The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (impressions)

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Animation Scoop

13 February 2015

REVIEW: Inside Studio Ghibli "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness"

By Charles Solomon

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about Studio Ghibli, rambles as amiably and--sometimes as purposelessly--as Ushiko, the black and white bobtail cat who’s taken up residence at the studio. (And who’s the subject of an added featurette.)

Director Mami Sunada follows Hayao Miyazaki as he works on The Wind Rises, smoking, painting, explaining movements to animators, correcting drawings. Producer Toshio Suzuki runs errands, deals with business decisions, plays the guitar and sits through meetings, discussing everything from the artists’ working habits to new lines of character merchandise. Director Isao Takahata and his producer Yoshiaki Nishimura review the progress of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which was in production at the same time. Goro Miyazaki talks about a potential project.

Sunada was given access to some rare materials, including footage and photographs of Suzuki as a journalist, and Takahata and Miyazaki as young artists at the Toei studio. The documentary even includes family photos of Miyazaki as a child with his father during World War II.

While he was at work on The Wind Rises, Miyazaki received a letter from a man who had lived nearby during the War. His family’s house had burned down, but the Miyazakis’ home had been spared. When he found his neighbors huddled in the doorway, Miayzaki’s father gave the little boy some chocolate—a very treat at the time. Miyazaki had no memory of the incident but says the actions were typical of his father--and are echoed when Jiro offers sponge cake to some obviously hungry children in The Wind Rises. As Miyazaki reminisces about the incident, he turns his attention to the contradiction between his fascination with war planes and his hatred of war, feelings that are mirrored in the complex character of Jiro.

The most interesting sequences in Kingdom offer a rare look at one of animation’s greatest talents at work. No comparable footage exists of Walt Disney at the height of his genius or of Winsor McCay in his prime, crafting key films in the history of animation.

Ironically, many of these scenes are distinguished by their sheer ordinariness: the banality of genius. In his biography of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Rodney Bolt noted that when they collaborated on “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” "Mozart and Da Ponte were not writing for posterity, but for survival: to earn a fee, to meet a deadline, to fill a slot at the Burgtheater, to flatter specific voices and make use of certain musicians, for the success that ensured the next commission.” Miyazaki is not a serene divinity handing down pronouncements from on high, but a harried worker, turning out drawings, coping with problems, enduring meetings and struggling with schedules.

The audience sees his excitement grow almost palpably when he gets the offbeat notion of choosing for the voice of Jiro not a professional actor, but Hideaki Anno—who animated the terrible God Warrior in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and created the watershed series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Although he’s initially surprised, Anno accepts the offer and turns in an effective performance.

In other moments, Miyazaki grumbles at the endless demands on his time, joins the staff in exercises broadcast on the radio, and walks around the studio. Like the inclusion of Kazuyoshi Tanaka’s “Production Diary” in the new edition of “The Art of Princess Mononoke,” Kingdom of Dreams reminds the viewer that for all brilliance of their films, Ghibli is still an animation studio. Making an animated film is making an animated film, whether it’s Strange Magic, Fantasia or Spirited Away.

Although it’s often fascinating, Kingdom cries out for an editor. Some images are repeated; shots of Miyazaki walking at night are little more than black frames; some scenes feel like filler. The Nippon TV special about making Spirited Away, which is included in multi-disc set of the film, offers a more focussed look at a younger Miyazaki at work.

A bigger problem is that Kingdom of Dreams begins following the creation not just of The Wind Rises, but of The Tale of Princess Kaguya as well. Miyazaki and Takahata worked on the films at same time, and the initial plan was to release them together, paralleling the release of Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro in 1988 (one of the oddest double bills in animation history). The filmmakers note that the slightly older Takahata discovered and mentored Miyazaki, and later mentored Suzuki and discovered composer Joe Hisaishi. But Takahata and his work simply disappear for most of the documentary. Production on Kaguya fell behind schedule: The Wind Rises was released in July, 2013; The Tale of Princess Kaguya in November, 2013. But Isao Takahata is simply too important a director to be given this short shrift.

These caveats aside, students of animation and fans of Miyazaki will welcome this rare opportunity to watch one of the greatest artists in the history of animation at work on what may well be his last feature. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness ends with the opening of The Wind Rises and Miyazaki’s announcement of his retirement, before the recent changes and lay-offs at Studio Ghibli.

