ONE of the great pillars of Japanese animation left us earlier this month as Isao Takahata died at age 82.
Along with long-time collaborator Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata was a driving-force behind the global flourishing of Japanese animation in the final quarter – or so – of the 20th Century and the rise to prominence of the now legendary Studio Ghibli.
Although he was not a gifted artist like Miyazaki, Takahata had a creative mind sharper than the pencil of any animator out there. He was, after all, the master director who gave us the heart-wrenching World War II drama Grave of Fireflies (watch it immediately if you have not already). Perhaps the greatest animated drama of all time – the type of film that inks into your heart and never leaves you.
In the magnificent documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, filmmaker Mami Sunada’s gains jaw-dropping access into the workings of Studio Ghibli at a time when Takahata and Miyazaki were making what looked to be their final films (Miyazaki has since come out of retirement for How Do You Live – slated for release 2020). A ploy by the studio to bring out a friendly competition between these two giants of filmmaking.
Sunada’s film gives tight focus to Miyazaki with only a few sightings of Takahata. But the shadow of influence cast by Takahata looms large throughout – he is the unseen motivator. Miyazaki, for one, cannot help but mention Takahata as he sketches at his desk. One day he is nostalgic and complimentary, the next he is critical or jokingly dismissive. Takahata ‘bring chaos’ he reveals with a smile.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness gives incredible insight into Miyazaki’s 11am to 9pm schedule as he works to complete The Wind Rises with a team of 100 staff. Among them, we are introduced to a few of his closer colleagues including production manager Yumiko Miyoshi. She immerses herself fully in every film and has clearly won a soft spot in Miyazaki’s heart.
There is also Ushiko, the white and black cat who wonders around the studio. Her sleepy presence is a playful contrast to the stressed atmosphere in the studio as Miyazaki demands near-unattainable standards from his hardworking staff. At one point he lectures them about the importance of getting the nuances of a bow and a glance right to ensure a character does not come across as disrespectful or egoistical. The workers seem overwhelmed by his stanch idealism, but Miyazaki is right – it is this level of intricate care that makes him the best.
Producer Toshio Suzuki – referred to as ‘the detective’ for his problem-solving abilities – is the most closely featured of Miyazaki’s colleagues. Suzuki is the motor and steering wheel behind the logistic and business end of proceedings. He also goes back 35 years with Miyazaki – all the way to The Castle of Cagliostro, 1979 – and tells us about the importance of whom we surround ourselves with to what we have the potential to create. Those at Studio Ghibli have excelled at this.
Sunada’s expertly edited film does a brilliant job of inserting succinct histories – like Miyazaki and Suzuki’s- utilising a wealth of stock footage that any documentary filmmaker would dream of.
She also cleverly holds back in using footage from Studio Ghibli films until the latter stages of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness – when she cuts them over Miyazaki’s pre-retirement words. Miyazaki looks out on a fairly standard urban setting and transforms it into a playground for his boundless imagination, a beautiful sequence put together with an artful touch by Sunada.
A lot can also be said about Sunada’s presence as a behind-the-camera documentary filmmaker. Her soothingly gentle voice aligns with the less-is-more approach she takes to questioning. Sundada lets her subjects carry the conversation, occasionally probing to guide them in one direction or to elaborate further.
It is this tone that gives room for Miyazaki to spew wisdom with the same ease of delicate beauty and swooping profundity that he renders with his pencil. At one point, he opens up about the thought process of his film The Wind Rises and his ties to protagonist Jiro Horikoshi, an aviation lover (like Miyazaki) and engineer who ends up designing fighter planes for Japan during World War Two.
Among other things, Miyazaki reveals that he and Jiro both have ‘cursed dreams’. Jiro’s love for aviation was corrupted by its commercial and bloody uses. Miyazaki, who has a cigarette his in mouth as often as a pencil in hand, sees his love for animation in a similarly cursed – yet less bloody – light.
Sunada gets us up and close to cinema greats – and he does not disappoint. This film is a gift to anyone whose life has been enriched by the mesmerising and touching work of Studio Ghibli. The image of Miyazaki closing his eyes with a stopwatch in hand to imagine each of his storyboards (his films are remarkably put together with just storyboards and no script) will be enough to give any film-lover goosebumps.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is an outstanding look at Miyazaki and the work culture of Studio Ghibli. Yet with Takahata’s passing, it is well worth watching for its study of the relationship these two shared.
Beyond the films Takahata made, one of his biggest accomplishments was the way he propelled Miyazaki to greatness – both as a collaborator and as a friendly rival. A great – and a catalyst for greatness. Rest in peace Isao.
This is review 16/30 in April’s Close-up Culture Monthly Challenge – Female Filmmakers.