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Review: ‘Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki’

AWN’s Miscweant looks at the fascinating new documentary that begs the question of whether or not the iconic animation director will ever make another film.

Never-Ending Man​: Hayao Miyazaki is a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall documentary about one of the greatest living animation directors. It’s a film that asks the tantalizing question, will Hayao Miyazaki ever make another film?

“Now it’s all in the past. Our era is ending,” read the first two subtitles translating Miyazaki’s musings. A walk through the dark and empty Ghibli studio, muffled clock ticking somewhere in the background add to the funereal mood.

The scene shifts to a 2013 press conference in which a youthful-looking 72-year-old Miyazaki announces his retirement -- as he had several times in the past. (“People don’t believe me, but this time I mean it.”) A series of clips from his various masterpieces -- Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky, Totoro, Spirited Away, Ponyo… set to a mournful musical track, follow. (The use of music in the documentary to evoke and underscore mood is subtle and flawless.)

Aging and death are a constant topic through the film, as Miyazaki muses thoughts along the lines of “old age brings problems; it can’t be helped,” “I’ve decided to treat any desire to continue as the delusions of an old man” and “lots of funerals lately. I hate it.”

The shot-on-video documentary is broken into chapters, each one titled by the last few words of the previous segment. The video proper begins as Miyazaki invites an unseen video camera-carrying visitor into his atelier. The visitor leaves what must be a compact, high-def camera on a countertop, capturing the director puttering about in his kitchen. (At times shots linger on Miyazaki for longer than seems necessary, but the lulls are actually set-ups leading to an especially resonant thought.)

We see two sides of the living legend: a kindly older man offering a cracker to a bird on his windowsill and candy to visiting children -- and an unforgiving taskmaster at work, tossing out his artists’ finished work. (“Do you live without thinking? Do it [over] or you’re out -- quit now.”) He admits he trained successors but was unable to let them go -- “I devoured them” -- a thought ironically illustrated with shots of  Spirited Away’s “No Face” gobbling up workers at the film’s mythical bathhouse.

The onrushing near-total victory of CGI over traditional 2D animation is a counterpoint and reflection of Miyazaki’s concern about what he sees as his own diminishing abilities, which leads to a surprising moment: the legendary 2D animator is considering creating a CGI-animated short film starring a caterpillar. (“I can’t draw a caterpillar with a pencil so I have to turn to CGI.”)

Wearing his trademark over-the-chest apron, Miyazaki views a preliminary version of his character in motion. “It was all done mathematically,” he’s told, with the computer mimicking how the caterpillar’s hair moves in nature and even controlling how much wind resistance the hairs face, a bit of high-tech magic that gives Miyazaki a chuckle. (Later on, examining a vector diagram of Boro, he declares the process “like designing a virus.”)

We see Miyazaki demonstrating exactly how the animal should move, how to tweak their animation for the benefit of the young animators. It’s a start to their collaboration, but there’s a long way to go. “There’s no escape now,” he says outside the studio; it’s the first hint of ambivalence about the project he’s chosen to undertake.

His ambivalence grows as the project progresses, muttering “who started this stupid project?” Meanwhile, two young animators agree “this won’t take long once we have the characters,” a snatch of conversation guaranteed to make anyone watching the film give out with a sardonic “really?”

Along the way we see glimpses of the in-progress production on the animators’ workstations, with Miyazaki (learning how to use one himself) forever tweaking, pointing out the tiniest details to bring his caterpillar to life. The increasingly complex glimpses of the ongoing project are fascinating, charming, but the documentary never lets us see more than those glimpses.

Miyazaki the humanist asserts himself later in the film when an animator raves about a “deep learning” artificial-intelligence animation technique and screens grotesque footage of a humanoid crawling/rolling along a surface. After viewing the clip, an emotional Miyazaki describes a disabled friend’s painful difficulty in moving about, excoriating the animator by telling him “whoever made this has no thought of pain, it’s very unpleasant…you can make horrible things if you want, but it’s an awful insult to life.”

Going one-on-one with CGI production revitalizes the animation legend. “Hand drawing’s the only answer—I won’t run from it anymore,” he says, hand-animating a shot that matches anything the computer’s able to spit out. At film’s end, Hayao Miyazaki reopens Studio Ghibli and un-retires yet again: he’s decided to make a new animated feature in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “It’ll be something new, a place I’ve never been before.”

Hayao Miyazaki’s films have taken us to many new and unknown places in his long and illustrious career: Totoro’s forest, Laputa’s city in the sky, Ponyo’s undersea kingdom…wherever his creative vision may take him this time, it’s unlikely we’ll be disappointed.

***

Never-Ending Man leaves Boro the Caterpillar’s fate unresolved, but Miyazaki did ultimately complete his first entirely-CGI effort. However, the short film can only be seen at the Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo. The legendary director is currently working on a new feature film, called Kimi-tachi wa Do Ikiru ka, which roughly translates as How Do You Live?

According to Wikipedia, the film is based on a 1937 novel about a high school student who “deals with spiritual growth, poverty, and the overall experience as human beings.”  Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki says, “the film is for his grandson as his way of saying ‘Grandpa is moving onto the next world soon but he is leaving this film behind because he loves you.’”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.

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