The Video Store: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, The Wind Rises, and Grave of the Fireflies

This month in home video releases I look at three Studio Ghibli films – The Wind RisesGrave of the Fireflies and The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary on the studio. All are available on DVD now from Madman.

For the past 30 years, Studio Ghibli has been a much beloved source of magic, their films like My Neighbour TotoroSpirited Away, and Ponyo bringing Japanese anime, a specialised form of cinema, to the Western world.

The documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness offers viewers a rare look into the daily runnings at the small studio, an airy, sun-dappled dream factory in the central Tokyo city of Koganei. Shot in 2012, the production house was preparing for the release of presumably the final films for two directors – Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which released in Japan in late 2013, and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which was released a few months earlier. Both directors are known to be longtime competitors with very different working styles – Takahata, best known as the director of Grave of the Fireflies, had been working on Kaguya for nearly a decade, while Miyazaki works nearly daily. The documentary, while having occasional voiceovers from director Mami Sunada, is largely shot in the verite style, mostly observing the daily workings of Miyazaki and his long-time producer Toshio Suzuki as production on the film nears its final days, including a screening for studio employees and Suzuki going on a regional promotional tour for both films. This window into a slightly fantastical workplace is a joy to behold, filled with humour, whether from Miyazaki himself or Yoshiaki Nishimura, Takahata’s producer, who is understandably frustrated at how long Kaguya has taken to produce (“In that time, he married and had 2 kids!” Suzuki says at a press conference. “One’s starting elementary school.” Nishimura says), or even the occasional observations of the studios’ resident cat. A loving, light homage to the ‘kingdom of dreams and madness’, it’s essential for fans.

I first saw The Wind Rises early last year, upon its cinema release in Australia. While I was hoping I would be slightly more enthusiastic about it upon a rewatch, my feelings have remained largely the same, so here’s my review from then:

In a career spanning nearly 35 years, visionary anime director Hayao Miyazaki has brought a specialised form of cinema to the world stage. From his first film, The Castle of Cagliostro; to arguably his most well loved, My Neighbour Totoro; to the first film to earn $200 million worldwide before a US release, Spirited Away; Miyazaki’s trademark has been films that are straight out fantasy, sometimes social commentary, always have strong, independent female characters, and even if it isn’t fantasy, at least a heightened version of reality.

While Miyazaki’s latest still has hints of fantasy in the form of airplane designs that look straight out of Howl’s Moving Castle at times, on the whole, The Wind Rises not only signals a departure from the filmmaking profession, but also a creative one. From memory, this is the first film based on true life Miyazaki has made, and the darkest since Princess Mononoke. It is filled with vague, philosophical dialogue, repeated mantras, and a meandering, seemingly non-linear structure. The lead female character is not even feisty and powerful, she is weak and sickly damsel in distress, constantly relying on Jiro.

The main problem The Wind Rises faces, at least for international audiences, is the fact that the film is so, so rooted in Japanese culture. I was often confused, not knowing how much time had passed (one minute it was a week later, and the next five years had passed), and definitely felt that a viewer requires prior knowledge. It is substantially more stately than his previous works, retaining the common graceful direction and airy tone, but this time around, the dialogue is so intricate and dense and poetic, suiting the Japanese language so perfectly, that it would be incredibly out of place and odd for an English dub, it would be completely ineffective and sound very awkward. Furthermore, it felt much too long and rambling, overly meditative, and by the time it concluded in a confusing manner, I felt that it has definitely run its course.

There is one thing that cannot be denied though, and that’s the finality of the piece. Throughout the film, constant allusions are made to a ‘limited supply’ of creativity, and that one only has “ten years in the sun”. Miyazaki is definitely trying to communicate and enforce that this is his swan song and love letter to cinema.

While I wasn’t expecting it to be like his previous films, The Wind Rises was somewhat underwhelming. Despite being populated with the breathtaking, remarkable visuals that one expects from a Miyazaki film, I felt as though it just skimmed the ground, never really soaring to the heights of his previous work.

Is Miyazaki trying to tell us that he has run out of ideas, using his last film to take such a departure in an act of desperation, telling a story much different to any previous film, that he’s had his “ten years in the sun”, that his career has run its course, and it’s time to bow out?

Regardless, it’s a high, personal note to end a career on. Thank you for the magic, for ‘spiriting’ audiences away, Mr Miyazaki.

While sometimes real-life dramas are the opposite of Miyazaki’s usual output, for Isao Takahata, they represent the majority of his work. Takahata’s most famous work is 1988s Grave of the Fireflies, released as a double feature with My Neighbour Totoro in 1988, for fear that no one would ever see it otherwise. It needs little introduction, because its reputation precedes it, almost unrealistically so. Set in the last days of World War II, Fireflies tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko. After losing their mother in a bombing, they go to stay with a distant aunt, who sees them as a burden, resenting their presence in the house, and they move into an abandoned bomb shelter. Eventually, their supply of rice runs out, and Setsuko becomes malnourished. Fireflies is almost unfairly prejudiced from the beginning, because due to its reputation, the viewer expects a masterpiece, an expectation that is incredibly difficult to live up to. Sure, it’s depressing, very much so, it sure is a film one doesn’t yearn to watch twice, but the emotional wringer it puts the viewer through feels in no way lasting or rewarding, and not the masterpiece its built up to be. It’s a very well-made film, gorgeously animated and depicting an important element of the effects of war, but it’s definitely a victim of hype.

The Verdict

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness – 4.5 stars

The Wind Rises – 3.5 stars

Grave of the Fireflies – 3.5 stars

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