The Kingdom of Misinformation and Secrecy: The Studio Ghibli Effect

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is an interesting documentary. Taking place over a year of Hayao Miyazaki’s life, it chronicles the creation of The Wind Rises from storyboards to finished product. It also tosses in some mentions of Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. And it has a scene with a disgruntled Goro Miyazaki being scolded by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki for not knowing his place. Because why not?

I liked the documentary. After all, it’s Studio Ghibli-centric! Still, I couldn’t help sensing an underlying agenda behind what was shown. Like Wolverine in the X-Men films, this felt largely like “the Miyazaki show”. Except that, unlike Wolverine in said X-Men films, this is real-life. You can get away with having a star in film, but real-life is about co-operation and equal weight. That’s touched on somewhat in the documentary, but you never really feel that anyone other than Hayao Miyazaki calls the shots at Studio Ghibli from watching The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

Which begs the question: what is it that we aren’t being told?

A while back, I remember having a conversation with someone on Twitter about the current state of Studio Ghibli. As those in the loop know, the studio’s struggling badly, with its last three films barely making returns at the box-office and its internal management unstable since the announcement of its three head figures’-Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata-retirements from the business. Normally this second point wouldn’t be so bad, people retire from businesses every day, but the studio can’t seem to function in its current state. Still, Studio Ghibli’s been around since 1985, so clearly they should’ve been prepared for their inevitable shift of guard, right?

Well, as the conversation continued, I found it only got worse. For one, and this is touched on in the documentary, Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata seems to not get as much press for his work as Miyazaki. For another, going by speculation, any attempts at future leadership have been short-lived. Studio Ghibli’s tried culling new talent before, but it’s never lasted, with promising talents either dying from overwork (Yoshifumi Kondo), being fired (Mamoru Hosoda), quitting (Hiroyuki Morita, Hiromasa Yonebayashi) or struggling to stay relevant (Goro Miyazaki) in the process. The climate seems so antithetical to nurturing new talent that famous director Mamoru Oshii allegedly referred to Studio Ghibli as “The Kremlin.”

Before any of you bust a gut, several factors need to be taken into consideration. After all, every opinion is subjective and driven from a certain mindset, so jumping to conclusions is unfair. Even documentaries, which tout themselves as “honest”, have their biases. And while The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness tries to be “detached”, preferring to let the subjects speak for themselves, in the end it’s no exception. However, let’s assume that both the omissions from this documentary and the claims of the anonymous individual on Twitter tie together. What can we take away from this?

For starters, Miyazaki’s a real jerk to Isao Takahata. Not entirely so, but he’s touted as being “lazy” and “inefficient” when it comes to deadlines. Toshio Suzuki is equally as scathing, even hiring an assistant producer to “keep the man in-check”. It’s weird because, from what we see of Takahata near the end, he seems to harbour no ill-will at all for Miyazaki or Suzuki, even regarding them as the catalysts for why he co-founded Studio Ghibli at all. Not to mention, he still is really talented! He merely takes a little longer to get his work done.

Additionally, if subtle hints from other employees are indication, Miyazaki has a poor perception of what Studio Ghibli really is. He views it as a family unit that works under a unifying idea. Everyone else, however, sees it as a test of endurance: can you keep up with demands? Is your talent measurable on its own? How do you meet the standards of a man notorious for not scripting his films? And, finally, is it worth working at Studio Ghibli? Considering the number of people who’ve been fired, quit, or, worst-case scenario, died from its demands since inception, the answer is open for debate.

There’s also the issue of the human element; on one hand, Miyazaki’s a grouch, constantly complaining about world politics and Japanese youth. He doesn’t consider himself an Otaku either, because that’d mean sinking to the level of “fetishizing”. He’s critical of his fellow artists, mocking Takahata for being slow and outright neglecting his son. And he likes to wing his storyboards as they’re being written. So it’d be pretty easy to, going by the above, box him in as a jerk who likes doing everything “his way, or the highway.”

On the other hand, Miyazaki’s also incredibly outgoing and personable. He’s wise, and he always has worthwhile lessons to share. He comes off as warm to the people he meets, Mami Sunada, the director of this documentary, included. And he’s modest about his work. He treats his films like children, letting them take shape on their own, and he never brags about his accomplishments. So it’d pretty easy easy to, going by the above, also box him in as a jolly old man.

These two images clash. Why? Because Miyazaki’s human. What people often forget about artists and celebrities is that, in the end, they’re no different than us. To paraphrase my mom’s best friend, “they put their pants on one leg at a time”. Over-romanticizing them isn’t healthy, as that only leads to a false ideal that can’t stand up to the traumatizing reality that, shocker, these individuals have flaws too.

Which is why I try distancing personal thoughts on artists from the work they’ve done. Roman Polanski, for example, might’ve committed statutory rape, but he’s still a talented director. Orson Scott Card might be homophobic, but he still wrote Ender’s Game. Richard Wagner might’ve been an Antisemite, but I have no problems humming Ride of the Valkyries with the 2 year-old son of the assistant rabbi at my synagogue. I believe we should appreciate the talent of people in spite of their skeletons in the closet; after all, if we knew more about the private lives of celebrities, like Mel Gibson, I strongly think we’d look up to them less often.

Finally, like any documentary, it’s inevitable that The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness will omit details. Because giving the full story isn’t only impossible, it completely ruins any point it’s making. Mami Sunada might’ve missed certain details in her observations, but that’s okay. She didn’t need to tackle everything, if she did it’d be a ridiculously long and incredibly-taxing experience. That I can even gleam these conclusions from the documentary at all is proof enough that she did a good job inspiring conversation.

And Studio Ghibli? Well, I love their work regardless. They might not be great at nurturing future talent, but if that’s true then they’re paying for 30 years of neglect. I’m a firm believer in “what goes around, comes around”, so if Studio Ghibli’s cultural bubble really has burst…then they have themselves to blame for it. Besides, maybe their restructuring might teach them a valuable lesson, no?


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