For animation lovers, peering inside the walls of Studio Ghibli is like being granted a guided tour of Santa’s workshop. Magic happens here, and though Mami Sunada isn’t the first documentary filmmaker permitted to observe toon maestro Hayao Miyazaki in his creative element (the others have been for TV or homevideo bonus features), she couldn’t have picked a better time: GKids-acquired “Kingdom of Dreams and Magic” observes the making of Miya-san’s final feature, “The Wind Rises,” while elsewhere in the studio, business partner and friendly rival Isao Takahata, struggles to complete his own career capper, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.”
Though suitable for audiences of all ages, Sunada’s “Kingdom” isn’t so different from the merchandising coming out of Ghibli these days: Yes, kids will be interested, but it’s really aimed at the adult fans. Not until the film’s last 10 minutes, and even then for no more than 40 seconds, does she insert footage from Miyazaki’s incredible oeuvre — a filmography that includes “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and that flawless diamond of the form, “My Neighbor Totoro.”
It’s a surprising approach, given the prevailing trend among behind-the-scenes film docus to depend almost entirely on the work of the people they profile. Instead, Sunada reveals the work behind the work, tracking “The Wind Rises” from preliminary storyboards to last-minute alterations, revealing a carefully ordered system where Miyazaki serves as team captain to more than 100 artists — hardly elves (though giggling production manager Sankichi could pass for one), but trained professionals who follow his lead, even in daily calisthenics exercises.
Despite the discipline of his routine, which extends from 11 in the morning to 9 at night every day, Miyazaki remains an instinctively organic storyteller, skipping over the screenwriting step in order to channel what he sees in his head directly to sketches. With stopwatch in hand, he pictures how each shot will play out, then tries to pin down these images on the page, to be redrawn, colored and animated by his team.
Making no attempt to match the visual impact of Ghibli’s output, Sunada (who acts as her own d.p.) contents herself with casual, though intimate fly-on-the-wall footage. And yet she has taken something vital from Miyazaki’s aesthetic after all, giving herself room for digressions and atmospheric details, which provide audiences a flavor of Miyazaki’s working and living spaces: there’s company cat Ushiko sunbathing in the garden, the touching letter he receives from a man his father helped during the war and the trompe-l’oeil windows painted on otherwise blank walls throughout the building.
One wouldn’t expect much conflict to arise in such an environment, which might make the pic’s two-hour running time seem excessive, though Sunada picks up on an interesting tension during her time spent at Ghibli: While Miyazaki respects fellow director Takahata, the two couldn’t have a more different working process, and though “The Wind Rises” and “Princess Kaguya” are scheduled to be released at the same time, we learn that Takahata never delivers on budget or schedule.
Apart from a few brief oncamera remarks included near the end, Takahata remains mostly an offscreen presence, frustrating his colleagues, including producer Toshio Suzuki and the babysitter-like Nishimura, assigned to keep him on track. Whereas Miyazaki gives the impression that artistic inspiration comes easy, Takahata’s struggles remind that creativity can be an elusive mistress (“He’s trying to not finish it,” says Miyazaki, who owes the five-years-older “Kaguya” helmer his first professional break) and one that doesn’t necessarily fit into the more assembly-line-style system practiced by American toon studios.
Still, it’s surprising to hear how cynical some of late-career Miyazaki’s worldviews now sound, colored by the Fukushima nuclear disaster and recent economic downturn. The docu offers valuable insights into the background and personal dimension of “The Wind Rises” (plus the somewhat surprising revelation that in his original ending, Miyazaki planned to kill off all his characters), summarized thus: “People who design airplanes and machines, no matter how much they believe what they do is good, the winds of time eventually turn them into tools of industrial civilization. They’re cursed dreams. Animation, too.”
The atmosphere inside Studio Ghibli may suggest a zen-like idyll, but animation is a painstaking — and sometimes painful — process, and though shaggy and somewhat ordinary in places, Sunada’s tour of the “Kingdom” makes us appreciate the magic all the more.