Film Review: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Venture inside the hallowed hallways of Japan's most prestigious animation studio in this insightful documentary.

Hayao Miyazaki is frequently referred to as "the Walt Disney of Japan," but it's hard to imagine ol' Walt sitting down for as intimate a documentary portrait as The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. For better and for worse, Disney understood the power of myths and worked hard to cultivate an aura of mystique and magic around the studio that bears his name, particularly after the smash success of its maiden feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The behind-the-scenes tours that he granted the general public—through TV shows like “Disneyland” and “Walt Disney Presents”—were as carefully manicured as the grand theme park he eventually constructed as a capper to his life's work. In fact, at that time and still today, kids are encouraged to think of the entire Disney empire as one vast amusement park, where its millions of employees ride pumpkin carriages to work and regularly have tea with Pinocchio, Ariel and Elsa. 

Given the popularity that Miyazaki's films enjoy in his native land—his 2001 masterwork, Spirited Away, remains Japan's highest-grossing film of all time and three other movies, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, all fall within the top ten—it would have been easy for him to transform his operation, Studio Ghibli, into a similar multi-million-dollar-generating fantasy land. Throughout his career, however, he's stubbornly resisted embracing the mythological status that others are all too eager to foist upon him. That approach continues in this documentary, directed by Mami Sunada, who previously made the acclaimed 2011 nonfiction feature Death of a Salaryman. Having invited the filmmaker into his company, Miyazaki gives her free rein of the place and ready access to him as he goes about making what will become his final feature, 2013's The Wind Rises.

Like its creator, Studio Ghibli is about as unassuming a moviemaking factory as you can find, contained within a modest bungalow located in the Koganei section of Tokyo. (though there are satellite branches scattered around the metropolis, including the popular tourist attraction the Ghibli Museum, the closest Miyazaki has gotten to making his own version of Disneyland). And just as Miyazaki positions himself as a 20th-century man reluctantly living in the 21st century, the place itself feels frozen in time: Electric fans turn from the ceiling as Miyazaki and his team of artists hunch over cluttered desks, drawing every frame of the film they're currently working on by hand. He can't completely reject the advances in animation technology, however; more than a few computers are spotted around the place, to aid in compositing and editing, among other production processes.

Based on this environment he's built for himself, you might expect Miyazaki to be the grumpiest of grumpy old men. And as at least one employee remarks, he can be a demanding boss—an attitude that perhaps stems from his creative process, which involves him inventing the story (and much of the dialogue) for a film as he draws it. Sunada's camera does capture several moments where Miyazaki lets his cynicism shine through, whether he's contemplating Japan's shift towards more reactionary politics or the future of his own studio after his impending retirement. He can be equally harsh on his own work, at one point dismissing 1992's Porco Rosso as a "foolish film" and repeatedly expressing ambivalence about the way The Wind Rises is taking shape.

But that mordant streak is balanced by an obvious passion for his art form and a wry affection for his friends and favorite employees, including longtime producer Toshio Suzuki, the other main character in Sunada's documentary. It's through him that we're provided a glimpse into Ghibli's business operations, as Suzuki attends meetings with the merchandising department, arranges press conferences and travels to trade shows to display the studio's wares. He's also our conduit to two other key Ghibli figures, Miyazaki's son Goro—who has helmed two features, but appears reluctant to embrace his status as the heir apparent—and the director's contemporary Isao Takahata, whose credits include Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas and, most recently, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which was in production at the same time as The Wind Rises. A friend and collaborator for decades, Miyazaki is nevertheless frustrated by his partner's working methods, which are marked by indecision and extensive delays. Takahata is largely absent from the film, appearing on camera only towards the end, but it's clear that he looms large in Miyazaki's life, if only as an example of the kind of artist he doesn't want to be.

Most biographical portraits of filmmakers devote a sizeable chunk of screen time to showcasing well-chosen clips from the subject's movies—a surefire way to get the audience smiling and clapping. On the other hand, those clips can also become a crutch, with the finished film essentially turning into one long highlight reel. With The Kingdom of Madness and Dreams, Sunada sidesteps that altogether by simply not showcasing any sequences from Miyazaki's filmography. The only footage we see of The Wind Rises are scenes that the director himself is looking at on an editing machine or in a screening room, and the only Totoros in the frame are the stuffed variety that they sell in the Ghibli Museum gift shop. (Sunada does deploy one clip montage towards the end of the movie, a beautiful assembly of moments that underscores a point that Miyazaki makes about the way animation can change your perception of the world.) It's a striking choice, and one that again underlines her subject's general disinterest in being deified as an icon. Audiences around the world may revere his films, but for Miyazaki, making them is just another day at the office.

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