AV Club

25 November 2014

The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness looks behind the curtain of Studio Ghibli

By David Ehrlich

“Filmmaking only brings suffering.” So declares legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki a little more than halfway into Mami Sunada’s The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness, a documentary that both chronicles the production of his final film, The Wind Rises, and reflects that project’s troubled soul. Miyazaki’s magnum opus, a bittersweet biopic about the cursed dreams of Zero fighter-plane designer Jiro Horikoshi, has been read as something of a self-portrait, but The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness suggests that we don’t know the half of it.

An unprecedentedly candid look inside Miyazaki’s working life—which seems to be the only kind he’s got—and the inner workings of his Studio Ghibli, Sunada’s doc was always going to be a vital piece of film history. But what makes The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness more than just a simple artifact, or a glorified DVD bonus feature, is the film’s clear-eyed ability to see Ghibli through the eyes of the people who work there. Just because it might be the most consistently brilliant movie studio of the last 25 years doesn’t mean that it’s value is assured, or its place in history secure.

From the very beginning, The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness refuses to be defined by its access (which is especially impressive given that Studio Ghibli’s fandom is so rabid, tickets to the company’s museum often have to be purchased a year in advance). Sunada, who had previously served as a production assistant or assistant director on some Hirokazu Kore-Eda films and a handful of other projects, recognizes that there’s a good reason for this film to exist beyond the fact that it can. The recent news that Ghibli may not be producing any more features preemptively colors The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness with a bittersweet finish, but Sunada’s documentary doesn’t just whimper at the studio’s end, it anticipates it—from the first day that Sunada began filming inside of Ghibli’s production office, she knew she was making a eulogy. When Miyazaki tells Sunada that “the future is clear—it’s going to fall apart,” it practically seems as though he’s reading from her script.

Filming from 2012 and into the early stretches of the following year, The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness catches Studio Ghibli as it crescendoes toward one of the most hectic times in the company’s history. Miyazaki and 100 of Ghibli’s animators are hard at work on The Wind Rises, while Isao Takahata—a legendary figure himself, whose snail-like production pace and reclusive behavior make him come off like the Terrence Malick of the animation community—slowly finishes The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya at a remote facility. All the same, and despite Sunada’s transparent determination to make her film a comprehensive overview of Studio Ghibli, this is ultimately a documentary about one man.

Miyazaki is almost as fun to watch as the movies that he makes, and he shares a remarkably open rapport with Sunada’s camera. He does calisthenics, he terrifies the office’s pet cat, and he patiently answers his assistant’s questions about Kiki’s Delivery Service. And though Miyazaki comes across as a thoroughly decent man, and a boss who commands a reverence that borders on fear, neither he nor Sunada hesitate to share his wry sense of humor, or his existential anxieties about the world and his contributions to it. “I’m a man of the 20th century,” Miyazaki sighs on the rooftop of his studio. “I don’t want to deal with the 21st.” He wrestles with the value of his films, and the work hours that people have sacrificed to him in order to bring them to life. He works from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day (except Sunday) like clockwork, because he doesn’t know what else to do, and the difficulty that causes a man so encumbered with concern for the world beyond his window is etched into his face (or what little of it can be seen beneath his iconic white beard).

Never feeling like a hagiography, in part because it shares the humility of its subject, The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness is an unfailingly human portrait, and its least-flattering moments—such as a tense business meeting with Miyazaki’s son, who is never seen in direct contact with his father—serve to casually normalize a man who most cinephiles can’t imagine beyond the scope of his work. Building to an emotional wallop that’s almost on par with anything found in one of Miyazaki’s or Takahata’s films, The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness is pornographically interesting for Studio Ghibli fans; as a delicate depiction of the artistic spirit, it’s equally essential viewing for everyone else.


5 September 2014

The Twilight Of Studio Ghibli Births Two New Films

Hayao Miyazaki may have retired, but a new doc about his company offers an unprecedented look at how he worked. Meanwhile, Ghibli’s latest animated release turns an old folktale into something truly epic.

By Alison Willmore

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

In August, rumors swirled that Studio Ghibli, the seminal Japanese animation studio responsible for classics like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away, was shutting down its feature film department. The world mourned, but it wasn’t actually true. Co-founder Toshio Suzuki later clarified that the company was only planning on taking a pause in production, but the more dramatic version of this news had already spread like wildfire. It was an announcement plenty of Ghibli followers had been expecting since the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki last year.

Studio Ghibli has produced movies from other directors, but for most people the name is inextricably tied to Miyazaki, to My Neighbor Totoro, to Princess Mononoke, to a landmark career in making animation that, while mostly aimed at children, has thrilled adults as well. In 2013, Miyazaki premiered what he labeled his last feature, The Wind Rises, a pensive movie about a conflicted aircraft designer whose planes are used during World War II. It received plenty of acclaim, but also felt like an end — what was Ghibli without the creative genius at its core, and without a successor to take his place?

