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Never-Ending Man: Hayao MiyazakiDirected by Kaku Arakawa
A cinema verite style documentary, “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki” follows the legendary animator as he plans one more short film after announcing his own retirement. For fans of anime, no introduction is necessary for Hayao Miyazaki, and “Never-Ending Man” banks on that. This isn’t a documentary encapsulating Miyazaki’s life and the history of Studio Ghibli, but rather a personal story of an elderly man as he staves off the deathly stillness of his self-imposed retirement. So he muses on making a short film about a caterpillar instead of a lengthy feature. Introduced to some young upstarts who try to warm him up to using CGI instead of the painstaking, hand-drawn animation he’s used to, Miyazaki seems rejuvenated by the trials of completing his short.
Directed by Kaku Arakawa for NHK TV in 2016 and now distributed in the U.S. by GKIDS, it’s shot mostly on handheld cameras which don’t look particularly flattering when blown up for a cinema screen, but it does give the film a personalized, fly-on-the-wall feel. The tone is set early on when Miyazaki mentions his dislike of “Let It Go,” the then-new song from “Frozen,” Disney’s mega-hit animated feature. He bristles at the idea of being self-satisfied with the idea of being who he is. Instead, Miyazaki values second-guessing his abilities and what can be learned through struggle (though he sure talks with exuberant authority to his subordinate animators). Miyazaki saw making this short, “Boro the Caterpillar” (which saw release in March, 2018) as a source of vitality and pointed out how he practically fed off the energy and enthusiasm of his younger staff members. Though in the past feeding off the exuberance of others has satiated Miyazaki, while leaving others burnt out.
Miyazaki — and the films made with his Studio Ghibli team — has been beloved for decades. But In recent years, a cult of personality has arisen around him. To many, he represents a kindly, grandfatherly figure, spinning tales of whimsy. But to the many who have worked with him over the years, he’s not considered the warmest of souls.
This feature doc honors his legacy but also reveals that he’s a lonely and aloof curmudgeon. Brief glimpses of his harshness with animators emerges as he berates one to think before he draws or just quit (“Ghost in the Shell” director Mamoru Oshii once said Miyazaki ran Ghibli like the Kremlin). His old friends are either dying off or he’s lamenting the loss of (unnamed) would-be successors to Ghibli’s helm, which he either burnt-out or drove away. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice a shot of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” director Hideaki Anno during his tenure at Ghibli in one scene.
The film’s primary motif is loneliness and quiet. Miyazaki is shown living by himself in a home that is colossal by Tokyo standards, with nary a mention of his wife or his son Goro (Hayao’s relationship with Goro has been strained over his publicly stated displeasure with “Tales From Earthsea,” his son’s directorial debut). Throughout the film, Miyazaki prepares coffee for an unseen documentarian, the drip of the coffee echoing an hourglass. The unglamorous handheld camerawork contrasts sharply with his films’ vivid colorful world of imagination.
The film correlates this solitary air with Ghibli itself. Though Miyazaki has done so much throughout his career, the film perpetuates the idea that Ghibli is Miyazaki and Miyazaki alone. For example, there’s no mention of animator Isao Takahata (Studio Ghibli co-founder, and director of The "Tale of Princess Kaguya", "Grave of the Fireflies", and many more), who passed away two years after this film was made. When prior studio members are mentioned, it’s only to remark their death. Granted, this film isn’t meant to be a history of the studio itself or a chronicle of Miyazaki’s life; it’s a brief episode in his lengthy career. And though it paints a picture of him as lonely, wounded, and uncertain of the future. audiences do see him still moving forward because that’s what he has always done.
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