The grandiose title of Mami Sunada’s sleepy documentary The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness would be more suited for yet another behind-the-scenes look at Werner Herzog’s early work than it is for its actual subject, Japan’s venerated Studio Ghibli. Some of Ghibli’s most famous films—among them, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Totoro—do certainly center on dreams and madness, but the documentary itself is much more placid stuff. Sunada tries to play fly on the wall, observing without interfering, in an attempt to catch the true flavor of Ghibli life rather than crafting, packaging, and presenting a narrative. But Ghibli’s flavor is apparently “docile, polite, and mildly cranky”—in other words, the flavor of a well-organized but nondescript workplace—and it isn’t exactly the stuff of riveting documentary.
Variety compared the film to “being granted a guided tour of Santa’s workshop,” and for longtime Ghibli fans, that’s certainly an apt metaphor: It’s a place where a large group of largely anonymous workers beaver away silently under the eye of a white-bearded, beneficent mastermind, producing wonders meant foremost for children. But Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli’s co-founder and the film’s center, makes for a mighty irascible Santa. Seen working on his presumed final film, The Wind Rises, over the course of a year, Miyazaki (“Miya-san” to insiders) lives up to his reputation as a provocateur. The man behind so many emotionally powerful, sentimental films never comes across as sentimental himself; bent over his storyboards, he gripes, “Why must I keep drawing when I’m past 70?” or holds forth on the ridiculous idea that life is about attaining happiness. He often seems to be trolling Sunada, by dropping tidbits and then refusing to expand on them. (Asked why he married, he explains, straight-faced, that once he proposed to his wife, he had to follow through. Pressed for an actual answer, he grouses, “How do I know? It’s a secret of life!”) In other cases, he downplays his work and everything about it: “How do we know movies are even worthwhile? If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby?” His views could pass for puckishness, but he seems as sincerely curmudgeonly as any senior citizen when he complains that it’s no longer possible to make films that matter, or that the younger generation knows nothing of etiquette, diction, or creative freedom.
The film is often loose and scattershot, juxtaposing shots of the resident cat with merchandising meetings or calisthenics sessions, and cutting to stuffed goats from the Ghibli museum at odd intervals. It’s shapeless as a narrative—to the degree it’s tied together at all, it’s by the repeated question of whether Miyazaki will finish his film. Meanwhile, unseen and in another building, Ghibli’s co-founder Isao Takahata (“Pazu-san”) also works on his supposedly final film, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, with Miyazaki and others similarly fussing that he’ll never complete it, and doesn’t seem to want to. Given that both films made it to theaters, the tension is nil, but even in the moment, there’s no effort to bring drama to the proceedings. Instead, there’s a layer of polite awkwardness over every encounter, as though everyone’s trying to play at normalcy while just barely ignoring the camera in the room.
Ghibli fans can glean some specific factoids from the documentary: The studio employs about 400 people, there’s a nursery and school on the premises for their kids, Miyazaki has gone to the same barber for 40 years. Viewers may even get a sense of the workplace tedium of day-to-day Ghibli life. It’s a more interesting approach than a slick, marketing-minded tour. But the film says virtually nothing about the studio’s process or philosophy, about how it or its filmmakers pick projects, why they tell the stories they tell, or anything about Ghibli’s past. The constant harping on Miyazaki and Takahata’s current sense of obligation to carry on, and Miya-san’s occasional proclamations of industry doom, might all seem disappointing and even dire, if not for Masakatsu Takagi’s gently tinkling piano soundtrack, and the studio’s bright, sunny environs. Like Ghibli’s features, Kingdom is a friendly, elegiac, approachable movie. But it lacks the studio’s well-polished sense of energy and commitment. Herzog aside, madness on the screen clearly doesn’t need to come from madness off the screen.
A half-hour featurette, billed as behind-the-scenes stories from the perspective of the office cat, captures a few significant events in less sketchy and impressionistic detail than the film. Here’s that step-by-step explanation of Ghibli’s production process, but better yet, the visits from longtime Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi and Pixar’s John Lasseter will be required viewing for anyone interested enough to seek this movie out in the first place. When Miyazaki tells Lasseter he’s just figured out how to end The Wind Rises, and they hug in excitement, it’s a moment sweet enough to appear in a Ghibli film.