The two Ghibli movies playing at the Toronto International Film Festival this year don’t answer that question, but present evidence that the studio’s key figures are far more caught up in contemplating this pivotal and possibly last phase in the existence of the studio than anyone in the audience. One is a documentary about the production of The Wind Rises that gives an unprecedented look into Miyazaki’s process, and the other is the final film from Isao Takahata, Ghibli’s third co-founder and a man even more reclusive than his better-known collaborator.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a geekily in-depth but not overly reverential doc that will probably bore non-Ghibli acolytes silly. But for fans, Mami Sunada’s film is like getting ushered backstage during a show by a legendary magician. The movie, which has been picked up for a yet-unspecified U.S. release by GKIDS, peers into the studio’s headquarters, located in a suburb of Tokyo, as if it’s an enchanted realm. That’s the way it’s first shot — in glimpses of carved wood, an atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows, stained glass, vines curling around the side of the building, and a lounging cat. But past that is the cluttered, highly trafficked space in which the animators, producers, lawyers, and marketers actually work, and Sunada doesn’t romanticize the creative process at the expense of also showing Ghibli as a business that’s kept afloat by hard work and financial maneuvering.

Miyazaki, who’s 72 years old at the time of filming, is almost never seen without his trusty apron. Twinkly and energetic, he resembles Geppetto presiding over his workshop — but that grandfatherly demeanor belies the frequently devastating observations he lets fly. He casually refers to animation and designing airplanes as “cursed dreams,” saying moviemaking is basically just a “grand hobby.” “Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now?” he muses. Discussing broadcasting partner NHK’s increasing restrictions on what they’re able to do, he claims, “The days of creative freedom are ending… In a sense, what we managed to do for 50 years is all coming to an end.”

There’s no need to be apocalyptic about Ghibli’s future, or Japan’s — Miyazaki has enough of a resigned sense of doom for anyone. Asked while standing on the greened roof that’s his frequent retreat whether he’s worried about the studio’s future, he calmly states, “The future is clear. It’s going to fall apart. I can already see it. What’s the use worrying? It’s inevitable. ‘Ghibli’ is just a random name I got from an airplane. It’s only a name.” Despite the fascinating details about the history of the company, the look at the process of the film getting made — from storyboarding to voice acting to press conference — and the intense glimpse of a meeting with son and reluctant animator Goro, Miyazaki remains a vibrant but enigmatic figure, a tattered idealist standing at the edge of a cliff he’s sure is crumbling.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

We only see Isao Takahata for a few minutes toward the end of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, though his presence is felt throughout the doc — he’s working on his own final film, which Ghibli initially planned to release at the same time as The Wind Rises. It didn’t quite work out, Takahata being terrible with budgets and schedules, but the resulting feature, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, is finally getting released in U.S. theaters on Oct. 17. Takahata, who’s best known for Grave of the Fireflies and who produced Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, hasn’t made a feature since 1999. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one hell of a swan song, the kind of film that’s beautiful and whimsical and then just eviscerates you, and its themes of reluctantly letting go feel all the more powerful in light of Sunada’s doc.

Based on a 10th century Japanese folktale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks little like other Ghibli fare. Its designs are simple, like line drawings filled in with watercolors, giving it an unusual but gorgeously old-fashioned look. The story is one of a bamboo cutter who finds a girl in the forest he believes is a gift from heaven. He and his wife raise her in the country, until similarly discovered caches of gold and fine robes convince him his adoptive daughter’s intended for a fine existence in the capital.

The film slows in the middle, but the early sequences of the fast-growing princess going from giggling baby to irrepressible toddler to lithe young girl (to the delight and bemusement of her adoring parents) are joyous, a glimmering dream of a country life. It’s a feeling that’s revisited later with building urgency as Kaguya’s origins become clear, all of it summed up in an ecstatic sequence panning over the countryside that’s a whirlwind of love and regret, and one of the year’s cinematic high points.

The story of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, like most folktales, has its share of tragedy, but its final emotions are so much more complicated — ones about wasted time, about happiness, about controlling your own destiny. And it’s appropriate that, like The Wind Rises, The Tale of Princess Kaguya summons an indescribable mixture of emotions, some of them mournful. How do you top off a lifetime of work in animation? For Takahata, and for Miyazaki, it’s with films that are as wistful as they are beautiful.

Daily Record

5 December 2014

Film review: ‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness’

By Alex Biese

This is how it all ends.

Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, whose 2001 masterpiece “Spirited Away” won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, announced recently that “The Wind Rises,” released last year in Japan and earlier this year in the U.S., will be his final feature film.

While the 73-year-old Miyazaki has toyed with the possibility of retirement in the past, he’s insisting that this time, it’s for real.

“I know I’ve said I would retire many times in the past,” he told the Associated Press last year. “Many of you must think, ‘Once again.’ But this time I am quite serious.”

“The Wind Rises” ends Miyazaki’s illustrious career on a divisive note.

A fictionalized biopic inspired by the life of Jiro Horikoshi — designer of Japan’s World War II combat plane the Mitsubishi A6M Zero — the nuanced and thoughtful film was dismissed by some viewers in his home country as anti-Japanese.

At its core, the film seems to be driven to explore the divide between an artist’s need to create and the industrial, commercial demands placed on those creations. Miyazaki’s vision of Horikoshi is a man compelled to design airplanes; it’s almost an afterthought that those very same planes are then used as instruments of war.

It turns out that there might not be that great a difference between Miyazaki’s depiction of Horikoshi and the director himself.

Directed by Mami Sunada, the new documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” offers an unprecedented glimpse inside the day-to-day operations of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio co-founded by Miyazaki in 1985.

The film provides an invaluable look at the inner workings of Ghibli, the studio that’s given the world such veritable classics as Miyazaki’s “Princess Monokoe” (1997), “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989), as well as Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988) and “Pom Poko” (1994).

Sunada makes an unlikely hero out of Toshio Suzuki, the harried producer tasked with shepherding the latest, and possibly last, features by both Miyazaki and Takahata — “The Wind Rises” and “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (2013) — into being. Suzuki seems like he’s had a lifetime of practice walking the line between art and commerce, striving to keep his creators happy while also being ever mindful of Ghibli’s bottom line.

For animation fans, the film is simply a must-see. It lets you peek over the shoulder of one of animation’s all-time greats. Well past the age of 70, Miyazaki’s passion to create, to bring images to moving life, is still abundantly clear — and it’s inspiring to see.

However, the film also shows Miyazaki as a resolutely 20th-century man working against the current in a 21st-century world. In a film landscape dominated by computer-generated animation, the by-hand Studio Ghibli method isn’t just old school, it’s endangered.

And the unspoken subtext here, with all the talk of Miyazaki’s impending retirement, is that the practice, and Ghibli itself, may not be around too much longer at all.

So, this is how it all ends. And, thanks to Sunda’s essential new film, viewers get to see the masters in action one last time.

Film Journal International

26 November 2014

Film Review: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Venture inside the hallowed hallways of Japan's most prestigious animation studio in this insightful documentary.

By Ethan Alter

Hayao Miyazaki is frequently referred to as "the Walt Disney of Japan," but it's hard to imagine ol' Walt sitting down for as intimate a documentary portrait as The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. For better and for worse, Disney understood the power of myths and worked hard to cultivate an aura of mystique and magic around the studio that bears his name, particularly after the smash success of its maiden feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The behind-the-scenes tours that he granted the general public—through TV shows like “Disneyland” and “Walt Disney Presents”—were as carefully manicured as the grand theme park he eventually constructed as a capper to his life's work. In fact, at that time and still today, kids are encouraged to think of the entire Disney empire as one vast amusement park, where its millions of employees ride pumpkin carriages to work and regularly have tea with Pinocchio, Ariel and Elsa.

Given the popularity that Miyazaki's films enjoy in his native land—his 2001 masterwork, Spirited Away, remains Japan's highest-grossing film of all time and three other movies, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, all fall within the top ten—it would have been easy for him to transform his operation, Studio Ghibli, into a similar multi-million-dollar-generating fantasy land. Throughout his career, however, he's stubbornly resisted embracing the mythological status that others are all too eager to foist upon him. That approach continues in this documentary, directed by Mami Sunada, who previously made the acclaimed 2011 nonfiction feature Death of a Salaryman. Having invited the filmmaker into his company, Miyazaki gives her free rein of the place and ready access to him as he goes about making what will become his final feature, 2013's The Wind Rises.

Like its creator, Studio Ghibli is about as unassuming a moviemaking factory as you can find, contained within a modest bungalow located in the Koganei section of Tokyo. (though there are satellite branches scattered around the metropolis, including the popular tourist attraction the Ghibli Museum, the closest Miyazaki has gotten to making his own version of Disneyland). And just as Miyazaki positions himself as a 20th-century man reluctantly living in the 21st century, the place itself feels frozen in time: Electric fans turn from the ceiling as Miyazaki and his team of artists hunch over cluttered desks, drawing every frame of the film they're currently working on by hand. He can't completely reject the advances in animation technology, however; more than a few computers are spotted around the place, to aid in compositing and editing, among other production processes.

