While challenging for the uninitiated, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is an essential portrait of Hayao Miyazaki

hayao miyazaki the kingdom of dreams and madness
I’ve been a fan of Hayao Miyazaki since I saw My Neighbor Totoro in high school.  Membership in my college anime club – yes, I was that cool – exposed me to Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke (in Japanese, not the Miramax dub), and even Only Yesterday, now enjoying its first release in the States almost 20 years after I saw it in the Modern Languages Building auditorium.  I haven’t seen any of Miyazaki’s newer work but, after watching The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I think I have to.

To call The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness a documentary is a slight misnomer; it’s more of an authorized biography.  Director Mami Sunada appears to have unlimited access to Miyazaki and the rest of the staff at his animation studio, Studio Ghibli, during the production of his “final” film (Miyazaki has retired and un-retired six times now.)  That film, The Wind Riseshas attracted its share of controversy (ignore the warning when clicking on this link; it’s just because The Dissolve sadly shut down last year and doesn’t have up-to-date IT support), but it provides one of the most personal moments for Miyazaki: a reflection on his father’s kindness to their neighbors after the firebombing of Tokyo, a story which can’t help but remind viewers of Studio Ghibli’s own Grave of the Fireflies.

Miyazaki is in a reflective mood for much of the film, and he talks about everything from his father to the Fukushima disaster.  But he mostly focuses on what his retirement means for the animation studio he founded.  He and his friend and producer, Toshio Suzuki, spend a good deal of time reflecting on their contributions to film over the years and, unlike Troy Duffy, both feel that their run is over.  Not everything is so depressing.  Watching the animators work – it’s amazing that so much of the work done at Studio Ghibli is still done by hand – is fascinating.

But as a documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness has some technical imperfections.  Shot candidly, rather than as talking heads, it has an intimate feel.  But the candid nature of the shots introduces some confusion, as sometimes the framing makes it unclear who’s talking.  Additionally, the subtitling – at least on Amazon Prime – is full of typos and ignores standard subtitle conventions (different colors for different speakers and italics for voiceover or song lyrics, just to name a few).  While it doesn’t make the film incomprehensible, it is hardly a seamless viewing experience.

And if you’re unfamiliar with Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, this may not be the film for you., as Sunada provides almost no context for what’s happening on screen.  If you don’t recognize the characters from Miyazaki’s previous films, aren’t familiar with his pattern of retirement and non-retirement, don’t know the rather delicate relationship he has with his son, and don’t understand the controversy behind The Wind Rises, a lot of things won’t make sense.  In the finest tradition of the Studio Ghibli films I watched as a teenager, this is a subtitled Japanese movie with no concessions made to American viewers.

But one gets the impression that The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness isn’t really meant to be a commercial movie, or a movie accessible to the uninitiated.  It’s an intensely personal film – both for Sunada and Miyazaki – that, like the best Studio Ghibli films, is kind of bittersweet.

P.S. I have to mention the clothes.  As an occasional #menswear reader, the trad stylings of Miyazaki and company do not disappoint: chinos, OCBDs, cable sweaters, mountain parkas – they’re all there.

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