To a subset of film fanatics, Japan’s Studio Ghibli is a place so beloved yet inaccessible, it’s half-mythical. And Hayao Miyazaki, the 73-year-old director behind hits like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, is a walking legend. He’s a pacifist and an environmentalist; a larger-than-life benevolent force, respected for his feats of imagination in what is now a dying medium: hand-drawn animation.
Which is why it’s disconcerting to see Miyazaki—twinkly-eyed with a snowy beard, rarely seen out of his craftsman’s apron—express decidedly non-magical feelings like depression in Mami Sunada’s documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Sunada was granted unfettered access to Studio Ghibli to paint a portrait of the three men at its helm: Miyazaki; Isao Takahata, the animator and director who first discovered Miyazaki; and their endlessly hard-working producer Toshio Suzuki.
At least, that’s what the documentary set out to do—until Miyazaki announced his retirement in the middle of production. The result is a fascinating character study of Miyazaki in his final months as a director on The Wind Rises, his last-ever feature film. Miyazaki is frank in his interviews with Sunada, whom he allows to tag along to his studio, his garden, and his private atelier. He’s open and quick to laugh, though often self-deprecating and preoccupied with whether his life’s work was worthwhile. He is highly demanding—his animators sound alternately awe-struck, annoyed, affectionate or fearful when speaking of him—and apathetic about his personal life. In his own words, he is “actually very manic depressive” and can feel the world moving past him.
“I’m a man of the 20th century,” he says at one point. “I don’t want to deal with the 21st.”
Miyazaki, we learn, maintains a grueling work schedule: Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (On Sunday mornings, he heads down to help clean a local river.) He draws storyboards in lieu of scripts, painstakingly filling them in with watercolor then using a stopwatch to keep track of running time. This takes forever. Production on his films, in fact, begins over a year before the storyboards finish, meaning that no one—often, not even Miyazaki himself—knows how the films will end before animation begins. “I’ve had staff tell me they have no idea what’s going on in my films. When we were making Spirited Away, even I didn’t know,” he says, smiling. “The way I see it, we may never understand them.”
Not that this gives animators an excuse to slack off. Miyazaki is kind to his workers, even grandfatherly; he officiated his Kiki’s Delivery Service-obsessed assistant’s wedding and offers an impromptu, department-wide lesson on the etiquette of bowing. But, as notes scattered throughout the interior of Studio Ghibli remind workers, hard work and sacrifice are not just valued, they’re expected.
“In trying to meet Miyazaki-san’s demands, there are some people who get worn out,” one animator tells the camera. “Unable to meet his demands, some people kind of lose their motivation and lose hope, thinking they failed, you know? I guess it’s really difficult to work with someone like him. You might think talented people do fine but some talented people have quit here too, because it’s tough. The more talented you are, the more he demands.
“This may sound ungrateful but if you want to protect yourself, you may want to stay away,” she continues. “Maybe it’s worth it if you’re willing to sacrifice yourself to gain something, or if you just really want to work with him. But if there’s anything in you that you want to protect, you may not want to be around him too long.”
While Miyazaki toils to finish The Wind Rises by its summer deadline, his friend and former mentor Isao Takahata inches toward the same goal date for his own Studio Ghibli film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya—with delay after delay, much to producer Suzuki’s dismay. In a conversation with Miyazaki’s son Goro—another Studio Ghibli director struggling to find motivation to keep drawing—Suzuki reveals that neither Miyazaki nor Takahata had actually wanted to direct again. It was Suzuki who convinced both to make one last film. Miyazaki, he says, took four months to persuade.
“There was a time when we both had passion for our work,” Miyazaki later says, referring to himself and Takahata. “And I’m really glad we had that. We gave it everything. Everything.”
Miyazaki is never seen speaking to his son in the film—Goro has been vocal in the past about their rocky relationship—and when asked about his wife, Miyazaki becomes strangely aloof. “I had no choice but to get married. I asked her to marry me. Can’t back out,” he says, in response to a question about how he knew his wife was the one.
Later at home, Miyazaki confesses he just doesn’t “buy” the notion that happiness should be one’s ultimate goal in life. “I’ve heard that from several people now and I wonder, is that what post-war democracy has amounted to?” he asks. “I don’t get it, so I’m curious. What about Suzuki? He can’t be doing this for his own happiness. So why does he do it? Do you work for your own happiness? I don’t ever feel happy in my daily life.”
“Filmmaking only brings suffering,” he concludes.
Miyazaki has often been likened to the protagonist of The Wind Rises, Jiro Horikoshi, the real-life designer of the Zero fighter plane used during World War II. Horikoshi’s dreams of building planes were warped by the circumstances around him. He loved fighter planes, but despised war. “It’s never unscathed. They’re cursed dreams,” Miyazaki laments. “Animation, too. Today, all of humanity’s dreams are cursed somehow. Beautiful yet cursed dreams. I’m not even talking about wanting to be rich and famous. Screw that. That’s just hopeless. What I mean is, how do we know movies are even worthwhile? If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby? Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now? Most of our world is rubbish.” He pauses to light a cigarette. “It’s difficult.”
He does not admit it, but Miyazaki likely sees the resemblance between himself and Horikoshi as well. After finally completing the film and screening it for Studio Ghibli staff, he admits that this is the first time one of his films has made him cry.
And when asked whether he worries about Studio Ghibli after he and Takahata retire, Miyazaki is frank.
“The future is clear. It’s going to fall apart,” he says. “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.” He pauses, absorbing the sunshine streaming into his garden. “How pretty,” he says, smiling.