Film Review: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada, 2013)

by Matt Strackbein

While watching this documentary, about the legendary Studio Ghibli, I fell in love with the image of Hayao Miyazaki hunched over his drawing board. There was old Miyazaki-san, in his 70s, cigarette dangling, wearing his old white smock, lost in his art as he created his cartoons. The whole film was fantastic, but I could’ve watched an entire alternate version of just Miyazaki at work. He has an incredible stillness, which translates easily to an intensity one could only hope for. And for a quiet, and gentle sort, he’s acquired a ton of respect from his fans and his staff alike. Actually, come to think of it, his staff may be his biggest fans.

Whether it’s anime or manga, Japan has produced some of the best art-based stories you’re likely to experience. Although you don’t have to like the stuff to appreciate The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. And you should know that the Studio Ghibli features would be a great place to start if you were suddenly inclined to check out some animation after watching the documentary. Princess Mononoke (1997), put Ghibli on the map in North America, Spirited Away (2001) won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and most recently, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013) was nominated for the same thing. But, listen, that’s just the top drawer stuff, there’s a lot of really solid work by this studio – started by Miyazaki and his mentor Isao Takahata. The movie poster is those two guys with their Producer Toshio Suzuki sitting in front of one of the studio’s locations, which is a very fitting image for describing the documentary (leave it to a documentary about an animation studio to create the appropriate juxtaposition on the poster). The three of them are geniuses but they come across as very chill, and very cool, old guys. Even when things get stressful in their lives, they play it totally cool. There are hints of controversy between the one time mentor and his apprentice-turned-master, which essentially amounts to a few bashful grunts, a comment here and there about work ethic, and some uneasy smiles or chuckles. None of it is what I would call reality TV worthy drama, which is a good thing if you ask me.

The focus thankfully remains on the process surrounding two works-in-progress, the previously mentioned The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, by Takahata, which is running really far behind schedule at the time of this filming, and Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013). Studio Ghibli was split into two separate buildings at one point in its history, and for the most part, say about 99% of the time, we follow Miyazaki’s progress as he goes through his daily routine on his end of town. And I mean literally…there’s a scene of him walking around one night closing all of the curtains in his house, which may sound dull but it isn’t. The man regularly offers insights about his work, his society and current affairs – the Japanese nuclear crisis of 2011 in particular. He talks about children, and how he works for the happiness of others and not himself. Anything he says sounds meaningful, maybe because he consistently gets right to the core of his point, I don’t know, but I found myself only ever agreeing with him. It is one thing to appreciate art whether its film, animation or some other form, but when you realize you appreciate the artist with equal respect and admiration it’s a pleasant surprise. But, seriously, if Miyazaki had never said a word and just sat there drawing I would have been glad to watch. Creators create, viewers view, and the resulting symbiotic nature of inspiration is for everyone.

Matt Strackbein is an Apparel-Designer working in the Outdoor and Ski industry. He is also a self-published comic book creator, as well as an accomplished Letterhack with over 200 hundred printed letters in comic book letter columns.