Based on this environment he's built for himself, you might expect Miyazaki to be the grumpiest of grumpy old men. And as at least one employee remarks, he can be a demanding boss—an attitude that perhaps stems from his creative process, which involves him inventing the story (and much of the dialogue) for a film as he draws it. Sunada's camera does capture several moments where Miyazaki lets his cynicism shine through, whether he's contemplating Japan's shift towards more reactionary politics or the future of his own studio after his impending retirement. He can be equally harsh on his own work, at one point dismissing 1992's Porco Rosso as a "foolish film" and repeatedly expressing ambivalence about the way The Wind Rises is taking shape.

But that mordant streak is balanced by an obvious passion for his art form and a wry affection for his friends and favorite employees, including longtime producer Toshio Suzuki, the other main character in Sunada's documentary. It's through him that we're provided a glimpse into Ghibli's business operations, as Suzuki attends meetings with the merchandising department, arranges press conferences and travels to trade shows to display the studio's wares. He's also our conduit to two other key Ghibli figures, Miyazaki's son Goro—who has helmed two features, but appears reluctant to embrace his status as the heir apparent—and the director's contemporary Isao Takahata, whose credits include Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas and, most recently, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which was in production at the same time as The Wind Rises. A friend and collaborator for decades, Miyazaki is nevertheless frustrated by his partner's working methods, which are marked by indecision and extensive delays. Takahata is largely absent from the film, appearing on camera only towards the end, but it's clear that he looms large in Miyazaki's life, if only as an example of the kind of artist he doesn't want to be.

Most biographical portraits of filmmakers devote a sizeable chunk of screen time to showcasing well-chosen clips from the subject's movies—a surefire way to get the audience smiling and clapping. On the other hand, those clips can also become a crutch, with the finished film essentially turning into one long highlight reel. With The Kingdom of Madness and Dreams, Sunada sidesteps that altogether by simply not showcasing any sequences from Miyazaki's filmography. The only footage we see of The Wind Rises are scenes that the director himself is looking at on an editing machine or in a screening room, and the only Totoros in the frame are the stuffed variety that they sell in the Ghibli Museum gift shop. (Sunada does deploy one clip montage towards the end of the movie, a beautiful assembly of moments that underscores a point that Miyazaki makes about the way animation can change your perception of the world.) It's a striking choice, and one that again underlines her subject's general disinterest in being deified as an icon. Audiences around the world may revere his films, but for Miyazaki, making them is just another day at the office.

The Film Stage

28 November 2014

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness Theatrical Review

By Amanda Waltz

The fate of Studio Ghibli has remained uncertain since its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement last August. Since then, rumors have swirled, with reports claiming that the Japanese animation giant will keep going, while others, including statements from Miyazaki himself, appear more skeptical. But when Mami Sunada first stepped inside Ghibli in the spring of 2012, the studio was very much alive and in the process of creating more of its signature hand-drawn work.

Sunada’s documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness follows the parallel productions of Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and his partner Isao Takahata‘s The Tale of the Princess Kayuga, two films that would punctuate the end of an era, along with the forthcoming When Marnie Was There. Archival images and footage, interviews, and comprehensive montages provide a rare, and possibly final look at the studio’s history, and its legacy as the creative force behind some of cinema’s most spectacular animated features, including My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Princess Mononoke.

The film focuses mainly on Miyazaki, the beloved, grandfatherly face of Ghibli who spends much of his screen time contemplating over cigarettes and laughing at his own impatient musings. “Why must I keep drawing when I’m past 70?” he asks as he diligently renders storyboards for one of his most personal, and conflicted works. Where Takahata remains a reclusive, largely unseen figure holed away in a separate facility, the talkative Miyazaki welcomes and befriends the camera, offering it his many views on life and career with a wide smile. Even while he professes dissatisfaction with filmmaking, saying at one point that it only brings “suffering,” his moments of apparent excitement say otherwise, especially when he reacts to the idea of hiring Ghibli alum Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) to do voice work.

