As a gentle tribute to one great animation director who has been one of the key leading figure in Studio Ghibli, Japanese documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” has a bittersweet quality considering the uncertain future of Studio Ghibli at present. While it is entertaining to watch how the people in Ghibli Studio work on the various levels of production before their completed work is finally shown to the audiences, we are reminded that this may be the last chapter of its era, and that gives a sad, elegiac quality to the documentary.
With the courteous narration by the director/writer Mami Sunada, “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” looks inside Studio Ghibli in the middle of its simultaneous production of two animation films around late 2012. They were “The Wind Rises” (2013) and “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (2013), and the documentary mainly focuses on the production process of “The Wind Rises”, which will be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film unless he revokes his retire announcement before his death.
Miyazaki, who is currently 74 years old, does not look sad or depressed about that, and we see how this gentle old artist prepares the basis for his last work. Rather than writing his story, he carefully envisions it through the storyboard consisting of many small watercolor sketches drawn by him, and he sometimes checks the pace and timing of each scene with his stopwatch. This work process with sketch pencils and watercolor paints surely looks old-fashioned in the age of digital animation film, but it is fascinating to watch a master concentrated on shaping his artistic vision through his own mastery, and we also meet a number of employees who are happy to work for him although he will soon demand a lot as trying to complete the film before the scheduled local release date in 2013 summer.
Their studio building looks plain from the outside, but it is a comfortable workplace you may want to look around just for appreciating its peaceful environment. The building has a nice rooftop garden where they can have some rest, and there is also a cute cat which frequently appears throughout the film (it seems to be a pretty smart cat, for we are told that it never annoys Miyazaki or others when they are busy). When the work time is over, Miyazaki goes to his private atelier, which looks rather plain but is decorated with a couple of things to amuse you if you are a fan of Miyazaki’s works.
While Miyazaki and other animators are going through their daily work as usual, there are also other activities in Studio Ghibli, and we are introduced to Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki’s longtime producer who was crucial in the foundation of Studio Ghibli in 1985 right after the success of “Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind” (1984). He and Miyazaki already acquainted with each other around the late 1970s, and the old photos from their past provide interesting glimpses into their respective early years when they were young and ready for challenges.
And we are also told a bit about another important figure of Studio Ghibli – Isao Takahata. Before Suzuki and Miyazaki found Studio Ghibli along with Takahata, Takahata was Miyazaki’s senior during their early days in Toei Animation, and that was the beginning of their long personal/professional relationship somewhere between friendship and competition. Like Miyazaki, Takahata has made several memorable animation films during his years at Studio Ghibli, and one of them was “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), a great animation film which happened to be released with Miyazaki’s equally great film “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) in the same year.
Now they come to release their respective works in the same year again, but Takahata, who has been rather quiet since “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999), has been slow in his work on “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”, and his slow work style becomes a sort of running gag in the documentary. His animation film was planned several years ago, but he is still working behind the schedule, and it becomes clear to everyone including his long-suffering producer Yoshiaki Nishimura that they will not be able to release it with “The Wind Rises” at the same time (it was eventually completed and then released in 2013 November).
Meanwhile, the production of “The Wind Rises” is continued smoothly under Miyazaki’s direction. He gives his animators a small but important instruction on the characters’ movements, and that brief moment shows well his meticulous attention to details. After some discussion on the casting, Miyazaki and Suzuki agree that Hideaki Anno, another famous Japanese animation director, will be ideal for the hero for “The Wind Rises”, and we later see Anno trying his best during the recording session attended by Miyazaki, Suzuki, and Miyazaki’s regular composer Joe Hisaishi.
As the production of “The Wind Rises” is approaching to the finish line, Miyazaki reveals his personal aspects, and that gives some insights on this mild animation film I admired but did not like enough. While being a well-known pacifist, Miyazaki has always been fascinated with fighter planes, and that interesting contradiction of his probably made him feel close to his hero Jiro Horikoshi, a real-life engineer who designed the Zero fighter plane eventually used during the World War II. I still wonder whether Miyazaki felt a little too close to his hero to give a more objective/balanced view on the dark results of his hero’s dream, but “The Wind Rises” is still his personal work, and that becomes more apparent as we come to observe the overlap between Horikoshi and Miyazaki’s father, who worked at a factory making rudders for Zero fighter planes during the war.
“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” will not give much new information to you if you are already familiar with the illustrious history of Studio Ghibli, but it is a sincere, respectful documentary which deserves to be watched for its close, intimate look at Miyazaki and his people at Studio Ghibli. It is sad to see the approaching end of a great era which has given us so much during last three decades, but it was a really wonderful time for us, wasn’t it?