Perhaps you’ve never thought about what you’re watching in those two hours in the cinema when Studio Ghibli, arguably the most renowned Japanese animation studio on the planet, is working its narrative and visual magic on you. After all, it’s easy to be caught up in a Ghibli film, transported. It’s what they do, what they’ve always done, and it’s easy to forget the hundreds of people and the thousands (and thousands) of work hours that go into making a Ghibli movie.
The sibling documentaries, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and Isao Takahata and His Tale of Princess Kaguya afford a rare glimpse at what it actually takes to make the kind of magic that Ghibli produces. It is the collective effort, toil, blood, sweat, tears, doubts, frustrations, fears, hopes, beliefs, conflicts and loves of the people who make up the world famous Japanese animation studio, not the least of them the studio founder and patriarch Hayao Miyazaki himself, and his long time colleague Isao Takahata.
Ghibli was created when Miyazaki, who had been working at Toei Animation under, and later with, Takahata (Heidi: A Girl of the Alps, 1974; Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), made the move from lead animator to director. From his first film (Castle of Cagliostro, 1979) to his reportedly last, The Wind Rises (2013), Miyazaki has made a quiet and magnificent kind of history, and Kingdom of Dreams and Madness gives audiences an insight into why.
Depicted, perhaps by Miyazaki himself, as a grandfatherly figure with quirky habits and introspective thoughts who spends his entire day in an apron and who is as demanding of himself as he is of others, the famous director is both larger than life and somewhat surprisingly ordinary. He is as prey to doubts, to frustrations and contradictions as anyone. He is still drawing storyboards and trying to work out how he wants to end his story long after production on the film has begun. He is a creature of obvious habit, and yet the way in which he thinks and articulates thought is truly fascinating to behold. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that rather than focus on a strictly chronological account of his award winning career, it is these more internal elements – his relationship to his work, his studio, and his people – that is central to the documentary. After all, the man’s history perhaps isn’t nearly as interesting as the man himself.
But this focus also gives the film a kind of reflective barrier – you get a feel for the man, but you soon come to the conclusion that he’s impossible to truly understand, at least in two hours. By contrast, the other documentary Isao Takahata and his Tale of Princess Kaguya is somewhat more accessible. That by no means implies that the main subject, veteran animation director Isao Takahata, seems any less a creative force to be reckoned with however, nor that he’s any less flawed than Miyazaki appears to be, just in different ways.
When watching these two documentaries in succession, it becomes clear that while Miyazaki might be Ghibli’s star, it’s Takahata who’s the innovator, possibly even the risk taker. Takahata, after all, discovered Miyazaki (and composer Joe Hisaishi. And Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno), and whereas Miyazaki seems to be seeking to understand something about himself with The Wind Rises, Takahata seems to be more interested in pushing the technology, the process of animation, to understand its limits, or perhaps challenge them. Being privy to his motivations and reasoning in making Kaguya the way he has (and if this glimpse of the rushes doesn’t excite you about seeing the final product, you might want to check your pulse) lends a depth to the film that, dare I say it, Kingdom’s insight into Wind Rises doesn’t quite manage. Miyazaki is too much a personality for the film, and the documentary to be anything but about him. Tale however balances that force of personality out, and perhaps that right there is the key to the partnership’s success over the years. Clearly even though they drive each other a little bananas sometimes, they are also kindred spirits of a sort, always striving each in their own way to make the intangible known.
If the purpose of documentaries is not only to document, but to give insight, both these films have done their part. Documentaries aren’t for everyone, but The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and Isao Takahata and His Tale of Princess Kaguya are both well worth the seat time, particularly as a set. Neither film will give up any great secrets as such, but they do add a dimension to the films and people of Studio Ghibli that make the magic that Ghibli makes perhaps a little more wondrous still. Considering, as Miyazaki himself says, the world isn’t simple enough to be able to explain in words, watching a little of Ghibli’s magic come into being here is perhaps better than one could ever hope.