Despite his protests, Miyazaki’s motivation for making The Wind Rises soon becomes abundantly clear – as he delves further into his passion project, which dramatizes the real-life struggles of WWII Japanese fighter plane designer Jiro Horikoshi, he openly grapples with the contradiction between his own anti-war beliefs and his love of military aircraft, as well as the lingering issues with his father, a man who became rich selling wartime airplane parts. Helping Miyazaki along the way is his “right-hand woman” and production manager, Sankichi, his long-time producer, Toshio Suzuki, and his cadre of loyal animators, each of whom play a role in making their director’s deeply personal vision a reality. Their hard work and efficiency makes for a bittersweet triumph, as the film’s completion not only leads to another Ghibli masterpiece, but an end to their close-knit family.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness does the world a service by chronicling and preserving, in a most charming and understated way, Miyazaki-era Ghibli and the human element beneath its creative genius. The film’s non-cynical depiction of its subjects also stands as a testament to the artistic spirit and the complex and fragile, yet ultimately worthwhile journey into its pursuits.

The Guardian

6 November 2014

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness review – idiosyncratic and moving

This portrait of Studio Ghibli is as wistful and measured as the animation giant’s best work

By Mike McCahill

With news that Studio Ghibli is winding down production, this intimate, all-access study of the animation giant’s tranquil inner sanctum assumes an additional charge: future generations may be as grateful for its footage of Hayao Miyazaki sketching as we now are of early Beatles Super 8 films. Like much of the studio’s best work, Kingdom takes the form of a measured, wistful leave-taking – a guided farewell tour. Miyazaki roams the ateliers in his craft apron, trying to pass on 20th-century etiquette to the kids inking The Wind Rises’ fuselage; outside, blossom falls and commercial pressures mount, oblivious to the exacting, time-intensive work required to conjure such committed images from scratch.(“Most of our world is rubbish,” sighs Miyazaki, making any number of recent digimations blush.) From its reflective female voiceover to the Ghibli cat’s frequent cameos, it’s as idiosyncratic, heartfelt and moving as anything to have emerged from the studio’s gates.

The Hollywood Reporter

2 September 2014

'The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness' ('Yume to kyoki no ohkoku'): Toronto Review

Mami Sunada's documentary shines a light on the inner sanctum of legendary anime producers Studio Ghibli

By Clarence Tsui

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.

Movie Mezzanine

29 December 2014

"The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness"

By Jake Mulligan

Spectres of the past line the halls of Studio Ghibli. The frames of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Mami Sunada’s documentary about the studio’s rush to complete Hayao Miyazaki’s 2013 film The Wind Rises, are decorated with them. A sketch of Kiki hovers over an artist’s desk and concept art for Nausicaa rests ominously above the workplace; Kingdom’s contemplative tone renders them not as symbols of past accomplishments, but as totems of the high expectations facing down Miyazaki and his team. Filmed in quiet, reverent close-up, even a plush Totoro takes on a menacing quality, as if challenging his own creator: The next film best be worthy.

Kingdom of Dreams’ primary dramatic conflict is that Miyazaki may not be up to the task. Emotionally distraught, he invites Sunada into his home, where he shows us his meticulously annotated chart of recent disasters – natural, political, and environmental. Without mincing words, he suggests that the end of human civilization seems near to his eyes. (The end-of-days reckoning of films like Princess Mononoke takes on a far more personal appearance as he does.) And Miyazaki has micro concerns to match his macro ones: At 72 years old, he’s finding that his career as an animator has left him unfulfilled, and unsure that he’s contributed anything of worth to the world. Some wondered how The Wind Rises, which concerns an airplane engineer whose life turns tragic when his work is put to wartime means, related to the aging Miyazaki. Hearing him lament an existence spent on commercial causes, Wind reveals itself as no less than a veiled autobiography.

Even Miyazaki’s boundless imagination is facing strife. The Wind Rises is over-budget, behind schedule, and remains incomplete. Miyazaki notes that this is his first film aimed at an audience other than children – and, throughout the production, he fails to find the tone he wants to strike as a result. (Miyazaki’s films don’t have scripts, nor writers: He draws them himself, storyboard-by-storyboard, scene-by-scene, unsure of how his films will end until the endpoint of production itself.) Stress colors each moment. There’s mourning in the air, a melancholic lament for the end of a master’s career – but nobody has time to give in to the dirge, because there’s too much work to be done.

Never content to merely provide a eulogy for Studio Ghibli’s animation house nor for traditional hand-drawn animation in general (both are likely living out their last days) Kingdom instead uses discontinuous editing to track the way production moves from Miyazaki’s sketchpad, to the production team (where the frames are completed) to the post-production team (voice work and editing) to the marketing team (everything from press conferences to posters) and eventually, to audiences. Sunada, rather than follow any one individual’s narrative, documents the stops taken on an idea’s path to the public.

