Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Swan Song: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a documentary with an extraordinary sense of time and place. The turbulent period it captures within the walls of the secretive Studio Ghibli, Japan’s premier animation house and purveyor of inexhaustible whimsy, feels like the last deep breath before the end, chronicling the release of two animated feature films: studio director Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (the latter of which was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards). Like Miyazaki himself, it’s at once as melancholy and uplifting as all Ghibli films, and serves as not only a glimpse into one of the most reclusive film studios in the world, but as a lasting testament to the magic that lives there.

Miyazaki (or, more casually, “Miya-san”) shuffles around the brightly-lit studio sporting a white apron, as though he were a technician going to work in a film processing lab or a chef supervising a catering company. He projects a calm, grandfatherly air, every now and then allowing time for an impish smile or a moment of exaggerated exasperation at his mountainous workload. He’s given to waxing philosophical on any topic that springs to mind, and engenders an almost fearful respect from his colleagues. His work on The Wind Rises is deeply autobiographical. Kingdom makes it clear that it’s his swan song, and his behaviour around the studio reflects this wistful mood.

But his grumpy, paternal “Miya-san” persona is a show (“I’m a man of the 20th century,” he complains. “I don’t want to deal with the 21st.”). He is clearly a deeply passionate and idealistic artist. Sometimes, though, a pessimism will still creep through in more isolated moments: he expresses despair over humanity’s “beautiful, cursed dreams,” and uncertainty as to what the final result of the film will be, due to the disparity between the artistic process (literally, the storyboards he painstakingly sketches) and the filmmaking process (represented in the film by long, tedious meetings with producers). He operates on a purely instinctive level, expressing quietly that his storyboard “…feels like it’s working. And it feels like it’s not.” Miyazaki, like his protagonist, Jiro, from The Wind Rises, is a man possessed of a deep fascination with flying – and particularly the machines that allow humans to do it. Both Jiro and Hayao are peaceful men, born into a world at war – “torn by what they love,” as Ghibli co-founder and longtime producer Toshio Suzuki puts it – drawn to war planes, while strictly anti-war. The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s attempt to explain how such a contradictory life is possible.

Toshio Suzuki (left) and Hayao Miyazaki in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

While it is heavily focused on Miyazaki – the Ghibli compound feeling like an extension of the man himself – Kingdom touches on the many other dramas playing out there as well. One of the more gripping scenes in the film is a meeting in which we’re introduced to Goro, Miyazaki’s son. He is locked in conflict with an unnamed producer over a project he’s considering taking on. The producer feels that the responsibility for pushing the film forward lies on the creative decisions of the director, a task which Goro feels should fall to the producer. Suzuki oversees the meeting – which is sedate and quiet despite the tension between the two men – reminding Goro that his father took four months to decide to make The Wind Rises. The producer eventually breaks the ice by apologizing for miscalculating his level of responsibility, and Goro’s response is a pained expression – preemptive stress, it seems, at the reality of taking on yet another project in an industry he never asked to be a part of.

Takahata is the other side of the Ghibli coin: Miyazaki’s lifelong collaborator and friendly rival, who Kingdom paints as an elusive and seldom-seen figure. The relationship between the two defines much of the energy in the studio. We see Miyazaki’s mood fluctuate between praising Takahata (or “Paku-san”, as he calls him) or decrying him. One animator notes that this is a mystery that drives and inspires many of her colleagues – but “which is light and which is shadow,” she doesn’t know.

Kingdom is a sensitive film, regarding the final days of Miyazaki’s reign without comment or judgment, letting the tranquility of the studio’s surroundings – and the people bowed over, working diligently there – speak for themselves. Director Mami Sunada has a remarkable talent for capturing the place through the eyes of its staff, making for a candid portrait of a legendary studio that, in other hands, might have succumbed to phony sentimentality. The music by Masakatsu Takagi is gorgeous, too, and manages to match Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi’s particular knack for whimsical piano tunes that are childlike and comforting.

The scope and influence of the Studio Ghibli films is almost unparalleled, and the worlds they depict are fantastical, beautiful, and deeply emotional places to visit. Thematically they cover the spectrum of human experience, but the mind that Ghibli knows best is that of the child, and Kingdom makes it only too easy to see why. Whether he is performing radio calisthenics, waving hello to schoolchildren, or poking the studio’s lazy resident cat, Miyazaki retains a childlike enthusiasm even into his seventies that is inspiring to see, and it makes his decision to retire sting that much more. He can see what’s on the horizon, but it’s everyone around him who is sad. As he himself puts it: “The future is clear: it’s going to fall apart. It’s inevitable, so why worry about it?”

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing review Just, finally got around to watching this one and loved it. Your review definitely captures what made this such a good watch. Tomorrow we watch The Wind Rises, very exciting. Thanks for this one bud!