Film Review: ‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness’

Inside Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli
By Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com
November 27, 2014 Updated: December 4, 2014

For millions of animation fans, Studio Ghibli is like Disney without the weird cryogenic baggage. Year after year, Hayao Miyazaki and his team of animators have produced absolute classics that transcend genre. He has now apparently, by-and-large, for the most part, more-or-less retired, but Mami Sunada documented the master at work on his final masterwork, “The Wind Rises.”

Sunada quietly observes the Studio Ghibli comings and goings, but still captures plenty of drama in “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.”

Studio Ghibli might only continue as a licensing company, but it ended its original productions on artistic high notes. Both Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” and Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” are extraordinarily accomplished capstones to their legendary careers.

While Miyazaki’s farewell film was a monster hit at the Japanese box office, Takahata’s was not. They were also supposed to be released simultaneously, but even at the start of “Kingdom,” everyone realizes that is highly unlikely to happen.

While there is plenty of pencil-sharpening and studious sketching going on in “Kingdom,” real conflict emerges between the venerable Miyazaki and the largely unseen Takahata, who gave Miya-san his start in the business decades ago at the Tohei studio. They share an awful lot of history together, but their working methods could not be further apart.

Hayao Miyazaki working on
Hayao Miyazaki working on “The Wind Rises,” his last film with Studio Ghibli. (2013 dwango/GKIDS)

Somehow, as Sunada illustrates in detail, Miyazaki is able to put inspiration on a timetable, which you have to respect, because he made “Spirited Away.” In contrast, it happens when it happens for Takahata, which you have to respect because he made “Grave of the Fireflies”—unless you happen to be Miyazaki.

Even though Sunada observes events almost entirely from Miyazaki’s perspective, it is clear their relationship is very complicated. While the film consistently shows how comfortable Miyazaki is in his role as part studio taskmaster and part twinkly-eyed ambassador of goodwill, whenever Takahata’s delays are mentioned, he sounds like Seinfeld cursing Newman. Yet, with his next breath, he is likely to praise his former mentor’s past achievements.

That strange dynamic truly elevates “Kingdom” above yet another dry process doc, like Farocki’s “Sauerbruch Hutton Architects.” It also helps that director-editor-cinematographer Sunada is a legit filmmaker with an eye for the telling moment rather than an overawed fan cranking out a DVD extra.

As when she chronicled her father’s final days in “Death of a Japanese Salesman,” she is quite sensitively attuned to the human drama that accompanies any sort of finality.

There are very few animated clips seen throughout “Kingdom,” which speaks highly of Sunada’s confidence in her subjects. It is justified. Miyazaki is a thoroughly engaging presence, as are longtime Ghibli producer-peacemaker Toshio Suzuki and “Evangelion” animator Hideaki Anno, who gave voice to the idealistic protagonist of “The Wind Rises.”

Sunada documents some true cinema history, ultimately marking the end of an era. A fitting coda to a great career, “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is recommended for all serious students of animation and fans of the studio when it opens Nov. 28 at the IFC Center.

 

‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness’
Director: Mami Sunada
Documentary
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Release date: Nov. 28
Not rated

3.5 stars out of 5

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com

Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com