In capturing an old man plumbing the depths of his life, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness elevates itself. It would have been easy and still enlightening for Sunada to make this a workplace, process-oriented doc. There is some of that, and it's fascinating to watch Miyazaki work, but watching an icon earnestly question his icon status is the stuff that great documentaries are made of. Sunada surely couldn't have known she would be making this kind of film when Ghibli agreed to let her film. She begins her film with gentle strings over shots of the reverent Ghibli facility, settling on the Totoro cutout that marks the entrance. This is a unique place, but within, a man is grappling with universal regrets and questions as his life's work comes to an end.
To see Miyazaki wonder if everything he's done is worth it, when it so plainly is, is devastating. How can the giddy madness of Spirited Away be the fruit of a mere 'hobby?' How can a man who beautifully instilled rapturous joy in My Neighbor Totoro be such a pessimist? If a pessimist is an optimist that has been disabused of his earlier hope, then Miyazaki fits that bill. In seeing the rise of a more militaristic society within his country, the man who has repeatedly put anti-war messages in his films is coming to terms with their inconsequential nature. Born during WWII, Miyazaki recalls his first memory of fleeing from the fire bombings, and of how his father allowed a family to stay with them after their home burnt down. In awe of his father's generosity, he wonders what that family would think of the world if the door had been shut to them. Those ripples in a communal pond are exactly the kind of impacts that Miyazaki's films have had on peoples' lives, and it's a tragedy if he cannot see it that way.
Even with his pessimism, Miyazaki is an irresistible figure. His final film also happened to be his most adult, and the only one he says made him cry. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness ends with his retirement press conference. A few scenes earlier, he wonders if he's happy. If this man, with all he's built and all the happiness he's engendered in his fans, isn't happy, who could be? A-