TIFF14: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a special film because it offers a rare window into Studio Ghibli, arguably the world’s best animation studio, and certainly one of the world’s most consistent film studios in general. What I glimpsed was illuminating for what it revealed as well as for what it confirmed. For diehard fans of Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, this is essential viewing.

Most of the film centres around Miyazaki and his production of last year’s The Wind Rises, although I was pleased to learn more about the other two major figures at Ghibli: producer Toshio Suzuki, and director Isao Takahata. (Takahata is working on The Tale of The Princess Kaguya during the film.) Most of what we glimpse takes places inside the Studio Ghibli building, which, with its rooftop garden, non-nuclear energy sources, and permanent cat resident, appears to be the creative, conscientious, and slightly whimsical environment I imagined. We also see some great archival footage of Miyazaki, Suzuki, and Takahata when they were starting out. Unknown to me before seeing the film, Suzuki is shown to be one of the driving figures at Ghibli, taking care of the production and business so Miyazaki and Takahata can focus on the art, and prodding the two along when need be.

Miyazaki and Takahata are depicted as friendly rivals and relative opposites. Miyazaki appears to be a diligent but demanding artist. In his 70s now, he still arrives for work at 11 a.m. and works until 9 p.m. He works every day (including most holidays) except Sundays, when he cleans the local river. In front of the camera, he’s a blend of gruff and playful, complaining and laughing often at the same time. He will grimly contemplate the dire future he sees ahead for Japan and the world (ecological collapse, rightwing corporatism), and then unashamedly express his love for children, nature, and the goat statues he keeps in his home. Miyazaki’s openness to strange ideas and new directions is evident in one humorous scene in which he goes from questioning the idea of having anime director Hideaki Anno voice the protagonist of The Wind Rises to acclaiming him as an amazing choice. In one of his more revelatory moments, he questions the Western pursuit of individual happiness as the purpose of life. His animators at Ghibli all clearly admire him, but they also look tired and sound somewhat afraid (although it’s hard to decipher how much of this is a matter of Japanese behaviour towards superiors).

We see much less of Takahata, but his presence still looms largely in the film. A notoriously slow worker, Suzuki wonders whether Takahata even wants to finish his movie, and a young producer assures us that Kaguya will be Takahata’s last film—he’s too slow to make another. In a great little moment, the young producer hilariously explains that he’s dreamed of Takahata every night for three years; clearly Takahata’s crew works hard as well. Miyazaki sometimes complains about Takahata, but we also learn how he was the one that discovered Miyazaki. Even if Miyazaki’s name has become synonymous with Ghibli internationally, the studio would never have been built without Takahata (and his latest and last is wonderful).

At one point, director Mami Sunada asks Miyazaki point-blank about the future of Ghibli. Without much hesitation or emotion, Miyazaki says it’s probably over. Rather charitably, Miyazaki goes on to explain that companies are merely conduits for money, and so not important. Clearly, what matters to him is the art produced, not the profits or even the corporate legacy. And at least the dream has lived for as long as it has.

The film seems to take its pace from the works of Miyazaki: it’s thoughtfully slow, lingering over moments and details, often images from the rooftop garden. While there’s a lot of great material here, I agree with Aren that I probably could have watched six hours about the great Ghibli. For the uninitiated, it’ll probably be less interesting.

8 out of 10

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness a.k.a. Yume to kyôki no ohkoku (Japan, 2013)

Directed by Mami Sunada