It’s this refusal to kowtow to the cliche of the director’s unquestioned, domineering authorship – suggesting instead that auteurism (Miyazaki’s one-man, one-sketch, one-shot style; the films deeply influenced by his own psychology and doubts) and below-the-line craftsmanship (the workers bringing color and life to those frames, at their own discretion, independent of Miyazaki) are intertwined, co-dependent forces – that propels Kingdom far beyond the ranks of the DVD bonus features it superficially resembles. That Sunada dedicates two scenes to Miyazaki’s son Goru struggling to find the inspiration needed to direct his own next film, confirms her interest in the relationship between a director and his work. Production requires body and soul, her film suggests: the crew the former, the filmmaker the latter.

Kingdom, then – at once a work of documentation, reverence, and filmmaking philosophy – recalls Lillian Ross’ seminal work of long-form journalism, Picture. That book documented the creation of John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage, dedicating chapters to workers above and below the line, providing exposition only when necessary to advance its own chosen narrative; a dramatic structure Sanada translates to the moving image impeccably, providing an impression of the creative process with comparable comprehensiveness. One can only hope Kingdom is afforded a life independent of Ghibli, as Picture has claimed independent of Red Badge’s own legacy. A work this vast – concerning authorship, filmmaking, the hierarchy of the workplace, and the daunting responsibility brought on by one’s own reputation – should not remain a footnote in the Ghibli canon.

New York Daily News

24 November 2014

‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,’ movie review

Famed animator Hayao Miyazaki gets a well-earned tribute in documentary about Japan's Studio Ghibli

By Elizabeth Weitzman

It appears Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro”) can infuse every project with magic. This seemingly ordinary biographical documentary about the retiring animation master unfolds, at a deceptively gentle pace, into a work of immense beauty.

Director Mami Sunada follows Miyazaki as the staff at Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli — including his longtime colleagues Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki — work on what he claims will be his final film, “The Wind Rises.” Tender narration, thoughtful editing and the wry insights of a brilliant and dedicated artist combine into a tribute that manages to be both restrained and emotional. Fans in particular will be enthralled by this glimpse into the inner workings of Studio Ghibli, but everyone can appreciate the compelling sight of a rare talent winding down his life’s work.

New York Times

27 November 2014

Behind the Fanciful Creatures and Wide-Eyed Waifs

‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,’ Inside Studio Ghibli

By Ben Kenigsberg

“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” documents the inner workings of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio, at a time when its two most celebrated directors were making new films. The movie largely focuses on Hayao Miyazaki, who formally announced his retirement after “The Wind Rises” had its premiere in 2013. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” by Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies”), Mr. Miyazaki’s discoverer and friendly rival, opened in New York this year.

The documentary includes the standard behind-the-scenes material, showcasing the involvement of the producer Toshio Suzuki and capturing filmmaking elements, from penciling to vocal casting. We learn that the production process begins before Mr. Miyazaki has completed storyboards. “I’ve had staff tell me they didn’t understand what was going on in my films,” he says. With “Spirited Away” (2002), he adds, “even I didn’t know.”

While Mr. Miyazaki has an intense work ethic, Mr. Takahata is said to be unable to meet deadlines or budget constraints. The mystery of his progress becomes a running joke. (“He’s trying not to finish it, isn’t he?” Mr. Miyazaki asks.) Given that “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” had the bumpier production, it’s disappointing that its director appears here only briefly.

“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is mostly a portrait of Mr. Miyazaki, both at home and at work, where he is beloved. (We even meet the studio cat.) This affectionate documentary is more of a bonbon for longtime fans than an entryway for a broader audience.

New York Village Voice

26 November 2014

Bummed Over Miyazaki's Retirement? Watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

By Simon Abrams

Riveting behind-the-scenes documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness offers some comfort for viewers facing a world without new feature films directed by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki. By distinguishing Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli, the production company he co-founded, writer/director Mami Sunada presents Ghibli as an institution that has grown beyond Miyazaki's personal vision, juxtaposing Miyazaki's tireless perfectionism with his employees' unsentimental feelings about their own work. Filmed during the production of The Wind Rises, Miyazaki's final feature-length project, this doc presents Ghibli as a creative collective united by what an unidentified employee calls a common need to make superior art. "What's important here is doing what you want," he says, before adding "no guarantees of employment here...If Ghibli ceases to appeal to you, just quit. Because I'll do the same!" Sunada shows how this bracing mission statement mirrors Miyazaki's own critical worldview in a later scene where Miyazaki dismisses fanboy airplane aficionados who "don't learn" from their fetishistic obsessions. In that sense, Sunada films Miyazaki like he says, and not as he does, when she highlights Ghibli animators whose professionalism proves Miyazaki is wrong when he says Ghibli will "fall apart" without him. For example, one creator frankly describes working with Miyazaki as a "tough" experience: "The more talented you are, the more he demands...if there's anything in you that you want to protect, you may not want to be around him long." Sunada's critical distance makes Kingdom of Dreams and Madness the clear-eyed celebration that Ghibli's artists deserve.


