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 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.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
We only see Isao Takahata for a few minutes toward the end of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, though his presence is felt throughout the doc — he's working on his own final film, which Ghibli initially planned to release at the same time as The Wind Rises. It didn't quite work out, Takahata being terrible with budgets and schedules, but the resulting feature, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, is finally getting released in U.S. theaters on Oct. 17. Takahata, who's best known for Grave of the Fireflies and who produced Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, hasn't made a feature since 1999. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one hell of a swan song, the kind of film that's beautiful and whimsical and then just eviscerates you, and its themes of reluctantly letting go feel all the more powerful in light of Sunada's doc.
Based on a 10th century Japanese folktale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks little like other Ghibli fare. Its designs are simple, like line drawings filled in with watercolors, giving it an unusual but gorgeously old-fashioned look. The story is one of a bamboo cutter who finds a girl in the forest he believes is a gift from heaven. He and his wife raise her in the country, until similarly discovered caches of gold and fine robes convince him his adoptive daughter's intended for a fine existence in the capital.
The film slows in the middle, but the early sequences of the fast-growing princess going from giggling baby to irrepressible toddler to lithe young girl (to the delight and bemusement of her adoring parents) are joyous, a glimmering dream of a country life. It's a feeling that's revisited later with building urgency as Kaguya's origins become clear, all of it summed up in an ecstatic sequence panning over the countryside that's a whirlwind of love and regret, and one of the year's cinematic high points.
The story of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, like most folktales, has its share of tragedy, but its final emotions are so much more complicated — ones about wasted time, about happiness, about controlling your own destiny. And it's appropriate that, like The Wind Rises, The Tale of Princess Kaguya summons an indescribable mixture of emotions, some of them mournful. How do you top off a lifetime of work in animation? For Takahata, and for Miyazaki, it's with films that are as wistful as they are beautiful.