The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, is a fascinating film for a wide variety of reasons.
The main one is Hayao Miyazaki himself, a gruff, prickly personality who has a love/hate relationship with making animated films. He has devoted his life to something that he has large doubts about. He says, "Today, all of humanity's dreams are cursed somehow. Beautiful yet cursed dreams. I'm not even talking about wanting to be rich or famous. Screw that. That's just hopeless. What I mean is, how do we know movies are even worthwhile? If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby? Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now? Most of our world is rubbish. It's difficult."
I would love to know if Miyazaki thought this way when he was younger or if there has been a darkening of his view over time. There are artists who create to escape from themselves; to imagine a world better than the one they live in. Miyazaki may be someone who has created pleasant fantasies to counterbalance his tendency to pessimism. The film reveals that Miyazaki's original intention was to have Jiro, the main character of The Wind Rises, die at the end, but he changed his mind. Miyazaki affirms life, even as he questions its result.
The inside of Studio Ghibli is a lovely workspace, with large windows providing natural light and a rooftop garden that Miyazaki visits often. It was interesting to compare the technical process to what's common in North America. No animation disks are used, just floating pegs on tables with built in light boxes. The Japanese all use the pegs at the top, in contrast to the North American preference for bottom pegs. The backgrounds are still painted on paper and shot on an animation camera, though the animation drawings are brought into the computer for colouring and compositing with the backgrounds. I was aware that voices are post-synched to picture, but the voice of Jiro was not even cast until much animation had been done. In North America, characters and animation are built on top of voices.
I knew nothing of producer Toshio Suzuki before seeing this film, but I have nothing but admiration for him now. He is the producer that every director wants and needs. He is level-headed and patient. He is an ambassador for the studio with merchandisers, distributors and the press. He works very hard, but never seems tired or on edge. He is the calm in the middle of any storm. While Miyazaki seems intimidating at times, Suzuki is never less than friendly. Of the two, I suspect that spending time with Suzuki would be a lot more pleasant.
Unfortunately, the film has very little of Ghibli's other director, Isao Takahata. We never see any part of his Princess Kaguya in production. We do, however, meet the young producer in charge of that film, Yoshiaki Nishimura. Takahata is apparently famous for being unable to stick to a schedule. Initially, Ghibli intended to release Princess Kaguya simultaneously with The Wind Rises, but Takahata was unable to make the deadline. Nishimura is the one who had to deal with trying to get the film finished. In the DVD supplement called Ushiko Investigates! (Ushiko being the studio cat), Nishimura says, "I believe many works in this world are unnecessary. I think there are a lot of them like that. At one point, I thought if I had the time to be making anime like that, I'd rather devote my energy somewhere else. A Takahata-san movie will be a masterpiece for 10 years, 20 years. I figured it would be a work you'd want to see again and again. Create 100 things in 10 years or create 1 thing in 10 years." At Ghibli, while money must play a role in shaping the films, it isn't the only standard that's applied.
The same DVD extra contains a moment so brazen, I am amazed that it was included. John Lasseter visits the studio and on camera talks about his admiration for Miyazaki's films. The two of them seem to have a warm, personal relationship as they talk to each other and move through the studio. When Miyazaki is alone, Sunada asks Miyazaki, "What do you like about Lasseter-san?" Miyazaki's response is "What do I like about him? That's not the kind of relationship we have with each other. I need Lasseter. He's necessary." The same man who can create the warmth of Totoro can be cold, calculating and inconsiderate.
If you wish to know more about Studio Ghibli and if you wish to get closer to Miyazaki, this documentary is essential. It supplements the two volumes of Miyazaki's collected writings. There are no documentaries about North American animation studios that are like it. Even The Sweatbox doesn't come close, as everyone at Disney is always conscious of public relations. No one speaks as bluntly on camera as Miyazaki. Furthermore, if you have worked in animation, watch Toshio Suzuki show how a brilliant producer operates.
This documentary is a precious record of a great director and a great studio that have earned a lasting place in animation history and in the hearts of animation fans around the world.