4 September 2014

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness’

Revealing glimpse behind the scenes at Studio Ghibli shows Hayao Miyazaki at work on his final masterpiece, 'The Wind Rises.'

By Peter Debruge

For animation lovers, peering inside the walls of Studio Ghibli is like being granted a guided tour of Santa’s workshop. Magic happens here, and though Mami Sunada isn’t the first documentary filmmaker permitted to observe toon maestro Hayao Miyazaki in his creative element (the others have been for TV or homevideo bonus features), she couldn’t have picked a better time: GKids-acquired “Kingdom of Dreams and Magic” observes the making of Miya-san’s final feature, “The Wind Rises,” while elsewhere in the studio, business partner and friendly rival Isao Takahata, struggles to complete his own career capper, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.”

Though suitable for audiences of all ages, Sunada’s “Kingdom” isn’t so different from the merchandising coming out of Ghibli these days: Yes, kids will be interested, but it’s really aimed at the adult fans. Not until the film’s last 10 minutes, and even then for no more than 40 seconds, does she insert footage from Miyazaki’s incredible oeuvre — a filmography that includes “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and that flawless diamond of the form, “My Neighbor Totoro.”

It’s a surprising approach, given the prevailing trend among behind-the-scenes film docus to depend almost entirely on the work of the people they profile. Instead, Sunada reveals the work behind the work, tracking “The Wind Rises” from preliminary storyboards to last-minute alternations, revealing a carefully ordered system where Miyazaki serves as team captain to more than 100 artists — hardly elves (though giggling production manager Sankichi could pass for one), but trained professionals who follow his lead, even in daily calisthenics exercises.

Despite the discipline of his routine, which extends from 11 in the morning to 9 at night every day, Miyazaki remains an instinctively organic storyteller, skipping over the screenwriting step in order to channel what he sees in head directly to sketches. With stopwatch in hand, he pictures how each shot will play out, then tries to pin down these images on the page, to be redrawn, colored and animated by his team.

Making no attempt to match the visual impact of Ghibli’s output, Sunada (who acts as her own d.p.) contents herself with casual, though intimate fly-on-the-wall footage. And yet she has taken something vital from Miyazaki’s aesthetic after all, giving herself room for digressions and atmospheric details, which give auds a flavor of Miyazaki’s working and living spaces: there’s company cat Ushiko sunbathing in the garden, the touching letter he receives from a man his father helped during the war and the trompe-l’oeil windows painted on otherwise blank walls throughout the building.

One wouldn’t expect much conflict to arise in such an environment, which might make the pic’s two-hour running time seem excessive, though Sunada picks up on an interesting tension during her time spent at Ghibli: While Miyazaki respects fellow director Takahata, the two couldn’t have a more different working process, and though “The Wind Rises” and “Princess Kaguya” are scheduled to be released at the same time, we learn that Takahata never delivers on budget or schedule.

Apart from a few brief oncamera remarks included near the end, Takahata remains mostly an offscreen presence, frustrating his colleagues, including producer Toshio Suzuki and the babysitter-like Nishimura, assigned to keep him on track. Whereas Miyazaki gives the impression that artistic inspiration comes easy, Takahata’s struggles remind that creativity can be an elusive mistress (“He’s trying to not finish it,” says Miyazaki, who owes the five-years-older “Kaguya” helmer his first professional break) and one that doesn’t necessarily fit into the more assembly-line-style system practiced by American toon studios.

Still, it’s surprising to hear how cynical some of late-career Miyazaki’s worldviews now sound, colored by the Fukushima nuclear disaster and recent economic downturn. The docu offers valuable insights into the background and personal dimension of “The Wind Rises” (plus the somewhat surprising revelation that in his original ending, Miyazaki planned to kill off all his characters), summarized thus: “People who design airplanes and machines, no matter how much they believe what they do is good, the winds of time eventually turn them into tools of industrial civilization. They’re cursed dreams. Animation, too.”

The atmosphere inside Studio Ghibli may suggest a zen-like idyll, but animation is a painstaking — and sometimes painful — process, and though shaggy and somewhat ordinary in places, Sunada’s tour of the “Kingdom” makes us appreciate the magic all the more.

The Verge

28 November 2014

'The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness' reveals the tortured genius of Studio Ghibli

Hayao Miyazaki bares his soul in this priceless documentary

By Sam Byford

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.