Director: Mami Sunada
Cast: Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata
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Studio Ghibli has had a profound effect on a great many lives and one of the biggest film news stories of the year was the indefinite hold being placed on all work by the company due to financial pressures and the general way the cultural winds are changing. Ghibli and its creative talent are a dying breed of 2D animation specialists, who hark back to a classical look, with an undeniable human feeling pulsing through all their work – a world away from the franchises and pop culture jokes we find in animation elsewhere. For such a special collective, a documentary about them would need to be something special indeed. What The Kingdom of Madness and Dreams accomplishes more than anything else is how well it captures the feel of Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.
Given just how well respected the studio’s output is, it would have been easy for this film to go for the reverential, overly-loving jugular, so it is a great surprise to see that this is a pretty warts-and-all look at life in Studio Ghibli. The image of Hayao, complete with white hair, glasses and ever-present apron, is that of a kindly grandfather but what we see of him dispels this somewhat. While he has charm in spades and you can see why people are drawn to him, he isn’t afraid to show that he is human. He is markedly snippy about some of the people he works with and his worldview is that of someone who has grown weary of what is around him. He was 72 years old when this was filmed, so it should be no surprise that he has an older person’s outlook on things but it still feels like a revelation, given the wonders the man has created.
This isn’t to say we get any revelations that he was secretly a Nazi or anything, and his eccentricities and inspiration for why he does what he does still shine through and warm the heart. His is a quiet and reserved manner, confident in his own abilities and demanding on others (there is a powerful scene where an unnamed animator tells us that you have to lose a part of your own self to actually handle working under him).
It soon becomes apparent that Miyazaki is the point of interest here – and so he probably should be. There are some structural problems that pop up as a result: the filmmakers occasionally take focus off of Miyazaki and onto My Neighbours The Yamadas director Isao Takahata, talking of his history with Miyazaki and his importance to Ghibli, but as the film goes on, it seems to get cooler towards him – as do the participants – as he falls further behind on his latest film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. We see very little of the man himself and most of what we see is either him talking about Hayao or others being disparaging, speaking of his inability to finish his work or a general sense of frustration about his project. Again, the openness here is refreshing. but there is not much defence made for him here and, without there being either more of him or none at all, there is a slight feeling that he is getting thrown under the bus, something which feels a little contradictory of the film’s overall intentions.
Where it does also function well, though, is as an overview of Ghibli history and as a making of for Miyazaki’s wonderful (and personal top 10 of 2014 entrant) The Wind Rises, as we see Miyazaki contend with birthing his vision for the film’s planes and struggle over the choice of lead voice actor. In one of the documentary’s best scenes, we see a discussion being had where a random idea bears fruit in Hayao’s head, the gears turning and life seemingly being renewed on camera as he gets more into the idea. It is a joyful moment which chimes with the more childlike moments of Miyazaki within the film, which it would have been nice to see more of.
The result is not just a documentary for Studio Ghibli fans, but a look at an absolute master and artist, who is a more complicated beast than his wonderfully universal films.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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