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REVIEW: Inside Studio Ghibli “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”

REVIEW: Inside Studio Ghibli "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness"

The Kingdom of Dreams
and Madness
, a documentary about Studio Ghibli, rambles as amiably
and–sometimes as purposelessly–as Ushiko, the black and white bobtail cat
who’s taken up residence at the studio. (And who’s the subject of an added
featurette.)

Director Mami Sunada follows Hayao Miyazaki as he works on The Wind Rises, smoking, painting,
explaining movements to animators, correcting drawings. Producer Toshio Suzuki
runs errands, deals with business decisions, plays the guitar and sits through
meetings, discussing everything from the artists’ working habits to new lines
of character merchandise. Director Isao Takahata and his producer Yoshiaki Nishimura
review the progress of The Tale of
Princess Kaguya
, which was in production at the same time. Goro Miyazaki
talks about a potential project.

Sunada was given access to some rare materials, including footage
and photographs of Suzuki as a journalist, and Takahata and Miyazaki as young artists
at the Toei studio. The documentary even includes family photos of Miyazaki as a
child with his father during World War II.

While he was at work on The
Wind Rises
, Miyazaki received a letter from a man who had lived nearby
during the War. His family’s house had burned down, but the Miyazakis’ home had
been spared. When he found his neighbors huddled in the doorway, Miayzaki’s
father gave the little boy some chocolate—a very treat at the time. Miyazaki
had no memory of the incident but says the actions were typical of his father–and
are echoed when Jiro offers sponge cake to some obviously hungry children in The Wind Rises. As Miyazaki reminisces
about the incident, he turns his attention to the contradiction between his fascination
with war planes and his hatred of war, feelings that are mirrored in the
complex character of Jiro.

The most interesting sequences in Kingdom offer a rare look at one of animation’s greatest talents at
work. No comparable footage exists of Walt Disney at the height of his genius or
of Winsor McCay in his prime, crafting key films in the history of animation.

Ironically, many of these scenes are distinguished by their
sheer ordinariness: the banality of genius. In his biography of librettist Lorenzo
Da Ponte, Rodney Bolt noted that when they collaborated on “The Marriage of
Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” “Mozart and Da Ponte were not writing for
posterity, but for survival: to earn a fee, to meet a deadline, to fill a slot
at the Burgtheater, to flatter specific voices and make use of certain
musicians, for the success that ensured the next commission.” Miyazaki is not a
serene divinity handing down pronouncements from on high, but a harried worker,
turning out drawings, coping with problems, enduring meetings and struggling
with schedules.

The audience sees his excitement grow almost palpably when he
gets the offbeat notion of choosing for the voice of Jiro not a professional
actor, but Hideaki Anno—who animated the terrible God Warrior in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and created the watershed series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Although he’s
initially surprised, Anno accepts the offer and turns in an effective
performance.

 

In other moments, Miyazaki grumbles at the endless demands
on his time, joins the staff in exercises broadcast on the radio, and walks
around the studio. Like the inclusion of Kazuyoshi Tanaka’s “Production Diary”
in the new edition of “The Art of Princess Mononoke,” Kingdom of Dreams reminds the viewer that for all brilliance of their
films, Ghibli is still an animation studio. Making an animated film is making
an animated film, whether it’s Strange
Magic
, Fantasia or Spirited Away.

 

Although it’s often fascinating, Kingdom cries out for an editor. Some images are repeated; shots of
Miyazaki walking at night are little more than black frames; some scenes feel
like filler. The Nippon TV special about making Spirited Away, which is included in multi-disc set of the film,
offers a more focussed look at a younger Miyazaki at work.

 

A bigger problem is that Kingdom
of Dreams
begins following the creation not just of The Wind Rises, but of The
Tale of Princess Kaguya
as well. Miyazaki and Takahata worked on the films at
same time, and the initial plan was to release them together, paralleling the
release of Grave of the Fireflies and
My Neighbor Totoro in 1988 (one of
the oddest double bills in animation history). The filmmakers note that the
slightly older Takahata discovered and mentored Miyazaki, and later mentored
Suzuki and discovered composer Joe Hisaishi. But Takahata and his work simply
disappear for most of the documentary. Production on Kaguya fell behind schedule: The
Wind Rises
was released in July, 2013; The
Tale of Princess Kaguya
in November, 2013. But Isao Takahata is simply too
important a director to be given this short shrift.

 

These caveats aside, students of animation and fans of
Miyazaki will welcome this rare opportunity to watch one of the greatest
artists in the history of animation at work on what may well be his last
feature. The Kingdom of Dreams and
Madness
ends with the opening of The
Wind Rises
and Miyazaki’s announcement of his retirement, before the recent
changes and lay-offs at Studio Ghibli. 

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness 
Gkids: $29.95, in Japanese with English subtitles

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