[The Kingdom of Dreams & Madness screens on Saturday Dec. 6 & Tuesday Dec. 9 at Whitsell Auditorium. Both screenings are at 7pm. Tickets here.]
Review by Jay Clarke
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Mami Sunada’s documentary about director Hayao Miyazaki and famed animation house Studio Ghibli, is not totally unlike a famous Basho haiku. Indulge me here. The haiku reads as follows:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water.
It’s an easy metaphor but apt for a documentary that seems to be for the Ghibli obsessive alone but then slowly ripples out to tackle much larger subjects—the conflict between old friends, the pain and process of creation, the burden of history and the dour state of the modern world. If the movie was intended as a long advertisement or career pat-on-the-back for Ghibli and Miyazaki, it fails miserably. There’s far too much humanity (read: duplicity, frustration, jealousy, career exhaustion, doubt, moments of hard-earned beauty) to pitch the movie as a sop for longtime fans. As an honest look inside an animation powerhouse and a creative genius, warts and all, it scores high points.
Ghibli is a famously insular world. Early on, the film appears content to keep its distance and respectfully show the working life and relationship between director Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki and the nearly 400 animators, lawyers and staff that have helped make Ghibli an international power. The film closely follows the creation of The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s historical biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the controversial creator of Japan’s WWII Zero fighter plane. As storyboards are drawn and colored ad infinitum, voice talent put through their paces, plot points worried over like beads, Miyazaki slowly reveals himself as a difficult, emotional philosopher, a kind of wise trickster, a child with a thousand yard stare. A great artist, essentially. He stops by the children’s nursery everyday and says things like “it’s the children that keep me going.” He muses if a distant rooftop could be jumped over, if a tree branch will break under his weight should he climb it and then, seemingly without any dissonance in his own mind, if the world will end soon and how. “I don’t ever feel happy in my daily life,” he says near the end, ever-present cigarette in hand.
Call it beginner’s mind, call it the curse of the cynical dreamer or a perfect example of a man who embodies negative capability. Miyazaki is a fascinating character full of wild contradictions (making a sympathetic movie about the creator of the Zero while being a staunch anti-war activist is only the tip of the iceberg). It is fitting that Miyazaki’s retirement announcement begins “I hope to work for ten more years.” His method is not so much to confound as it is to allow the plus and minus, the shadow and the light, to exist at the same time. And his films show it. But there is a lot of grey area in that philosophy and it’s not always easy to work within.
Miyazaki’s dedication to his craft says one thing very clear: despite the muck and dreck of life, there is the possibility to continue on, to do the best one can, to finish what one sets about doing and maybe, in the end, that is precisely what life is for. In this way, the film is, and I never thought I’d say this with a straight face, inspirational. Miyazaki talks openly about the void left in his country after Fukushima, the blows taken by Japan’s continued economic recession and the scars still visible from its sustained madness in the ’30s and ’40s, and yet, he works everyday but Sunday from 11am to 9pm. I can’t go on, I’ll go on indeed.
Maybe it’s from years of seeing that permanent rictus grin on all things Disney and their ilk, but you stop expecting too much when the curtain finally gets pulled back on any kind of studio, especially a studio that trucks in a child’s dreams. But children, like adults, want the truth more than anything. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness says the truth here is simple: some studios simply want to inflate their profit margins and some studios want to create art.