It’s a bombastic title that, upon first glance at the unprepossessing exterior of a fairly nondescript modern office building in a Tokyo suburb, may seem like an overclaim. Even if you spot a round window or two, the more whimsical flourishes, like the rooftop garden, the light-filled interior staircase, the lazy old cat, the handwritten notes, and witty reminders that speckle the workplace it houses are only revealed later. But Mami Sunada‘s “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” which we finally caught up with at the Göteborg International Film Festival (whose documentary program this year has been excellent), is not, in fact, the story of a place. It is not even the story of the remarkable otherworldly work that is created within that place. Instead, it is the story of a company, and how a company — a business with employees, boardrooms, meetings, schedules, routines, squabbles, politics, deadlines, and bottom lines — can have a soul.
Many of us coming to the film may assume that the soul of Studio Ghibli is located in one man — Hayao Miyazaki (Miya-san to one and all here). And indeed it’s an assumption the film embraces, as the thoughtful, quotable Miya-san, who is as peculiar and lovable as one of his creations, undoubtedly gets the large part of the limelight. At his desk, fretting over how to draw a Zero fighter without fetishizing it; in the recording studio, listening to protege Hideako Anni, himself a respected and prolific director of animation, give voice to Jiro, the lead character in “The Wind Rises“; at home, herding the life-size stuffed-toy goats he rescued from the Ghibli museum’s storage room; in the office, grumbling good-naturedly about the day’s calisthenics routine; or up on the Studio’s roof looking at the sky in what seems to be a daily ritual that he encourages his staff to share in, Miyazaki comes across as Ghibli’s pole star.
But the soul of Ghibli, it emerges gradually, is really a trinity: Miya-san; fellow director-turned-partner-turned-creative rival, Isao Takahata, aka Paku-san (whose lovely “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is in production at the same time as Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises“); and in between the two, the unsung producing partner, Toshio Suzuki, whose unenviable job it is to keep those two antithetical personalities from flying apart, while also ensuring the films get made, bought, distributed, translated, and diversified into a line of plush toys and calendars that the world’s Ghibli museums can sell. These three men may have an unequal partnership (it is conceded that Miyazaki would have been Miyazaki without Ghibli, but Ghibli would not have been Ghibli without Miya-san), but it has worked for thirty years and made the company into an entity whose very name brings a lump to the throat of animation lovers across the world.
Tracing the feverish months between Miyazaki struggling to finish the storyboard for ‘Wind’ and the film’s completion, followed by his announcement of his retirement, Sunada gives fans a borderline holy glimpse into the creative process of one of the purest and loveliest cinematic imaginations in existence. But it’s not just about the funny, fascinating little details of Miyakazi’s approach — his sudden chuckles, faraway stares, his endearing flashes of self-awareness at his own occasional absurdity. Sanada’s palpable love for the whole Ghibli project shines through in the many quirky, endearing moments her steadily amused camera captures: the lady who comes in weekly to sell yogurt drinks; the security guard caught trying the brush the cat; the plush toy sitting in on a meeting about finance; the group of unsmiling Ghibli employees who troop through a train station en route to a meeting, all wearing headbands that sprout little Jiji ears.
The film is overlong and occasionally indulges avenues we could do without (meetings with the national TV channel reps are not particularly illuminating, and digressions about Miyazaki’s son’s reluctant career as a director are interesting, but not hugely necessary), and as a factor of Sunada’s unmistakable love and respect for her subject, which she simply doesn’t want to leave, it ends several times over before the credits roll. That’s an ironic complaint, because as much as anything, ‘Kingdom’ is a film about endings — nearing completion on ‘Wind,’ Miyazaki foretells the end of Ghibli, even as he ponders his own retirement, and Takahata’s producer insists, only half joking, that ‘Kaguya’ will be his last, if only for how damn long it’s taken him to make.
“I am from the 20th century,” states Miyazaki ruefully at one point, and this is the 21st. But the man, the films he made, and the company he co-created would have been extraordinary in any age. Without overly romanticizing it or suggesting that, ultimately, it is anything more than a business built around the talents of some very singular men, Sunada’s film becomes a love letter of a most unusual kind, because it is addressed to a place that is unremarkable in every way except for the spirit that flowed through it. That spirit, of unfettered creative imagination, of dreams and madness, is so transformational that it did indeed make this modest suburban structure a “kingdom,” at least for a little while. And if the magic of this magic kingdom is no longer concentrated in this particular pile of bricks and mortar on the outskirts of Tokyo, we can take heart in the fact that it’s immortalized forever in every frame of every film that Ghibli ever made. [B+/A-]