The Kingdom Of Dreams and Madness – A Documentary About Studio Ghibli

By Mike Sullivan

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (夢と狂気の王国) is currently being shown around the world, including in London, UK, at the ICA between 7th and 20th of November. In terms of documentaries, especially Japanese ones, it is quite rare to be able to see one outside of Japan. So, why is this particular one the exception? The answer to that is that this is a very special film which follows the filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (宮﨑駿) during the making of his final film The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ), the movies by Studio Ghibli have become world renowned and a real international phenomena.

Director Mami Sunada was given an incredible amount of freedom to film not only Studio Ghibli, but also Hayao Miyazaki both at work and at home, and this film is the result. She has beautifully captured not only the lives of those who work with Miyazaki, but also the spirit of Studio Ghibli, and this appreciation begins from the very start of the movie. Of course, all of us see the beauty of the scenery and backgrounds that usually appear in Ghibli movies, but it is something else to see the same background pinned to a wall and to a linger for a few moments on it. The Ghibli studio is a building which has reminders of the movies that were previously made everywhere, from pictures on the walls to memorabilia placed here and there.

We are shown the garden which is located at the top of the studio, and which throughout the film we will return to, as this is one of Miyazaki’s favourite places. Although it isn’t explicitly stated, towards the end of the film just before an important press conference Miyazaki motions Sunada over to the window and points out all of the rooftops, and buildings, and muses on being able to jump from here to there, run across this cable, to see all from above, and one can’t help but wonder if from the top of the Ghibli studio his imagination runs wild over the nearby rooftops. Whichever the case may be, he has a clear connection with the nature that exists in the Ghibli garden (which comes complete with its own resident cat).

Through the eyes of Sunada we follow the process by which Miyazaki creates his movies, and one thing immediately highlights itself is how Miyazaki approaches his work just like a craftsman or artist. He is rarely seen without his work apron, in fact he even wears it on his way home, and this firmly fixes in our heads how this is a man serious about his work. Even more incredible is that even his desk reflects the mind-set of someone who doesn’t leave anything to waste, on one side we can see a clearly broken sellotape dispenser which has been taped back together, on the other side we can see how a broken part of the desk has been taped back.

It is incredible to learn how Miyazaki doesn’t write out a screenplay or plot, he draws out an animation storyboard and it is from this storyboard that the film is created. His dedication to his craft is shown by his constant drawing; even after the storyboard has been completed the next task is to draw out a moving version which is photographed shot by shot in order to create a moving picture. The tools for how he creates his art lies in his pencils, in one scene we can see how the studio has every kind of pencil that one can imagine, as well as a recycle box asking people to use pencils which still can be used. Another important tool is rather surprisingly, a simple stopwatch. Every section of a storyboard has to be exactly timed out and in his mind, and with the stopwatch, he times each part.

For anyone who isn’t totally clued up on animation filmmaking it is easy to imagine that the director just overseers the work and leaves the tiny details to others, but in this documentary we see how, while still wearing his work apron, he attends meetings, listens to voice actors and even drops in on his animators just to talk about the polite way to bow when he was a young man (after bowing to not completely straighten your body as this is rude, one bows and afterwards still maintain a slightly bowed posture). He is concerned with every detail of what is happening with the movie, and as we find out later this even extends to not being happy with people not being able to draw what he can see in his mind, and those same people feeling frustrated they can’t cater to his every demand.

Again, and again we are reminded of how his approach to his work is along the same lines as an artist or craftsperson, and are astounded how he even studies a small model of a plane with intensity as he tries to capture every little detail in his own drawing of it. Although the storyboards he creates for The Wind Rises at first seem to us to be following a plot which changes at whim, as the documentary progresses we learn more and more about his personal background. In fact the plot is more about Miyazaki, about Miyazaki’s father, about dreamers, and about the reality of war.

When we watch The Wind Rises we are seeing Miyazaki’s feelings about World War Two, we see the experiences that his father went through during this same time, we marvel at the dreams that people like Jiro Horikoshi (the main character) had about building flying machines, and we see how war degrades everything that it touches. Out of the number of his opinions and memories that we hear, perhaps one of the most heart wrenching is a memory he has of fleeing his fire bombed town in a truck during World War Two with his family and the fact that a young woman and her child tried to flag them down, but his father didn’t stop. A four year old Hayao Miyazaki was of course powerless to do anything, and he states that he doesn’t blame his father, but sixty eight years later he still feels the guilt. If anything, we can see how he has a sensitive soul, and it is that sensitive soul which burns bright in every single one of his films.

This documentary really shows the individuals who have made studio Ghibli a reality, and we are shown the different aspects of how the director, the producer, collaborators, and more each do their own part. However, this film is dominated by the presence of Miyazaki, even in meetings which he is not part of we catch glimpses of him walking past the window. One can only say that quite frankly anyone who thinks they are a Studio Ghibli fan needs to see this documentary in order to gain an amazing insight into the worlds that Miyazaki has created, and discover a new respect for who he is and what he does.

Every day Hayao Miyazaki waves at the children in the company nursery, this whole world is rubbish, he says, but he does what he does for the children.

“Children are born with infinite possibilities ahead of them.”