The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Sunada, 2013)

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is an intriguing documentary with three distinct elements. It provides a fascinating history of the early days of Studio Ghibli, it highlights the method behind the genius of Hayao Miyazaki, and it acts as a behind the scenes feature to the making of Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises. For the most part, it pulls off this blend surprisingly well by integrating the different aspects of the story without breaking them into segments.

Given that this movie was filmed during the production of The Wind Rises, the behind the scenes element naturally receives the most screen time, and there were a few scenes when I wished that a little more time had been spent on the history and animation procedures. However, by focusing on one of Miyazaki’s most recent endeavors, this documentary showcases the artistry of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli through the eyes and camera of a respectful fan and talented filmmaker.

Watching the development of The Wind Rises reveals how deeply personal a film it was for Miyazaki. That was clear from the film itself, but The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness adds another level of insight regarding Miyazaki’s childhood, his love for planes, and his father’s work as an aircraft engineer. In one scene, Miyazaki struggles with his desire to depict the zero fighter jets as the cool planes they were, while simultaneously depicting the terrible things for which they were used.

The most interesting thing that I learned from watching The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is that Miyazaki does not write scripts or outlines. Instead, he literally sketches drafts for his films.  He does this by drawing storyboards which tell a story purely through visuals. Consequently, his production team often does not know where a film is going or how it will end. Miyazaki claims that even he did not know how Spirited Away was going to turn out. After the visual aspect of a film is completed, dialogue is added in postproduction.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness has the same natural, unscripted feel as Miyazaki’s filmmaking process. It seems to me that director, editor, and cinematographer Mami Sunada filmed for several months and then pieced her story together from the material she had. The result is a documentary that feels genuine, because the scenes she selected have enough continuity not to be disjointed. There are cuts within monologues, but that seems like Sunada removed extraneous dialogue, not that she was doing multiple takes.

Sunada maintains an observant distance as she follows her subjects. The mid-distance tracking shots from her point of view and the slow scans across the studio’s art work reminded me of a child cautiously and excitedly accompanying his parent on a take your child to work day. The film has the same enthusiasm, and it quietly captures what it is like to work at Japan’s famous anime studio. Of course there is beautiful animation, but Sunada also shows business meetings, planning sessions, exercise breaks for an entire floor, disagreements, friendly rivalries between coworkers, and Miyazaki’s criticism of his weaker works.

An animator and director (Miyazaki), a second director (Isao Takahata), and a producer (Toshio Suzuki) met over thirty-five years ago and after a few collaborations which reached their apex in 1984 with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, they formed Studio Ghibli in 1985. Even with his pending retirement, Miyazaki says he “Hopes to continue working for ten more years.” The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness shows us the beautiful output of his career thus far, and it gives us good reason to hope that the next ten years could see works equally beautiful, even as he focuses on short films rather than features.

The film is available for digital download beginning December 9, 2014, and will be available on DVD starting January 29, 2015.


Evan Cogswell blogs about film at Catholic Cinephile.

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