Studio Ghibli has long garnered acclaim as an animation powerhouse, and yet very little is known about its inner workings and the creative process of its primary director, Hayao Miyazaki. That all changes here, with documentary filmmaker Mami Sunada granted exclusive access to the studio over the course of an eventful year. That year found the tiny studio producing not one but two new features, The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, both of which went on to earn Oscar nominations.
Even during the hectic animation timeframe, there’s a heavy air of melancholy over the studio as its workers and directors recognize that the dual films may very well signal the last hurrah for Ghibli. The studio is fiercely independent, wholly reliant on the whims of its visionary founders rather than stockholders, and with those founders now in their seventies and winding down their careers there’s no clear indication that the studio will continue in anything more than a merchandise-licensing entity. In fact, Miyazaki bluntly states to the camera at one point that he’s certain it will fall apart when he’s gone.
Although Miyazaki is still largely a cipher by the end of the film, his intense dedication to his craft and his prickly, brutally honest nature are clearly evident. He laments about why he should still be drawing at this late stage of life, and then proceeds to obsessively craft all of the storyboards for The Wind Rises by hand, as well as some of the key animation. He openly criticizes the studio’s other founder and director, Isao Takahata (Kaguya), but respects the contrast he offers thanks to his wildly different animation style. Mostly, he functions as the heart of the studio, seemingly ever-present at his cramped drawing table in his trademark apron.
Meanwhile, Takahata is nowhere to be seen, operating out of a separate studio building at a leisurely production pace that simultaneously amuses and frustrates his co-workers. He’s well-known for taking forever to finish his work, producing only one film in the past 15 years. That makes the studio’s initial announcement of both films for nearly simultaneous release in July 2013 immediately laughable to all involved, although Kaguya’s eventual Japanese debut in November 2013 wasn’t too far off the mark in Takahata time. He really only appears in the documentary during a surprise visit to the rooftop garden on Ghibli’s main building, briefly and silently sharing the screen with Miyazaki before retreating to the shadows of his own reclusive animation madness.
We meet other assorted studio workers, most notably producer Toshio Suzuki, the man tasked with keeping the studio’s projects and creators on track. The film also grants us access to the voice casting meetings for The Wind Rises, where fellow director Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) is shortlisted and ultimately approved for the lead role. I didn’t realize that Anno was a past Ghibli employee, or that he played the lead in the film, so those revelations were particularly welcome to me. Anno also provides key insight into the nature of Miyazaki, as he’s clearly terrified of going to see Miyazaki after his recording session for fear/expectation of criticism from the meticulous, exacting master.
The studio is not what most would expect, operating out of a nondescript building on a residential street in a quiet suburb of Tokyo. Greenery is given free rein to encroach on the building, clearly inspired by Miyazaki’s recurring animation theme of nature reclaiming civilization. A neighborhood cat is also given unfettered studio access, coming and going throughout the building as it pleases to the nonchalance of the studio workers. It’s not uncommon to see Miyazaki out for a brief solo stroll in the studio neighborhood, seemingly impossible given his stature as one of the most famous and recognizable faces in all of Japan, and yet perfectly normal in the peaceful environment he inhabits. It’s a delight to witness the intimate nature of studio, where animation is still lovingly and painstakingly crafted by hand, not computers, and even through the chaotic production process and the demands of its directors it’s abundantly clear that the workers are united in their unwavering passion for crafting animated masterpieces.
The DVD includes a bonus feature that is ostensibly about studio life through the eyes of the aforementioned cat, but is really just another half hour of unused footage. That footage includes a studio visit by Disney animation chief John Lasseter, a long-time fan and supporter of Miyazaki who has championed Ghibli’s films in the West. Given Lasseter’s top-dog status in the global animation hierarchy, it’s amusing to see him being a fanboy at Ghibli, but nowhere near as amusing as when Miyazaki states to the camera that they’re not really friends, he just needs Lasseter in order to further Ghibli’s success. Miyazaki may grouse about still being in the game, but he knows how it needs to played.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is available on DVD on January 27th.