I took a feature writing class this past spring. It was a class I really enjoyed that challenged me and taught me a lot about myself as a writer.
One of our assignments early in the semester was to “draw your writing process.” It was totally open-ended and there were no wrong or right ways to go about it. The day it was due, I saw that everyone in my class had drawn these elaborate flow charts and graphs. They wrote paragraphs detailing their editing process and how they made decisions on what to write and how to write it.
I took a piece of printer paper and, with a #2 pencil, drew a comic about a stick figure sitting in bed with a computer doing nothing but typing.
I am terrible at process.
This might explain why, after seeing it the first time about a month ago, I’ve been struck by The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a documentary written, narrated, and produced by Mami Sunada. The film chronicles a year at the famed Studio Ghibli, leading up to the release of director Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises*. It caused a stir in the months leading to its Japanese release with the announcement of Miyazaki’s retirement during the documentary’s filming. Scenes of the film were leaked online of Miyazaki walking through a garden, talking about the inevitable end of Studio Ghibli.
Amusingly enough, the film itself goes to great lengths to demystify the very thing that this scene, alone and decontexualized, came to represent. In the United States, Ghibli is venerated as this mythic animation studio — and it should be, because they’ve consistently made incredible films — but the tone that’s taken towards Ghibli has always felt peculiar to me.
People love to compare Studio Ghibli and Pixar, which has always felt somewhat disingenuous. They’re famous animation studios that make popular films geared toward children, and that’s about it. Hell, that’s not even entirely true because there are a few Ghibli films that definitely feel that they’re reaching more for an adult audience (The Wind Rises, Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, etc).
I also distinctly remember an episode of the Giant Bombcast** in which one someone distinguishes Miyazaki’s work from other anime. The whole “I don’t like anime, but I love Miyazaki” thing is a sentiment I feel like I’ve come across pretty often. I think it’s pretty disingenuous too, or at least disrespectful in the same way someone saying they don’t like rap music (or any genre whole cloth, but this is the most common, most wack example). In a way the elevation of Miyazaki’s work, and to a lesser extent Studio Ghibli (but let’s be real, most people here who love Miyazaki couldn’t give a shit about the hundreds of other talented animators, directors, and designers that came through that that studio), has a strange side effect of dismissing an awfully massive body of work***.
The singular, unanimous praise of Miyazaki’s work in the West, while totally earned, has also felt like a strange byproduct of this tired Western perception of Japanese culture where people and things are often fetishized (see: kawaii). Where people see pictures of Miyazaki, in his iconic smock, as though he’s this jolly, idealistic Geppetto figure.
In that way, the vision of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness very much feels intentional. It seeks to demystify the mythic nature of Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki is not Geppetto. He’s a cynic who believes that the notion of happiness is ridiculous, all art is destined to be perverted or corrupted by capitalism, and technological progress is the means in which humanity will destroy itself and the world. He’s from the 20th century and he doesn’t understand the 21st, he says several times.
That’s not to say Miyazaki isn’t funny. He’s hilarious. But he’s also intimidating. There are signs posted within the Studio Ghibli offices encouraging workers to quit if they can’t keep up. Animators tell stories about the demanding workload put on young talents. Footage of an early Studio Ghibli meeting shows a young Miyazaki telling his staff that the purpose of Ghibli is to make good films and nothing else. It’s hardly the idyllic work space most people would expect from the company that put out films full of this wide-eyed optimism such as Spirited Away or Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Much of the film also focuses around the day-to-day business done at Ghibli — production meetings, scheduling, merchandising, and press releases. There’s nothing romantic about watching producer Tokio Suzuki wrangle Miyazaki and Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, in order to schedule the release of both of their respective films (spoiler alert: Takahata’s notoriously methodical work habits means that this didn’t even come close to happening). Nor is there anything particularly inspiring about sitting in on a meeting where Suzuki and another producer try to convince director Goro Miyazaki (Hayao Miyazaki’s son) to make a film he really does not care to make, and to see him explain that he only ever got into filmmaking because he loved Studio Ghibli, not because he felt drawn to making movies.
There’s nothing magical about creative work. The film makes that much clear. It’s a stressful, grueling operation. So much of it lies in uncertainty, and at the end of everything, maybe you’ll make something beautiful. Maybe.
So if you can’t rely on the outcome of your work, whether it’ll be a financial or critical success, whether people at large will like it or even ever see or hear it, what’s left?
And The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is obsessive about the process, specifically Miyazaki’s process. When I say process, I don’t mean this sort of intangible creative process that so often is this depiction of artistic suffering (through drugs, alcoholism, depression, et cetera). I mean the down and dirty process of the doing. The work. The part of creativity and creation that no one talks about or really actually wants to see. You get that a lot in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Sunada focuses on portraying moments of quiet tedium and intimacy.
