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The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Helen McCarthy reviews Mami Sunada’s Ghibli documentary

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Show, don’t tell: the mantra of every writer and film-maker, and a particular challenge in documentary film. Every work has its own agenda, hidden or not: for director-writer-cinematographer-editor Mami Sunada, the challenge was immense. And she rises to it with unobtrusive magnificence. Instead of putting her own and everyone else’s perceptions of Studio Ghibli on the screen, she performs the most difficult and magical trick in the editor’s repertoire, that of letting her views emerge from the story simply by showing how Ghibli goes about its day to day business.

This is a dazzlingly beautiful film. Its construction and cinematography recalls two of the studio’s greatest works – Isao Takahata’s My Neighbours the Yamadas and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. Both combine magical realism and a childlike simplicity of vision with a many-layered story that reveals itself only through careful attention. Seemingly inconsequential frames of light through leaves or the fur of the studio cat, things of beauty in themselves, work with the voiceover and the structure to build a picture of a tranquil surface with deep currents beneath.

The film’s primary focus is on Hayao Miyazaki and his most constant companion, Toshio Suzuki, who emerges from the footage as the master of all fixers. It shows why Suzuki is so worthy of respect as Ghibli’s true architect, making it clear, in the most delicate and understated fashion, that without him this perfect artefact would not exist. It also shows, in one single, telling scene, why Ghibli’s future will not be secured by Miyazaki’s son Goro. Here Sunada delivers a masterclass in framing and editing. Suzuki is overwhelmingly positive and poised, but his frustration as he struggles to keep the dream he helped to build alive fills the screen.

The relationship between father and son is juxtaposed with Miyazaki senior’s parental affection for his young assistant and his regard for the staff around him. Even the local door-to-door saleswoman gets screen time with him. His private office wall has photos of colleagues, friends, local children from years gone by, part of his attempt to document the changes in his neighbourhood. Questions about his marriage are raised and rebuffed in a single short exchange; it’s the action of the film that shows us how he learned to make all those loving absentee marriages in his movies.

But Sunada’s master stroke is her exposition of the importance of Takahata, not only to the studio but to his friend and colleague of over fifty years. For most of the film, Takahata is The Man Who wasn’t There. When he finally turns up – and we still don’t meet him – Sunada’s shots of his back to the camera and his face entirely towards his friend create one of the most powerful emotional moments in the movie.

The title may seem misleading on first viewing. The kingdom of Ghibli isn’t a grandiose place. Its beauty is that of ordinary suburban Japan, land of housewives and salarymen quietiy getting by. Its inhabitants live with pressure, tension and grindingly hard work. The dreams are dazzling, but the madness that produces them is the understated, self-effacing lunacy of the craftsman who lives for the work and never thinks about the paycheque. Ghibli is just another factory. The madness is their determination to create the perfect dream.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is out on UK DVD from Studio Canal.

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