Much like Willy Wonka, opening his chocolate factory to five golden ticket claimers, Oscar-winning Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away; Howl’s Moving Castle; Princess Mononoke) has given audiences an in-depth look within the halls of Studio Ghibli in the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Offering incredible insights into one of the most celebrated animation studios in the world, fans will be overjoyed to see not only the animation process, but also gain a unique perspective of Miyazaki himself.
At the simple, office building in a suburb outside Tokyo – home to an apathetic white cat named Ushiko – Hayao Miyazaki, 72-years-old at the time, is working tirelessly day in, day out to finish his last feature length film, The Wind Rises. Following his 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. schedule, director Mami Sunada captures Miyazaki at various moments throughout his day. Sketching storyboards, overseeing the voice cast, attending press conferences, putting the final touches on key scenes, or office calisthenics with fellow animators, life is never dull as the master of anime.
Going further behind the scenes, longtime producer Toshio Suzuki is tasked with ensuring that The Wind Rises and another Ghibli film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, are on track to release simultaneously. Kaguya is being directed by Miyazaki’s in-house rival, Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies), whom has a long tradition not to stick to a set budget or timeline. Although there is no arising conflict in the film, the only real area of concern this documentary touches on is Takahata’s stubborn nature, which is only briefly mentioned in side conversations.
As a fan of Miyazaki’s work, I couldn’t help but let my eyes wander onto every wall or desk throughout Studio Ghibli to catch a glimpse of what oddities and quirky trinkets there were to find. Not a nook or cranny left unseen. The studio itself isn’t as grand as one would imagine, but you see a Tororo here and there as well as some pieces of hanging art, largely consisting of The Wind Rises. The most colorful area is atop Ghibli, a grassy, outdoor patio where Ushiko can be found typically sunbathing.
The bulk of this documentary, however, is not about the studio nor its rich back catalog. The Kingdom of Dreams focuses on the soul of the studio, Miyazaki and his colleagues. Without their passion and enthusiasm for animation, none of what we have come to see from Studio Ghibli would have been made possible. I am not at all familiar with the life of Miyazaki-San, as I’m sure many aren’t, and to hear him speak about his views on his work, life, and the future is surprisingly bleak and cynical; but not in a way that makes him a Negative Nancy. In spite of his pessimistic views of the world today, I rather found his words to be quite profound.
Claiming his work is aimed toward children, Miyazaki’s stories are quite lush with themes of anti-war, pacifism, feminism, and environmentalism, which many Studio Ghibli fans could agree are best understood by adults. (His main audience now is adults who grew up watching his movies as children.) Only a few years after the terrible Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Miyazaki’s strong morals hold ever true. And they can be seen especially in The Wind Rises – some spoilers of the film are talked about in this documentary.
Admittedly, as fascinating as it is to pick the brain of Miyazaki, The Kingdom of Dreams wanders kind of aimlessly. Outside of periodically checking in on the production of The Wind Rises and Kaguya, there are brief history lessons about the formation of Ghibli, Miyazaki’s relationships with Takahata and Suzuki, and a scene with his son Goro talking about his future. I was intrigued to learn about all of this, but it isn’t until the last moments of the documentary when we reach something that can be taken away from it all. Sunada doesn’t really have a voice as the narrator/interviewer that gives the film any kind of vision.
I applaud Sunada’s discipline in holding back the usage of any Studio Ghibli movie footage until the very end, but I wish that they could have at least made the film a little more visually interesting to look at. There are a handful of shots of random nature B-roll utilized as filler instead of pointing the camera at something relating to the topics at hand. If only Sunada aimed better attention at directing rather than busying herself with the camera and editing, The Kingdom of Dreams could have been more vivid and a little tighter.
There are many instances of pure sincerity seen throughout this docu that emphasize the beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s storytelling abilities. When he shares a letter from a past acquaintance from his childhood it is quite moving. From all of the quips, anecdotes, and cathartic stories Miyazaki had to tell, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a satisfying documentary for Studio Ghibli fans to gain intimate context to his films and of the man himself.
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The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness was directed by Mami Sunada with a run time of 118 minutes. The film has not yet been rated.