We watch Miyazaki flip one sheet of tracing paper over another, five or six times, before deciding to erase a line and starting the process over again. To create one second of animation, Miyazaki must do this 24 times. We watch as he shuts his eyes and clicks a stopwatch, hovering his hands out in front of him to measure the length of an animation, like a sorcerer casting a spell. Miyazaki, alone in the Studio Ghibli offices, prepares for a late shift of illustrating storyboards by carefully selecting a song from an old stereo CD player. He sings along softly while he draws.
Every day (or week, the film is not entirely clear on this) Miyazaki purchases a pack of Yakult, a Japanese probiotic yogurt drink. Every morning before leaving his house, he puts two stuffed goats, taken out of storage from The Castle of Calgliostro exhibit of the Studio Ghibli Museum (yes, it’s real), next to his window to greet passersby. Every night before he closes his curtains, he takes them away.
This is Miyazaki’s process. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year. Until Ghibli releases another Miyazaki film.
I am constantly reminded of this interview of James Murphy (of the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem) in which he talks about being in his 20’s and feeling like an irreparable failure. He says a lot of things in that interview that resonate with me, and I think would resonate with a lot of people I’ve known and grown up with, as far as living with the anxiety and fear of not being successful or wasting away your years of being fearful; of being exposed as some sort of artistic fraud or dilettante. But the part of that interview I think about a lot is when Murphy recalls being praised from a young age as being precocious or smart, but ever being validated for working hard.
“All of my life I’d been precocious and I was like, you know, I was supposed to be smart and I was supposed to be creative. And I think hearing those things makes you scared that you’re going to do something stupid or do something uninteresting and no one will see you as smart or creative anymore. I’ve never been given credit for being hardworking or diligent or anything. So all my credits were based on these attributes that I had no control over. It’s like being tall. ‘Congratulations on being tall.’ It’s nothing you can even get excited about.”
We love to worship individuals who seem like they’re born with a natural talent for creativity. It’s a romantic notion, that some individuals are destined for greatness, that art is created from nothing more than this overwhelming greatness bursting forth through their fingertips. You either have it or you don’t.
The lionization of artistic geniuses, whether they’re eccentrics like David Bowie or Alejandro Jodorowsky, or tortured like Kurt Cobain (there are two documentaries about him coming out this year!) or Van Gogh is a disservice to their careers. The idea that great art is produced through eccentricity or suffering is detrimental to the growth of artists (as documented in this great piece that a friend of mine wrote about the toxicity of being an artist). If you called Miyazaki or Takahata geniuses to their faces, they would probably scoff at you. The work they’ve done over the decades, endless hours drawing and animating, wasn’t the result of natural born talent so much as it is the continuous honing of their craft and living their lives.
Watch the Tale of the Princess Kaguya. That’s not a film that Takahata could have made at any earlier point in his career. Nor could Miyazaki have made The Wind Rises without achieving and understanding the full scope of his career and his own role as an artist. Listen to Losing My Edge. No one in their 20’s could write that song.
Genius isn’t necessarily a myth. But the elevation of that idea is largely overstated. Even John Coltrane had to learn his scales.
I find myself in a difficult position as a writer. I’ve never really thought about or explored the idea of processes until recently. Until maybe the past year or so, my process was more like an attempt to totally divorce myself from process. I just wrote and wrote and wrote until I thought I was done and stuck it somewhere, out of sight, out of mind. I never edited myself. I never read my own writing because I always thought it was terrible and made me feel ill. At the time, it felt like a point of pride. People told me I was good. Not great, but I could get there. So why change anything if people were already into it?
In retrospect, it was that same fear of shame that Murphy talks about. Writing, for me, wasn’t about trying. It was just something I did. And people liked it. What if I actually did start trying? And people hated it? It’s that deep subconscious pull that I still feel now, preventing me from doing so many things I tell myself I want to do in the quietness of my own thoughts.
So I’m working on it, slowly but surely. It’s different and it’s tough — grueling, even — to become more focused on the minutia of the work, instead of grand ideas, executed sloppily. It took me two months to finish this, and admittedly not all of it was well spent being diligent. But I’ve spent long days thinking about it. Thinking about how my perspective on so many things has changed because of it. I’ve had long conversations with friends about it, many of whom have told me they shared a lot of the same feelings I did about it. I’m hesitant to even talk about “finishing” this or putting any sort of cap on it. I’ve thought about it a lot, but it’s not the sort of thing you can really find an endpoint to, just countless more thoughts and questions and hopefully conversations about growing and developing whatever your thing is. For the first time, maybe ever, I can write something and look back at it and feel satisfied with what I have.
*I’m not going to really say a lot about my personal opinion of The Wind Rises. I have a lot of thoughts about it personally, but suffice to say, I wouldn’t have any problem recommending it to anyone. It’s not my favorite from Miyazaki but of all of his films I’ve seen, it’s a near-perfect reflection of himself and his relationship to his art.
**I don’t remember if this is the exact episode, but it involves a fan of Giant Bomb sending the office a giant box of anime to watch.
***SHOUT OUT TO SATOSHI KON. REST IN PEACE THE ANIME GOD.