The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

“Filmmaking only brings suffering.” So claims esteemed director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, the central figure of the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Miyazaki doesn't seem to a be particularly grouchy man – he flashes a cheerful grin on a regular basis, and occasionally utters a quiet joke – but he objects to the notion that personal happiness is the thing we should all strive for. “I don't ever feel happy in my daily life. How could that be our ultimate goal?” he muses. He wants to do something that matters, not something that will simply make him feel good. The animation legend has brought immense happiness to millions of fans (including yours truly), but bringing those beautiful films to life is a process that comes with severe birthing pains.

Miyazaki (or “Miya-san,” as his associates and employees affectionately call him) has a strict daily routine. He works six days a week, beginning his work at 11 AM and concluding it at 9 PM. He rests on Sundays, as ambitious creators are wont to do. He expects a great deal from his employees (some of whom grow despairing when they realize that they can't possibly live up to Miyazaki's expectations), but he holds himself to the same standards. He doesn't merely want the work done well, but done with love: he feels that anyone who isn't truly enthusiastic about a project may very well harm the quality of that project. He never threatens to fire people (not in this documentary, anyway), but he strongly encourages anyone who is losing their passion for a project to quit immediately.

Director Mami Sunada (who also wrote, edited and shot the film) gives The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness a genuinely cinematic quality that sets it apart from standard-issue docs. This is a wonderfully lyrical film, as Sunada uses idyllic images of the natural outdoor beauty that surrounds the studio and Miyazaki's home as punctuation between scenes. Sunada will occasionally provide a bit of narration for the sake of providing context for a scene or offering a biographical tidbit, but she only inserts herself into the proceedings when she deems it absolutely necessary. Otherwise, she brings a very “fly on the wall” vibe to much of the doc, giving us extended glimpses of the private conversations between the people who work at Studio Ghibli.

The film briefly touches on Studio Ghibli's founding and Miyazaki's early years, but it largely chronicles the making of Miyazaki's wonderful animated biopic The Wind Rises. The film will tell the story of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, but early on, Miyazaki admits that he really has no idea what sort of movie he's making. He simply starts drawing the moments he knows he wants to include, and then lets the film construct itself from there. One lovely sequence shows him setting out to create one kind of scene but eventually allowing it to transform into something entirely different. “Films sure are organic,” he marvels, ignoring the fact that entirely too many of them aren't organic at all.

The Wind Rises is a deeper, heavier film than most of Miyazaki's other work, and it seems rooted in his own personal fears and burdens. He despairs over the fact that those who create beautiful things eventually see those things turned into something destructive, and bemoans the increasing loss of creative freedom. He declares that “most of the world is rubbish,” and that his work is ultimately an effort to produce something that isn't. In one scene, we see producer Toshio Suzuki gently raising concerns that the film may be perceived as too political or too anti-war. “Definitely,” Miyazaki agrees, “but this is the way it has to be.”

Though more than one employee admits that working under Miyazaki can be exceptionally difficult, he never comes across as tyrannical or unreasonable. He has a very clear vision for what he wants his films to be, and he works diligently to ensure that his animators know precisely what that vision is. One animator offers to correct Miyazaki's design of a flight scene, claiming that the plane being depicted in the scene didn't actually fly the way Miyazaki's storyboards suggest. He is sternly reprimanded for his suggestion. Miyazaki wants the planes to fly the way he sees them fly in his dreams.

Early on, I felt as if the documentary had a couple of curious shortcomings. The first is the absence of a key figure in the documentary: Isao Takahata, another great animation director who co-founded the studio. Miyazaki and Takahata are friendly rivals, but Takahata isn't interviewed (or even shown very often) despite the fact that people are talking about him frequently. The second problem was the lack of clips from Miyazaki's films – wouldn't some footage of the movies people are talking about greatly enhance some of these conversations? In both cases, I had underestimated Sunada's restraint and artistic integrity. Both Takahata and a highlight reel of Miyazaki's work turn up late in the film, and both moments have an enormous impact due to the fact that the rest of the film has spent so much time building them up. This late stretch of the film also boasts a gorgeous montage that breezes through the later stages of The Wind Rises' production; a sequence that benefits considerably from Masakatsu Takagi's swooning piano score. In retrospect, the film's only genuine shortcoming is that it will likely leave viewers unfamiliar with Miyazaki's work feeling short-changed on information about his career: this is a fans-only affair, even if it's an exceptional one.

Late in the movie, Miyazaki decides to announce his retirement from filmmaking. It isn't his first retirement, but he insists that it's his last one. He claims he no longer has the same zeal for his work that he once had, so perhaps it was an inevitability that he would take his own advice and quit. Still, it's no surprise to learn that he has already ended that retirement, and is currently working on a new (CG!) animated short for the Studio Ghibli museum. His self-professed weariness may be genuine, but so is his knack for finding creative inspiration in unexpected places. Something tells me that he'll never be able to fully suppress the urge to keep telling stories. The world is richer for his willingness to forego his own happiness.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Year: 2014