed to making good films before profits, and where job satisfaction and growth is a priority—a fairytale work environment replete with a tranquil garden rooftop straight out of the Ghibli art direction manual, and an all-knowing cat whose cool indifference might as well have been the basis for Arrietty’s mischievous moggy. It’s in stark contrast to the forbidding Japanese office space stereotyped in popular culture, and the ethos that is championed throughout—the importance of good people and relationships—speaks volumes of the humanism at the heart of every one of Studio Ghibli’s films.
For Suzuki—promoter, peacemaker, problem solver—it is an everyday mantra, a sincere anecdote he can feed to a throng of young professionals wanting to know what makes Studio Ghibli tick, or a personal credo he can lean on when negotiating the rough waters of film producing. For Miyazaki, a pensive man prone to as many bouts of pessimism as wonderment, we see this humanity expressed above all in his art. Of all Miyazaki’s great animations, The Wind Rises will go down as his most touching, sophisticated, and deeply humanistic. It is also his most personal film, and The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness does us the service of unveiling a rich, storied backdrop to his biopic of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. We learn that Miyazaki’s father was the director of a company that supplied rudders for the Zero Fighter during WWII; that Miyazaki’s own uneasy infatuation with war birds derives from this upbringing and is mirrored in Jiro’s internal conflict as a man obsessed with the purity of flight, but whose most celebrated creation was a killing machine; that Miyazaki’s experience of war as a youngster colours the film in subtle ways and has shaped his worldview, presently in the form of his vocal anti-nuclear stance. Meaningful relationships are also quietly suggested: Miyazaki’s commitment to his work at the expense of family and his ‘rivalry’ with Takahata, alluded to in the character Honjo, a fellow aircraft designer who lives in the shadow of his more illustrious peer.
Miyazaki has earned the gentle reverence that Sunada’s documentary bestows upon him, and yet it is no hagiography, no shrewd marketing tool. There’s an unapologetic side to this man that comes through unfiltered: his despair about the creation of art (“It’s never unscathed”); the self-criticism of his own practice, delivered not as a form of modesty but defeatism (“How do we know movies are even worthwhile? Is it not just some grand hobby?”); his sadness at the state of things (“Most of our world is rubbish”). These and other unguarded moments, such as when he dismisses Studio Ghibli’s “serious” films (i.e., Takahata’s) as “foolish,” often come to us through the haze of cigarette smoke. A problem for Sunada in all of this is Takahata’s absence, whose right of reply is for the most part restricted to archival footage. Miyazaki and Suzuki speak of him—both fondly and uncharitably by the former, diplomatically by the latter—but he is otherwise an elephant in the room. (There’s barely a mention of Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, which is arguably the more important anti-war film in the Ghibli canon.) Meanwhile, we glimpse Miyazaki’s son Goro only once in the midst of a stressful production meeting. This brief scene reveals a man burdened by expectation, uncertain of his place in the industry, halted by self-doubt.
“Sometimes I might think about the world ending,” says Miyazaki in another candid moment. “I’d never say that to a child.” Children and children-at-heart will be listening to Miyazaki as they watch this and will invariably ponder what will become of Studio Ghibli without him at the helm. Sunada asks this very question of Miyazaki, whose reply is bleakly honest: “The future is clear. It’s going to fall apart. I can already see it. What’s the use of worrying? It’s inevitable.” Is there a hint of arrogance in his response, or perhaps weariness, his old and jaded side creeping through as nears the finishing line? I prefer to think that Miyazaki is simply exercising the Japanese tradition of mono no aware: the impermanence of things through the inevitable passing of time. What’s brave about Sunada’s film as far as the responsibility to uphold the innocence of this institution is the room she allows for Miyazaki’s illuminating, if at times incongruously cynical philosophies, often squeezed between expressions of pure delight and imagination. But within this contradiction of views is a precious clue. “Filmmaking only brings suffering,” Miyazaki declares on the eve of his retirement, before adding with a grin, “I can’t believe I want to do another one.” Perhaps there’s hope after all.