Studio Ghibli has been bringing ‘alt’ kids movies to the world for over 30 years. It’s been the dominating alternative to Disney, offering odd, weird and wonderful stories, without the usual sprinkling of sugar coating that Disney offers. I personally got on board with Ghibli when Spirited Away was released. I was transfixed and in awe of this beautiful film, I was 13 years old when it released. But I had been raised on the Anime ‘true version’ of the Little Mermaid (spoiler alert, she commits suicide but I highly recommend watching it, available on YouTube), Gremlins and a little known animation from Yugoslavia, The Elm Chanted Forest (which in 1999 was named the best Croatian film of all time) – you get the picture. I watched Disney, but was never really ‘captured’ by it. Incidentally, my favourite Disney films are the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dumbo and Beauty and The Beast – all tinged with a certain darkness, I used to watch Fantasia on repeat. So yeah, you get the idea, I’m not exactly princesses, happy endings, etc. I grew up with a definitely unusual view of the films I watched. So when I discovered Ghibli, I felt enabled to re-experience my childhood. The darkness and weirdness of these films took me right back to five years old watching The Little Mermaid jump off a boat, heartbroken and lifeless, to turn into sea foam. That’s the beauty of Ghibli, is without being overly explicit, they can be terrifying, sad (Grave of the Fireflies – if you’ve not seen it, watch it immediately – you will instantly adopt the pacifist attitude toward war! It’s easy to see why they included it in the curriculum in Japan), grotesque, strange, weird, beautifully poignant, fantastical, gorgeous, exciting, unique.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a frank and honest portrayal of life at Studio Ghibli, moreover, an investigation into Miyazaki, the much celebrated co-pioneer of Ghibli. We join them at their studio in the throes of finishing The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Primarily a ‘day in the life of’ documentary, we get glimpses and snippets of the filmmaking process at Ghibli, from Miyazaki’s giggly personal assistant, to the animators who question displaying genius through fear of being pushed too hard by Miyazaki. We also follow Miyazaki round like a faithful dog, trailing him through his day, from arrival at the studio at 11am sharp, to his evening rituals at home, with dialectical ideas and theories on the world, culture, Zero war planes, his father, tensions with Takahata and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
It’s also an intrinsic examination of Miyazaki’s work, how he works, how he comes to ideas and how he visualises his end creations. Rousing speeches to the animators on how character perception should influence their drawing, stern and at times relentlessly fiery in his temper, constantly with a cigarette in hand, confirming every Ghibli fan’s preconceptions of Miyazaki of not being particularly obvious when it comes to creating children’s films. However, in one particular scene, which is encapsulated by the ending static scene, Miyazaki believes children are the ‘world’, they’re the future (metaphorically and literally speaking). He’s portrayed as having this realist optimist outlook on life. Referring to the Fukishima disaster, he says that the world is crap. It’s full of crap, it’s destined for crap, but children have the power to bring about change, and progress. This glint of hope in a world of crap is arguably the foundation of Studio Ghibli and it’s beautiful to know as a fan, that the mind behind some of the best children’s films from the last thirty years.
It must be stated, that it’s not a retrospect view of the Ghibli catalogue, don’t expect poignant montages of Miyazaki commenting on his previous body of work (although Porco Rosso got a roasting… so to speak!) it is very much an examination of the ‘now’ at Ghibli. One thing that struck me as I watched was it’s a wonderfully calming film. It’s tranquil, and easily absorbed, again perhaps an ethos of Studio Ghibli. It’s like going to see a friend, and whilst it may not be the most insightful film that fans may want, it’s certainly an outstanding stand alone piece on a part of recent film history that has left such an enormous impact on people, it’s a slice of what goes into making these cinematic masterpieces. Watching Miyazaki potter about, cigarette in hand, rolling out these beautifully philosophical view points, whilst similtaneosly almost damning his marriage as ‘something that just happened’, it gives the magic so prominent in Ghibli films a very real, down to earth and at times humanly comedic edge. (and keep an eye out for the Ghibli resident cat…)