Hayao Miyazaki is restless. Or, one could infer as much from the title of Kaku Arakawa’s documentary, Never-Ending Man. For over fifty-five years, the now 77-year-old director has stood tirelessly at the helm of one of the most prolific animation studios in the world, producing a body of work that’s left an indelible mark on the world of animation. The first Japanese director to be awarded “Best Animated feature” for his 2001 film Spirited Awayand the recipient of three total Academy Award nominations, Miyazaki’s name is recognized by those with even the most cursory knowledge of Japanese animation.
But this amounts to the silt of trivia, telling you nothing more about the man that you wouldn’t have already known from a glance at his wikipedia page. Who is he though, really? For a man whose films have brought so much joy and recognition to the medium of Japanese animation, Miyazaki has played the part of the ever-aloof auteur, forever engrossed at work in the throes of some yet even greater-to-be fantasy. What weighs on his mind at night?
Never-Ending Man documents Miyazaki’s return to animation after his 2013 retirement, following the three-year process of producing his first CG-animated short, Boro the Caterpillar, the idea for which Miyazaki had nurtured in some form or another since as early as 1979. When asked if his decision to use CGI was founded on a belief in the medium’s possibilities, Miyazaki balks at the suggestion. “No, that’s not it. I have ideas I can’t draw myself. This might be the way to do it. That’s all I hope.” This sentiment from Miyazaki is repeated several times throughout the course of Never-Ending Man, and it’s in these moments where we, the audience, can catch a chance glimpse at the heart of the man.
Miyazaki’s propensity for announcing retirement, only to subsequently retract said announcements months later, has become something of a running joke among fans and critics throughout his late career. The tone of his announcement in 2013, his sixth to date, however, carried all the weight and portent of a life well spent, though all too aware of its imminent conclusion. “I try to stay in shape and go easy, but it’s getting harder to concentrate. It’s a physical fact: old age brings problems. It can’t be helped,” Miyazaki said in a press conference following the release of The Wind Rises, his then thought to be “final” film which premiered just two months prior. “My era of feature-length films is clearly over. I’ve decided to treat any desire to continue as the delusions of an old man.” Gradually, we learn that Miyazaki’s decision to retire in 2013 was not made out of any exasperation for the medium itself, no, but out of fear—fear that his exacting creative vision would be stymied by the inescapable toll of his advancing age. The fear of an otherwise immaculate career, painstakingly cultivated over the span of a lifetime, being sullied by a subpar effort born out of, in his own words, “the delusions of an old man.”
It’s a depressing routine within mainstream discourse of anime as of late to anoint, at least what it feels like, any and every anime director who has a pulse and happens to be in vogue at the time as the so-called “next” Hayao Miyazaki. Depressing because, were we to take the man himself at his own word, even Hayao Miyazaki never set out to become who people now know as the Hayao Miyazaki. “I’ve never thought I’d make lots of films. Just making one is something to be grateful for.” Miyazaki says in one of the film’s later scenes. “We never thought our films would be popular. We accepted that. We just made what we wanted. But that’s why we survived. If we’d tried to please, we’d be long forgotten.” But he did always want a successor. “I trained successors. But I couldn’t let go. I devoured them.” Miyazaki confides in a voiceover earlier on in the film. “I devoured their talent. There was no one left to take over. The studio devours people. That was my destiny. I ate them all.”
Though his name is never spoken, it’s apparent to those with a cursory knowledge of the studio’s history that Miyazaki is undoubtedly referring to the late Yoshifumi Kondo, a former key animator and animation director at Ghibli who worked on several of the studio’s earliest films such as Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso. The director of the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart, the first Ghibli production to be helmed by neither Miyazaki or Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, Kondo was being groomed to become the former’s eventual successor until, on January 21, 1998, he passed away at the age of 47 from a combined aortic dissection and aneurysm exacerbated by the intensity of his workload. The shock of Kondo’s passing so deeply affected Miyazaki that it prompted a top-to-bottom reassessment of priorities and working conditions at Ghibli and, in all likelihood, is what primarily influenced his first known flirtation with retirement in the wake of Princess Mononoke’s release.
Never-Ending Man is an impressive documentary, made all the more so for the fact that it was initially commissioned as a made-for-television feature by NHK TV, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization. Arakawa’s film is an intimate portrait of Miyazaki in all the multitude facets of his character— the anxious and exacting creator, the world-weary philosopher, the withholding taskmaster and caustic critic— as he grapples with not only his own mortality, but with the “hassles” (see: challenges) inherent to the transition from traditional to computer-generated animation. Though we, the audience, might already be well aware of Miyazaki’s imminent return to feature-length production for what is likely to be now his final “final” film, Never-Ending Man’s ending remains affecting in its mortal implication. No small feat for a documentary of one of the most recognizable personas of late 20th century animation. Barring the kitschy production value of the film’s frequent intertitles, Never-Ending Man is requisite viewing for any admirer or critic of Miyazaki’s career or the medium of Japanese animation.
Director: Kaku Arakawa
Starring: Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Yuhei Sakuragi, Nobuo Kawakami, Atsushi Okui
Release Date: December 13, 2018 (original premiere November 13, 2016)
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications, including Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.