Monday, November 24, 2014

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

With its meandering pace and frequent cutaways to plants or animals, Mami Sunada’s documentary about Japan’s Studio Ghibli in some ways mirrors the studio’s animated features. But while there’s greatness in the nonsense and nonsequiturs of soulful films like Spirited Away and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which touch on nearly everything that really matters in human existence, Sunada’s goals seem far more modest. Providing a fan’s-eye view of the studio with an emphasis on director Hayao Miyazaki, she shadows Miyazaki as he goes about his daily routines and films business meetings and press conferences. And, in voiceovers she reads in a girlishly enthusiastic tone of voice, she fills in details about Miyazaki’s long, often complicated relationships with director and cofounder Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, the two other main creative forces behind Studio Ghibli.

Despite the director’s fan-girlish gusto, the documentary is no hagiography. The studio seems cool at first, reminiscent of a tech startup given the calisthenics the staff do every day at their desks and the in-house cat (which Sunada often cuts to) and daycare center. But then an animator says many of her colleagues have been worn down by trying to meet Miyazaki’s demands, losing their motivation and their hope. “If there’s something in you that you want to protect, you may not want to be with him too long,” she says carefully. You sense the chilling effect of Miyazaki’s dark side in the halting precision with which she chooses her words, and in the diffidence nearly everyone but Miyazaki’s young assistant, Sankichi, shows around him. In one telling scene, Miyazaki completes the script to The Wind Rises and Sankichi urges the staff to come celebrate in his studio. A few people tentatively enter, stand around awkwardly for a few moments without saying a word, then sidle back to work.

Meanwhile, a portrait emerges of Miyazaki as an artist who finds creative freedom by adhering strictly to routines. Sunada repeatedly shows him climbing the stairs to his studio, where he works, six days a week, from precisely 11 in the morning to nine at night. Part of every Sunday, his one day off, is spent cleaning up the local river that he and a group of fellow nature lovers took on as a cause years ago. Sunada’s admiring questions and Sankichi’s bubbly enthusiasm bring out a playful looseness in the director, who confesses that even he doesn’t know “what was going on” in Spirited Away, and who talks about the horrors of WWII and the nuclear disasters that helped shape him as a pacifist and a passionate ecologist. He also expresses serious reservations about the future of the planet and the work to which he has devoted his adult life. “How do we know movies are even worthwhile?” he asks. “If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby?”

Unfortunately, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is hesitant to show the great work that resulted from that “grand hobby.” Apparently assuming that her viewers are familiar with all of Studio Ghibli’s films, Sunada never includes any clips from the classics she refers to, and only rarely shows bits of The Tale of The Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises, the films Takahata and Miyazaki were completing during the making of this documentary. More than once, music swells and people tear up on screen after they’ve watched climactic scenes of which the audience is shown only snippets. A film about filmmakers should leave one wanting to see the fruits of their labor, so as to better appreciate what makes them so special, but Sunada’s doc becomes talky and static in ways that Studio Ghibli’s work never are.

Written for Slant Magazine

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