Movie Review: “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” takes us inside Studio Ghibli

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“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is a great name for a documentary about Hayao Miyazaki and his animation house, Japan’s Studio Ghibli.
His Oscar winning “Spirited Away” and fantasies such as “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Ponyo” established him as the greatest practitioner of Japanimation — and-drawn anime rendered in bright shades of watercolor.
And Steampunkish titles such as “Howl’s Moving Castle” and other works, including “Spirited Away,” have a hint of madness about them.
Even he admits, on camera here, that he doesn’t know what “Spirited Away” was about.
Then there’s the very idea of preserving so much of the hand-crafted way of making movies in an age of computer-generated slickness. Madness.
“I am a man of the 20th century,” the septuagenarian grins, “I don’t want to deal with the 21st!”
But six days a week, he showed up at the animation company he built, storyboarding his pictures, rewarding himself with champagne and a cigarette when they were done. He and the staff of 400 would take their mid-day calisthenics break at their drawing boards or computer animation work stations. And every day, at dusk, they’d gather on the peaceful, lush roof garden and look at the sunset.
Now he’s retired. Mami Sunada’s languorous documentary takes us inside his work and his life for a glimpse of the pacifist whose final film was about the designer of the Japanese Zero warplane, the visionary who didn’t write his own scripts, but whose poetic films capture a worldview that is animated, through and through.
Sunada scampers after Miya-san with her camera, a tireless, playful man in a work apron presiding over an empire that includes movies, TV series, “museums,” product tie-ins and a worldwide brand. The name may just be “a random name I got from an airplane,” he admits (in Japanese, with English subtitles), but Studio Ghibli is almost as famous to animation fans as Disney.
Sunada documents Miya-san’s career as a director and shows him working on that final “Zero” film, “The Wind Rises.” He ponders its message, changes the ending, fusses over storyboards and frets over the film’s reception. The last thing he wants is a militaristic rabble rouser coming out in the middle of a Japanese election year. Miyazaki has no use for nuclear power or right wing “Zero fanatics,” who fetishize the warplane and Japan’s days of imperial glory.
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Sunada’s unhurried film has time for moments of Miyazaki looking at the flowers, testing the strength of tree limbs, teaching his staff how people in Japan bowed pre-World War II, voice-casting “The Wind Rises” and explaining himself to his longtime producer, Toshiro Suzuki. Artistic freedom is dying, they worry, partly because their last film together is so freighted with meanings that the director never intended.
Sunada, who narrates the film (also in Japanese) shows Miyazaki timing his scenes with a stopwatch. The scenes are only on a storyboard at this point and only exist in animated form in his mind.
Flashback footage shows the director starting Studio Ghibli, and part of what is happening as “The Wind Rises” wraps up is him paying back his animation mentor, Isao Takahata, whose Ghibli-released “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” was to come out at the same time as “Wind Rises.” It only opened in the U.S. early in November.
“Kingdom’s” slow pace won’t be to every taste. There are a lot of scenes that seem superfluous, and the only footage from the director’s extensive animation resume is glimpsed briefly in the finale. But if you ever wondered at the world Miyazaki was trying to honor and recreate and why the films of that one studio have such a consistent beauty and civilized playfulness, “Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” will show you.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with smoking

Cast: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Hideaki Anno, Toshiro Suzuki

Credits: Written and directed by Mami Sunada. A gKids release.

Running time: 1:57

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