August 13, 2014

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

This past weekend I had my own little two-day Studio Ghibli film festival, first catching Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya on Saturday and then seeing the documentary The Kingdom of Dream and Madness on Sunday. The documentary, by Japanese filmmaker Mami Sunada, follows director Hayao Miyazaki around for a period of months as he works on his final feature animation The Wind Rises.

This is a beautifully constructed film. Rather than directly interview Miyazaki and his workmates, talking heads-style, Sunada purposefully allows the personalities and opinions to flow organically over the course of the film. We meet and observe Studio Ghibli's harried producer Toshio Suzuki, who is handling The Wind Rises while simultaneously trying to coax Takahata to finally complete Princess Kaguya so he can release it into cinemas. We meet former Ghibli employee turned successful Evangelion director Hideaki Anno as he's unexpectedly coaxed back into the fold to voice the lead character of The Wind Rises. And of course we meet Hayao Miyazaki himself, a smiling, wry, chain-smoking bundle of contradictions as he supervises work on the final feature film of his career.

I say final film. He's retired before. This documentary makes it perfectly clear he may come out of retirement again. He's a fascinating person, and The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness pulls no punches in reflecting him at his worst as well as his best. I went into the film expecting it to be of interest solely to pre-existing Ghibli enthusiasts, but it works as a remarkable character study in its own right.

It is also both bold and impressive that Sunada makes no attempt to hide herself within her own film. She is not simply a narrator: she and Miyazaki speak to each other regularly, back and forth from either side of the camera. She offers opinions quite openly, and makes no vain attempt to remain objective or separate from her subject. It gives the film a very personal edge, and it works in part because we never really leave the people of Studio Ghibli. There are no real interviews here, and I was surprised to see no clips of Ghibli productions throughout the film.

Then, in one the film's closing scenes, Miyazaki beckons the camera over to a window. He's minutes away from announcing his retirement to the press, but he still takes the time out to show Sunada the view over Tokyo, and asks her to imagine running across a nearby rooftop, then jumping to the next building, or flying, and how amazing it would all look. That, says Miyazaki, is why he loves animation so much. And as he talks, Sunada edits in a sudden rush of movie clips of Miyazaki's characters running, climbing, jumping, flying: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Spirited Away, Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle of Cagliostro, Laputa: Castle in the Sky. It's difficult not to be overwhelmed. I found myself tearing up considerably. So much imagination. So much talent. And now retirement.

For now.

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