Here is just a tiny sample of the many different ways that Hayao Miyazaki — arguably the greatest animator the cinema has ever seen — describes himself in Kaku Arakawa’s documentary about the artist’s life since his most recent attempt to retire: “I’m an old geezer.” “I’m used up.” And, at the 2013 press conference where he publicly declared that his beloved Studio Ghibli would no longer be in the business of making feature-length films: “I’ve decided to treat any desire to continue as the delusions of an old man.”
As anyone who’s seen Mami Sunada’s extraordinary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” already knows, Miyazaki can be kind of a buzzkill. And here, in “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki,” the creator of profoundly vital movies like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away” is full-on goth.
Originally aired on NHK WORLD TV in 2016, and now being released in U.S. theaters for a special two-night run, “Never-Ending Man” is a little too meaty to be written off as a curio for die-hard fans, and a little too lean to be worth recommending to a general audience; again, “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is a much richer experience in every respect. Still, the insight Arakawa’s documentary offers into Miyazaki’s inner struggle — and the perspective it provides of the incurable drive and self-doubt that churn inside so many artists — makes it a valuable portrait, even if Miyazaki’s own magnum opus, “The Wind Rises,” covered much of the same ground in a more affecting way.
“Never-Ending Man” follows Miyazaki as he suffers through his latest bout of retirement, a process that predominantly consists of shuffling around his Victorian-style house, feeding the birds that peck around outside, and muttering to himself about various kinds of death. This unpolished film only runs for 70 minutes, but its reluctant subject — who repeatedly asks Arakawa why any of this is worth capturing on camera — unlooses enough despair to fill the pages of an epic Russian novel.
The beginning of the documentary, which contains most of its bleakest moments, almost seems to anticipate a fatal crisis of faith, as though priming viewers for a version of “First Reformed” about Hayao Miyazaki coming to grips with the demise of hand-drawn animation. “Our era is ending,” he resigns, the solemn camera staring at a row of barren desks inside the Studio Ghibli office where dozens of animators would draw until their hands went numb; anything to satisfy their boss’ impossible expectations. “Maybe it’s all for the best.”
Of course, Miyazaki doesn’t actually believe that. It’s the obvious majesty of his previous work that paralyzes him from trying to create something new. “I want to create something extraordinary,” he eventually admits when his restlessness starts to get the better of him, “I just don’t know if I can do it.” He just doesn’t know if he can do it again. He’s a victim of his own genius, as the same high standard that turned Studio Ghibli into the greatest animation the world has ever known has started to taunt him from its perch, as though Miyazaki were constantly looking down on himself.
Sometimes, that insecurity dovetails with his open contempt for the computer-driven animation that’s made him feel like a relic in his own time. There’s a hilarious aside where Miyazaki, seemingly unprovoked, starts moaning about “Frozen.” “That song ‘Let it Go’ is popular now,” he says to no one in particular. “It’s all about being yourself. But that’s terrible — self-satisfied people are boring. We have to push hard and surpass ourselves.”
Arakawa provides a vivid sense that Miyazaki doesn’t recognize himself when he’s not pushing hard against the limits of his body, his time, and his own seemingly boundless imagination. And so little explanation is needed when Miyazaki starts toying with an idea for a short film — just a small project for the Studio Ghibli museum to help keep his hands busy. He almost seems to convince himself that he’s just doodling, and that he can make something without putting his all into it. Good luck with that. Cut to: The Studio Ghibli office teeming with life once again like some kind of recurring dream.
Miyazaki’s first CGI-driven project, “Boro the Caterpillar” might be a cute short about a newly hatched insect poking its head through the grass, but it’s better understood as the work of a man who sees the end of the world coming for him, and is trying to meet the apocalypse on his own terms (Miyazaki insists upon talking about his work in such cataclysmic terms). “I never want to regret not trying something,” he says, while picking up a Wacom tablet like it’s the key piece of evidence from a crime scene. The shapeless middle section of Arakawa’s documentary focuses on Miyazaki’s frustrated attempts to make sense of the new technology, and much of the footage here is likely to bore viewers who aren’t already fascinated by the filmmaker’s process, and how incapable it is of accommodating change (this critic was rapt throughout).
Memorable asides and flashbacks are sprinkled in throughout — “You’re drawing people, not characters” we see Miyazaki bark at a devastated employee in a choice bit of archival footage, while Arakawa layers footage of the insatiable “No-Face” from “Spirited Away” over Miyazaki’s admission that he “devoured” the talent of his employees — but Arakawa seems too delighted by his film’s incredible access to do much more than share it with us. It’s hard to blame him, and even harder to be upset about such generosity, especially considering that you can only watch the completed version of “Boro the Caterpillar” by traveling to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.
But the short itself isn’t the thing, so much as Miyazaki’s need to make it. Until he finishes “Boro,” he’ll be incomplete. And when he finishes “Boro,” of course there’s something else right behind it. For some people, there always will be. In the final minutes of “Never-Ending Man,” Miyazaki appears to find some measure of acceptance for his inability to stop. He begins work on another feature — hand-drawn, of course. Doubts persist, and some are more pronounced than ever. Sketching out a production timeline that stretches until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Miyazaki writes: “Am I alive at age 78???” But he knows he might as well be dead already if he doesn’t pick up his pencil and get to work.
“All important things in the world are a hassle,” he sighs, taking a deep breath that will have to sustain him until the film is done. The moment calls to mind another great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, who made his last feature at the age of 83. It’s called “Madadayo,” which translates to “Not Yet,” and it tells the story of an aging professor, and the students who celebrate his birthday every year by asking if he’s ready to die. The professor’s reply is always the same: “Madadayo!” Not yet.
GKIDS will play “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki” in theaters on December 13 and December 18. Visit their site for more information.