Hayao Miyazaki may have retired, but a new doc about his company offers an unprecedented look at how he worked. Meanwhile, Ghibli’s latest animated release turns an old folktale into something truly epic.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
In August, rumors swirled that Studio Ghibli, the seminal Japanese animation studio responsible for classics like Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away, was shutting down its feature film department. The world mourned, but it wasn't actually true. Co-founder Toshio Suzuki later clarified that the company was only planning on taking a pause in production, but the more dramatic version of this news had already spread like wildfire. It was an announcement plenty of Ghibli followers had been expecting since the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki last year.
Studio Ghibli has produced movies from other directors, but for most people the name is inextricably tied to Miyazaki, to My Neighbor Totoro, to Princess Mononoke, to a landmark career in making animation that, while mostly aimed at children, has thrilled adults as well. In 2013, Miyazaki premiered what he labeled his last feature, The Wind Rises, a pensive movie about a conflicted aircraft designer whose planes are used during World War II. It received plenty of acclaim, but also felt like an end — what was Ghibli without the creative genius at its core, and without a successor to take his place?
The two Ghibli movies playing at the Toronto International Film Festival this year don't answer that question, but present evidence that the studio's key figures are far more caught up in contemplating this pivotal and possibly last phase in the existence of the studio than anyone in the audience. One is a documentary about the production of The Wind Rises that gives an unprecedented look into Miyazaki's process, and the other is the final film from Isao Takahata, Ghibli's third co-founder and a man even more reclusive than his better-known collaborator.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a geekily in-depth but not overly reverential doc that will probably bore non-Ghibli acolytes silly. But for fans, Mami Sunada's film is like getting ushered backstage during a show by a legendary magician. The movie, which has been picked up for a yet-unspecified U.S. release by GKIDS, peers into the studio's headquarters, located in a suburb of Tokyo, as if it's an enchanted realm. That's the way it's first shot — in glimpses of carved wood, an atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows, stained glass, vines curling around the side of the building, and a lounging cat. But past that is the cluttered, highly trafficked space in which the animators, producers, lawyers, and marketers actually work, and Sunada doesn't romanticize the creative process at the expense of also showing Ghibli as a business that's kept afloat by hard work and financial maneuvering.
Miyazaki, who's 72 years old at the time of filming, is almost never seen without his trusty apron. Twinkly and energetic, he resembles Geppetto presiding over his workshop — but that grandfatherly demeanor belies the frequently devastating observations he lets fly. He casually refers to animation and designing airplanes as "cursed dreams," saying moviemaking is basically just a "grand hobby." "Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now?" he muses. Discussing broadcasting partner NHK's increasing restrictions on what they're able to do, he claims, "The days of creative freedom are ending... In a sense, what we managed to do for 50 years is all coming to an end."
There's no need to be apocalyptic about Ghibli's future, or Japan's — Miyazaki has enough of a resigned sense of doom for anyone. Asked while standing on the greened roof that's his frequent retreat whether he's worried about the studio's future, he calmly states, "The future is clear. It's going to fall apart. I can already see it. What's the use worrying? It's inevitable. 'Ghibli' is just a random name I got from an airplane. It's only a name." Despite the fascinating details about the history of the company, the look at the process of the film getting made — from storyboarding to voice acting to press conference — and the intense glimpse of a meeting with son and reluctant animator Goro, Miyazaki remains a vibrant but enigmatic figure, a tattered idealist standing at the edge of a cliff he's sure is crumbling.