The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

There’s much primary material about Miyazaki Hayao in English, from behind-the-scenes documentaries on home releases of his films, to two large books of his writings (Starting Point and Turning Point). It’s impressive, then, that this two-hour documentary about the director, his colleagues and studio, gives a deeper sense of the man and his work process. It’s a fond portrait, but never dewy-eyed. The main setting is the animation studio Ghibli, where we follow the avuncular, sometimes jovial, sometimes melancholic director. His white apron matches his trimmed beard and unlit cigarettes. Much of the film consists of conversations, given traction by shots of the changing seasons, graceful montages of Ghibli’s ongoing life, and the studio’s resident cat Ushiko.

It’s easy to think of Miyazaki as a one-man band, conceiving his films from his storyboards up, as we’re shown. However, the documentary is good at presenting his working relationships, especially his joshing, effortless rapport with Suzuki Toshio, Miyazaki’s producer and promoter of three decades, who came from outside animation. (We see photos of Suzuki as a young, hungry-looking journalist.)

Another prominent figure is Anno Hideaki. Today, Anno is the creator of the SF TV/film franchise Evangelion and was recently the subject of a mammoth retrospective at the Tokyo International Film Festival. As a youngster, Anno worked under Miyazaki, who recalls him as being “like an alien… What planet did he come from?” Decades later, Anno came onto Miyazaki’s 2013 film The Wind Rises to voice its hero. We see the plot hatched on screen, with Miyazaki fascinated and tickled by the idea.

Far more evasive is Takahata Isao, Miyazaki’s mentor, best-known for his 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies. In the period covered by the documentary, when Miyazaki was working on Wind Rises, Takahata was making his own film in a separate building, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013). Takahata is a running off-screen presence. Suzuki grimaces at the news that Kaguya will miss its release date, and Miyazaki alternately praises and insults Takahata on camera. (“He can’t make films any more, he’s not even trying to finish.”)

Some Ghibliphiles consider Takahata the better director, though when he finally appears near the film’s end, it’s to claim graciously that his own artistic career was shaped when he came across Miyazaki’s talent. “If I hadn’t met Miyazaki, I wouldn’t be here.” The documentary doesn’t record Princess Kaguya’s fate. It opened four months after Wind Rises in Japan to very modest box-office, though its reviews have been more glowing than those for Miyazaki’s film.

The comments by Miyazaki, Suzuki and others feel genuine and uncensored, perhaps because of a feeling that the final end is nigh. Asked about Ghibli’s future, Miyazaki says it will fall apart. “What’s the use worrying? It’s inevitable.” At another point, he asks if his work is not merely a grand hobby. “Maybe there was a time when you could make films that matter, but now?” There’s a tantalising suggestion by Suzuki that NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, is pressuring Ghibli not to make political comments, though Wind Rises is about the lead-up to World War II. Japan’s right-wing prime minister, Abe Shinzo, is glimpsed at a colourful pop-media event for “niconico,” the country’s equivalent of Youtube. The event is ominously presented as an expression of escapist apathy.

There’s also a strand about Miyazaki’s long-dead father. In an affecting scene, the director receives a letter describing a kind deed by his parent during the war. Through deft edits, the documentary fascinatingly suggests how Miyazaki’s father may be reflected both purposefully and coincidentally in the Anno-voiced hero of Wind Rises. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is directed by a woman, Sunada Mami, who previously worked under Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking). Mami’s 2011 film, Death of a Japanese Salesman, concerned her own father’s last days.