Unfettered access to Japan’s venerated Studio Ghibli provides a fascinating glimpse of the personalities, the creative process and the anxieties behind the magic.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)
Directed by Mami Sunada
Starring Hayao Miyazaki, Sankichi, Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata, Ushiko, Goro Miyazaki
Screenplay written by Mami Sunada
Filmmaker Mami Sunada fol- lows Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata over the course of a year as Studio Ghibli prepares to release two films and the principals contemplate the future of the studio.
“Contemplating retirement, Miyazaki fears that the creation of the greatest anime in cinema history has been just ‘a grand hobby.'”
Japan’s venerated Studio Ghibli is internationally acknowledged for having created some of the greatest and most beloved animated films in cinema history, including My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The films have become international ambassadors of Japanese popular culture, and they have garnered worldwide acclaim from audiences and critics alike.
In 2012, director Mami Sunada was granted near-unfettered access to the notoriously insular studio. Sunada is previously known as assistant director to Hirokazu Kore-eda and for her exceptional 2012 documentary debut, Ending Note— Death of a Japanese Salesman.
In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Sunada follows the three men who are the lifeblood of Ghibli—the eminent director Hayao Miyazaki, jovial but hard-headed producer Toshio Suzuki and the elusive “other director” Isao Takahata— over the course of a year as the studio rushes to complete Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
It begins like a visit to Santa’s workshop as an aproned, white-bearded Miyazaki potters among his industrious employees with his assistant, the elfin Sankichi, by his side. He radiates an avuncular benevolence, even participating in radio taiso group calisthenics with his staff. An army of resident cats quietly monitor the scene. But it soon becomes obvious that there is much else going on at Ghibli. The cynics hoping for some iconoclastic exposé into the soullessness of a Disney-like entertainment behemoth will be disappointed, though. What The Kingdom exposes is something we probably should have expected all along: a very human tale of a Japanese business shot through with all the unspoken conflict, anxiety and insecurity that are part of most working lives.
We sense Miyazaki is a thoughtful man but not always an easy one: his idealism and work ethic result in his demanding much self-sacrifice from his employees. He tells us he can be scary but we see nothing of that on the screen. We also meet his son Goro, a Ghibli director as well, who exudes the frustration of son dragooned into the family business and forced to live in his father’s shadow.
Miyazaki also feels lost in the new century: he doubts the value of his work; he is troubled by the apathy of the young and worries that the current political climate will curtail artistic freedoms. He fears that his animation has simply been “a grand hobby.” Retirement is now a front-of-mind issue. Like his lead character in The Wind Rises—Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane—Miyazaki is a pure creative spirit who is resigned to the fact that what he has created will be taken by others, like those in a scene with Ghibli’s merchandising department, and turned into something different and altogether less appetizing.
The film is wistful in tone and, in many ways, a guided farewell tour. It is also a priceless record of the creation of great film art and people who create it. Sunada closes the film with a well-orchestrated impact, withholding any actual Ghibli animation until one astonishing montage, intercut with Miyazaki’s preparations to publicly announce his retirement. It is a powerful moment. Fortunately, the first lines of Miyazaki’s retirement announcement suggest we may not have seen the last of the master just yet.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will be shown together at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on August 30. www.jccc.on.ca