If you imagined Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animation director behind movies as enchanting as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, as a lovable grandfather all eyes wide with wonder, you might be disappointed. In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a compelling documentary by Mami Sunada that sees release in New York this week, Miyazaki largely comes off well as a polite, diligent worker blessed with a stroke of genius. But the man is also marked by moments of cynicism, resentment, and self-doubt that hint at a darkness behind his creations. “I don’t ever feel happy in my daily life,” he says. “How could that be our ultimate goal? Filmmaking only brings suffering.”
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness focuses on Miyazaki as he works on The Wind Rises, a soaring, personal epic that he later announced would be his final feature film. In the background is his colleague and rival, Isao Takahata, who is planning to release the ethereal Tale of the Princess Kaguya on the same day as Miyazaki’s movie. The pair founded Studio Ghibli after Takahata took on Miyazaki as an apprentice; for a while they worked on animations together, but the younger Miyazaki wanted to direct his own features and soon became the bigger star.Miyazaki is in his 70s, but during The Wind Rises’ production, he comes into the studio every day from 11AM to 9PM, returning to a nearby workshop each night. Sundays are also very busy, he tells us — he always cleans the local river. But this isn’t a person altogether at ease with his position in the world. "I’m a man of the 20th century," he tells us at one point. "I don't want to deal with the 21st." Miyazaki also often embarks on extended soliloquies that are philosophical and eloquent but betray deep discomfort with the present order of things. The Fukushima disaster, for instance, has had a profound impact on his thinking.
Despite worldwide acclaim and his status as perhaps the greatest living animator, Miyazaki doesn’t express much confidence or even affection for his work. "How do we know movies are even worthwhile?," he asks at one point. "How did this happen? What am I doing with this film?" at another. When asked about the future of Studio Ghibli, which has been the subject of much speculation in recent years, his answer is blunt. "The future is clear: it's going to fall apart," he says. "I can already see it. What's the use worrying? It's inevitable."
Takahata is a ghostly presence throughout the film until a brief appearance near the end. Miyazaki doesn’t hold back on his colleague, accusing him of having a personality disorder and leaving the studio in disarray. When announcing Princess Kaguya for the first time, producer Toshio Suzuki admits to reporters that Takahata has "never delivered a film on time or on budget," already knowing that the movie won’t make the release date he’s giving. "Takahata-san is incomprehensible. Does he not want to finish?" Suzuki later asks in exasperation. Sunada expertly weaves the relationship between the two directors throughout The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, playing the two off each other to spin an absorbing narrative.
The documentary is invaluable as a record of what goes on inside Ghibli's walls. Staff talk about how hard it can be to work under Miyazaki, but the footage of him working on storyboards, selecting and instructing voice actors, and advising artists on exactly how to convey his intended feeling shows just how astute and meticulous a director he is. I’ve often found that Miyazaki and Takahata’s films have the capability to move me more than just about any others, and it’s fascinating to get insight into the sometimes torturous process with which they achieve that.
That said, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness may not hold much appeal for those unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Its two-hour running time, matter-of-fact cinematography, and frequent delves into the esoteric assume some degree of knowledge regarding the subject matter, and often regarding Japan itself. Sunada even made the brave decision not to show any of Miyazaki’s animation whatsoever beyond a short montage in the closing moments.
But that delayed release more than pays off. Set to Miyazaki’s pensive words made minutes before walking on stage to announce his retirement, it’s an emotional gut punch on par with anything from the director himself. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness should be considered essential viewing for any Studio Ghibli fan, for whom it will stand alone as a captivating work in its own right.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness opens today at the IFC Center in New York City. It’ll be made available for download on December 9th before a DVD and video-on-demand release on January 27th.