By Carter Glace
Despite “Spirited Away” utterly terrifying me as a youth, I, like many on the outside of anime fandom, must stop and appreciate the unprecedented talent of Studio Ghibli. For almost three decades, the studio has been an animation juggernaut only matched by Disney in terms of proficiency, quality and cultural dominance. But last year, the studio saw it’s iconic director, Hayao Miyazaki, retire following the release of “The Wind Rises.” “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” follows the studio as they attempt to release Miyazaki’s swan song at the same time at the same time as Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” creating an absorbing, bittersweet and beautiful look at the end of an era.
Though the obvious draw of the slightly under two hour documentary is watching one of animation’s greatest figures ending his legendary run, the many intertwined relationships that Ghibli has built end up stealing the show. The biggest of the bunch is the relationship between Miyazaki and Takahata — Takahata discovering Miyazaki early in his career. To say their relationship is “complicated” is a comical, Miyazaki claiming him “genius” one moment only to turn and call him bipolar. They are only on screen together once, at the very end, where they touchingly acknowledge how they drove each other to greatness. The professional rivalry, bile, yet ultimate respect is the kind of relationship you would believe was too cinematic to be true, and these two have lived it for decades.
And its equally engaging seeing Toshio Suzuki, the producer behind both films, interact with the entire studio. Despite not nearly having the omnipresent name Miyazaki or even Takahata has, he is presented as the driving force behind the entire studio, even suggesting that the two films would not be finished if it weren’t for him nudging (or maybe nagging is the better word) the two filmmakers to stop dragging their feet and get the job done. It’s really easy to forget that the reason Miyazaki is able to present this aloof, Willy Wonka persona is Suzuki handling business meetings, press conferences and coaxing employees to meet deadlines. While Miyazaki is often given the reputation of Japan’s Disney, Suzuki is arguable the closer parallel: the crafty, uncompromising business man who can look at a sketch of a wide-eyed girl and realize it could become a cultural icon.
And that’s to say nothing of the smaller players, like Sankichi, Miyazaki’s ever-present assistant, or the cat constantly popping in and out of frame, or even Miyazaki’s son and the many unnamed employees treated like family. I know it’s a cliché to refer to a team as a family, but it is no less true.
But of course, Miyazaki is the star of the show, and he doesn’t disappoint. He lives up to his Disney/Wonka image — a willy, eccentric, endearing figure of boundless imagination. Or at least at first, anyway. Though his inherent kindness, vision, wisdom and dedication are omnipresent throughout the film, there is a growing sense of sadness that hangs over the “The Kingdom.” This takes the form of the obvious bitter sweetness of Miyazaki making his final masterpiece, he also has an overhanging depression about the world around him as his career ends. It’s clear that “The Wind Rises” hits close to home for Miyazaki, growing up in WWII and having his dad help build the beautiful warplanes that would cause so much devastation. Trying to balance that weight clearly proves difficult for the filmmaker, especially as he becomes more and more fearful that the same forces that sent his world into despair in the ‘40s are rearing their ugly head again. It feels like his retirement at the top of his game is not from a fear of decline, but a belief that bold, challenging, questioning films like his will no longer be welcome in the new world he believes the tragic Fukushima meltdown is a harbinger of. With the emotional despair he faces, it’s all the more stunning that he is able to be such a warm, welcoming, confident figure — a testament to the man and artist he is.
“The Kingdom” is a beautiful, detailed and intimate look into not just a man, but a studio and the people who have created an animated powerhouse. Even if your attitude toward anime is less than rosy, I highly recommend this film, if only to pay tribute to the final hurrah of a legend and a tribute to the environment that helped build him.
Carter Glace is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.