Hayao Miyazaki has threatened to quit before, so you can’t blame the “Spirited Away” director’s fans for being just a wee bit skeptical when Miyazaki announced in September 2013 that “The Wind Rises” would be his final feature. “But… this time… I mean it,” he insisted at a crowded press conference, unable to keep a straight face as the words left his lips — as if the person he was most trying to convince was himself.
Certainly, documentary filmmaker Kaku Arakawa had his doubts that Studio Ghibli — the anime company Miyazaki co-founded with director Isao Takahata — was gone for good, even though it had officially dismissed its hundreds of employees and now sat empty. Over the previous decade, Arakawa had visited the studio on various occasions to shoot TV reports, establishing a rapport that served as the excuse to check in with the director at his personal atelier in early 2015.
Would it surprise you to learn that 16 months after his big announcement, Miyazaki was still surrounded by his art supplies, doodling a new character called “Boro the Caterpillar”? So begins “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki,” an affectionate look at the master’s inextinguishable impulse to create that’s all the more enchanting for its casual familiarity. Leveraging the access he’s had in the past, Arakawa checks in with the animation legend from time to time, showing up with just his camera, no crew (for one of the most important scenes, Miyazaki isn’t even wired for sound), to document the director’s own caterpillar-like re-emergence from retirement.
Apart from that initial visit, when one senses that his presence is a genuine intrusion, it feels as though Miyazaki welcomes the camera’s presence. At one point, he even takes a playful swipe at “Frozen,” offering a contrarian take on the Disney movie’s hit song “Let It Go.” In any case, Miyazaki is fully aware that he’s making history: “Boro the Caterpillar” will be his first all-computer-generated short, and it’s fascinating to watch as he justifies that decision (“I have ideas that I can’t draw myself,” he says, relying on technology to simulate the way the accordion-like insect’s body bends and compresses as it walks) and subsequently supervises each key stage of its design with CGI director Yuhei Sakuragi and his team.
To be fair, Miyazaki hadn’t said he was retiring completely, but merely that he planned to shift his attention to short films, which are traditionally screened only at the Ghibli Museum — which is a shame, since the 70-minute “Never-Ending Man” really feels as if it ought to be paired with “Boro the Caterpillar,” or else featured as a bonus feature on some upcoming Miyazaki boxed set. Arakawa breezes through the segment one would expect in a proper documentary profile, where he ought to make the case for why audiences should care about this filmmaker in the first place (instead, we get less than a minute of clips from his 11 beloved features, and a photo of him and producer Toshio Suzuki holding Oscars).
Unlike Mami Sunada’s earlier, and slightly more polished, 2013 doc “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” which offered an insider’s view of the business side of Ghibli’s operations while observing how Miyazaki and Takahata completed each of their final features, “Never-Ending Man” is less about process than a kind of personal philosophy (e.g. “I think CGI animators focus on external movement but ignore motivation,” or a surprisingly personal response to an AI vendor’s demo reel, featuring a crippled zombie-like character).
Arakawa burnishes the more insightful of these into chapter headings in what was originally aired as a television special on Japan’s NHK channel (to be released in the U.S. by Ghibli’s latest stateside ally, GKIDS), building up to Miyazaki’s big decision to tackle another feature. American audiences get these updates in headline form, once everything has been decided, so it’s a real treat to witness the mix of humility and confidence that define the artist some (including this critic) would argue is Japan’s greatest living director.
With Miyazaki, everything begins with a blank page and pure, childlike imagination, and the results feel like living someone else’s dreams: wild, surreal journeys that unfold in surprising, yet intuitive ways. Never far from his pencil and watercolors — nor without either coffee or his cigarettes — Miyazaki opens up about the incredibly high standards to which he holds himself and his staff, which explains why he was never able to find a successor, even as he reveals the weariness that besets him now.
The film’s final chapters show him reuniting with Suzuki to recruit the team he’ll need to complete one last feature, “How Do You Live?” (unnamed here), setting a target to be done before the 2019 Olympics (a deadline he’s unlikely to meet), and perhaps most poignantly, confessing how he’d rather die at work on such a project than as the “retired old geezer” he saw himself as at the outset of the documentary. Had Arakawa widened the portrait just a bit to include other voices — whether artistic collaborators or the young audiences still just discovering his work — the film would easily have demonstrated how his legacy will live forever. Then again, it’s assumed that anyone watching “Never-Ending Man” knows that already.