Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
by Raqi SyedJanuary 15, 2015
Hand drawn films are a dying art. Perhaps even dead already. The industry attitude towards these films is that they represent a high watermark in artistry, but are painstakingly slow and expensive to make. Even if profitable, their box office returns cannot compete with the appetite for computer generated franchises. They do not lend themselves to pop-music ballads and fast food tie-ins. For years we have been told this—and the increasing rarity of feature length hand-drawn films is surely proof that this kind of filmmaking is indeed fading fast. This feeling of melancholy, of watching the embers of what was once a healthy industry, pervades The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about the most recent film directed by Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki.
The film observes the making of The Wind Rises, a movie that has been billed as Miyazaki’s last. The entire process from the spark of concept, the meditation behind an idea, storyboarding, designing, animating, editing, and even marketing the final film are all explored with care. There is an attention to detail here mirrored only by the minutia involved in the subject matter itself. There are several meta layers at work; a film within a film, the industry as a whole encompassed in one project, and the life of a creator reflected in his fictional characters. We learn as much about Miyazaki as we do about the way in which he makes his films. We see that Miyazaki is a very meticulous person. He thrives on slow and steady routine in all aspects of his life. It is this ethos that has allowed him to create a body of work that is admired by artists and beloved by fans. In turn, we also learn about the concerns of the director of this documentary, that what she values most in the filmmaking process is the director himself.
The documentary is often as quirky as Miyazaki’s animations. There is the recurring image of the adopted studio cat. Perhaps a nod to the fact that film artists, who sit at desks all day, have an interest in cats and that has given rise to an online lolcat obsession. Lolcats after all typify a particular combination of cleverness and the mundane. A meme refined, repackaged, and passed around, eventually made redundant by replication, yet somehow still culturally relevant. This is also a concept endemic to animated films as we know them today. They are artful, prolific, and reduced to the lowest common denominator of popular culture. Animated films are the vehicles by which plush toys and breakfast cereal are peddled. And, this of course is the commercial landscape in which Miyazaki’s Studio Gibli is operating. The issue Mami Sunada skirts around but doesn’t quite address is that this commercial landscape is also responsible for an industry that can no longer sustain the kind of films Miyazaki wants to make. He is an auteur retiring, but it also possible retirement may not be a choice.
As a testament to the finely detailed process of making movies by hand, in which time must be observed in 1/24th of a second increments, the film is very accurate. The process of creativity, particularly when constructing a movie frame by frame, is bespoke and labored. However, the feeling of having participated in something that is a cultural document—that feeling is exciting. Working on a film represents this arc: everyday boredom, punctuated by the excitement of being part of something collaborative and lasting. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness captures the first part very well, but fails to express this second part. The two hour run-time feels long. Cut-aways to branches of trees shivering in the wind are artful but too drawn out. Sunada’s unwillingness to push all of this time spent on the process towards its inevitable conclusion—that Studio Gibli is making its last film as much due to the financial pressures of a changing industry, as to a kind of swan song for the great artist Miyazaki, is ultimately unsatisfying on both counts.