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Once known purely as Japan’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed anime hit factory, Studio Ghibli has seen its stock tumble somewhat in the past year. Its latest releases, such as the long-gestating The Tale of Princess Kaguya and While Marine Was There, stalled at the box office, while its founders’ vague and conflicting remarks about the company’s future have generated confusion and criticism even among its staunchest supporters.
Amid such upheaval, Mami Sunada‘s documentary on the studio couldn’t have come at a better time. The documentary was originally slated to be released as an interest-piquing companion piece to The Tale of Princess Kaguya, with the two films released within weeks of each other in Japan and in Hong Kong (in July/August), a strategy U.S. distributors Gkids are expected to follow this fall. But The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness has instead provided an a revealing behind-the-scenes peek at how Studio Ghibli functions.
Sunada’s documentary is no hagiography. Provided with apparently uninhibited access to the studio and its personnel, Sunada — who made her debut in 2011 with Ending Note: Death of a Japanese Salesman — has managed to capture the idiosyncrasies that are perhaps instrumental to the flights of fancy imbued in the studio’s projects.
Obviously, the documentary centers on Ghibli’s three big guns. At the forefront is director Hayao Miyazaki, with the production and release of last year’s The Wind Rises forming the central backbone of the Kingdom. As his army of underlings toil — with most of them still working by hand rather than on computers — the chain-smoking Miyazaki (who spends a lot of his time drawing at a small desk next to his animators) spews his life anecdotes and also unreserved vitriol about the modern world. Delivered with a grin and a giggle, these observations could be quite pitch-black: “Most of our world is rubbish,” he says at one point, adding how “humanity is cursed.”
His cheery pensioner’s veneer obscures an autocrat within, and Sunada is bold and clever enough to illustrate this by recording a scene in which Miyazaki courteously interrupts his team’s work and instructs — in a gentle tone, of course — the minute differences between the right and wrong way to draw a man straightening himself after a bow. There’s no tirade or tantrum on show, but the tyranny of perfectionism — towards details which might elude his underlings, most of them belonging to a different generation to the 73-year-old Miyazaki’s — is obvious.
It’s an attitude that shapes Miyazaki’s views on his Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. While at times empathetic with Takahata’s own slow-moving work ethic — something that becomes a running concern in the documentary as the studio management struggles to get the 78-year-old to wrap Princess Kaguya — Miyazaki would then, in another instance, berate his colleague for being simply self-destructive.
“He’s not going to finish it … I’ve given up on him as a filmmaker” he says. Takahata is basically conspicuous only by his absence in the documentary: Working in a different building away from Ghibli HQ altogether, he is mostly discussed but rarely ever shown until the very end.
But the pillar of the Kingdom — both the documentary and the Ghibli dominion, that is — is undoubtedly producer Toshio Suzuki. While the two filmmakers lap up all the glory, it’s left to Suzuki, who could easily claim to have unearthed Miyazaki when he commissioned the then-young manga artist for a magazine, to keep Ghibli running. And Sunada has certainly done him justice by showing the amount of work he has to do. There’s all the tedious tasks, such as courting the press, meeting financiers and checking posters at movie theaters. And, of course, there’s the task of attending to the demands and whims of the two masters plus Miyazaki’s filmmaker son Goro (Tales from Earthsea), who is seen here acting even more a prima donna than his father.
Indeed, Kingdom of Dreams and Madness does reveal a world seemingly forever on the precipice of a meltdown. But it’s from this bedlam that vibrant ingenuity springs, and Sunada is always there filming these junctures — and she has managed the incredible task of editing all these anecdotes into a flowing whole, an unfettered celebration of cinema as a concoction of vision, persistence, collective faith and, of course, some canniness about how the world operates. Rather than diminishing the seventh art’s magic, Sunada’s documentary enhances it.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Documentaries); also San Sebastian International Film Festival (Zabaltegi)
Production companies: ENNET, in a presentation by Dwango in association with Studio Ghibli
Director: Mami Sunada
Screenwriter: Mami Sunada
Producers: Nobuo Kawaka
Director of photography: Mami Sunada
Editor: Mami Sunada
Music: Masakatsu Takagi
US distributor: Gkids
No rating, 118 minutes
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