'Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki': Film Review

A limited but worthwhile look at the master animator's late career.

The legendary animator can't manage to stay retired in Kaku Arakawa's portrait.

Retirement is a flexible concept in Never-Ending Man, Kaku Arakawa's look at the period that followed Hayao Miyazaki's "this time I really mean it" 2013 abandonment of filmmaking. The revered artist behind Studio Ghibli took less than two years to decide that making short films didn't count, and that segueing from hand-drawn to computer-generated animation was just the challenge he needed to keep himself amused. Following the septuagenarian through the planning and execution of his Boro the Caterpillar, Arakawa reveals things about both Miyazaki's usual style of collaboration and his frustration with the failings of technology others believe is ready to make him obsolete. Though fans will enjoy the behind-the-scenes view, and anyone interested in creativity can appreciate watching a master attempt to expand his turf so late in life, the doc's narrow scope and aesthetic limitations make it a fans-only affair, certainly not a full-bodied account of this man's towering career.

In footage from a September 2013 press conference, we see Miyazaki chuckle as he admits he has announced his retirement before. This time it's for real, he promises, saying that his age has made it hard to maintain the concentration required to bring a series of still drawings to life. We see the empty offices of Studio Ghibli, where producer Toshio Suzuki has disbanded the entire filmmaking team: With most of the world concluding that hand-drawn animation is a dead art, it hardly makes sense to keep a crew going after their leader has gone.

Suzuki puts a new team together, though, when Miyazaki decides he wants to explore CGI with a new short. The story is about a caterpillar, a character the director claims he couldn't possibly animate using hand-drawn techniques. If you suspect that's a fib intended to justify playing with new tech, the film will quickly bolster that impression: No sooner does Miyazaki have a couple of bright young CG guys working for him than he is showing them how their digital Boro ought to move — how his segmented body should rise and fall, how his newborn head wouldn't turn as sharply as an adult's. He's right, of course, and watching him hand-draw tweaks to their first drafts can be fascinating.

In flashbacks to pre-retirement work, we see the harder edges of Miyazaki's leadership style. He freely tosses others' drawings in the trash when they're sub-par; "Nobody runs this way," he says as he reworks an employee's scene. "I devoured their talent," he now admits, and he seems prepared to drain the energy of these eager new computer guys as well. He does start the relationship off well, though: Endearingly, he claims at the outset to be nervous meeting such "elite" computer animators.

Arakawa and editor Tetsuo Matsumoto don't quite show us enough to explain how this Boro project starts to go off the rails, leaving Miyazaki almost ready to abandon the film. Nor do they tell us what happened to the finished film once the artist had an inspiration that restored his faith in it. (Spoiler alert: It involved Miyazaki doing a lot more of the drawing work himself.) The slender 70-minute doc tells us almost nothing about the artist's personal life, but through observation we do get just enough feel for his personality — especially his distaste for inactivity — to make things worthwhile.

Unsurprisingly, Never-Ending Man's closing scenes find Miyazaki walking back the retirement in a more blatant way, deciding to try and get one more feature made in time for Tokyo's 2020 Olympics. That massive effort would be a fine opportunity for a more ambitious look at how this pioneering filmmaker works and lives.

Production company: NHK
Distributor: GKIDS
Director-director of photography: Kaku Arakawa
Executive producer: Yuki Ikeda
Editor: Tetsuo Matsumoto

In Japanese
70 minutes