Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement several times throughout his career, but in 2013 it looked like he meant it. Studio Ghibli, the anime studio formed by Hayao and his mentor/producer/competitor Isao Takahata, where he made classics like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, closed the doors of its production office, and disbanded the staff. Miyazaki was apparently done, leaving behind him a legacy of quality that's unrivaled in most of filmmaking, let alone animated films.
But the recent announcement that both Hayao and his son Goro Miyazaki are producing feature films with the studio has made it clear - whatever Hayao's protestations of being tired and used up (at his retirement announcement, he stated that any thoughts of working on a new feature film were "the delusions of an old man") Hayao cannot not create, which is the central theme of Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki.
Though not by the same production team, this documentary about Miyazaki's re-entry into the animation world after more than a year away is a kind of follow-up to 2013's mesmerizing The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. That documentary followed Miyazaki during the last years of production on The Wind Rises until his eventual announced retirement. While that was a slick, beautifully produced feature film documentary, Never-Ending Man feels more like a fairly standard Japanese TV documentary - which it is, having been produced by Japanese TV network NHK. With rougher camera work and less elegance, there's a fly on the wall quality to this film, even though Hayao Miyazaki regularly addresses the camera man - usually offering him tea or asking what the point is in filming him.
Never-Ending Man documents Miyazaki's growing boredom and restlessness in retirement, before a chance meeting with a production team piques his interest in pursuing a project in CGI. Hayao's complete inability to properly use a computer means he would have to cede control to the production team, which is the point. He can't concentrate like he used to, his energy seems depleted. He's ready to have some help.
It is also the opportunity to finally produce a film idea that has been long in the gestation - "Boro the Caterpillar". Miyazaki had been sketching ideas for the short film since 1995, but never had a complete grasp on what he wanted to do with it. As a team slowly assembles to begin working on some tests, it looks like Hayao Miyazaki is back for one last hurrah as a filmmaker.
There's an interesting contradiction to Miyazaki's character. While his films' themes tend to favor gentleness, pacifism, and cooperation, he is an irascible taskmaster, a perfectionist and a cranky old man who will not hesitate to tell animators that if they can't do better, they should go ahead and quit. "He wishes he had a second him," is how long-time Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki puts it. This has been alluded to in other documentaries about Hayao Miyazaki, but it is shown more full-blown in Never-Ending Man. His animators are clearly frustrated with the demands Miyazaki places on them, and despite his protestation that he can't do the drawings anymore, he regularly goes over their CGI work frame by frame, ordering adjustments. This isn't something CGI can do easily, since it involves manipulating computer-generated models like puppets rather than the re-drawing of a character for every frame.
Never-Ending Man has a slim narrative arc. After getting back into animation, Miyazaki struggles to find what he's missing about his short's films story, and to understand how CGI might be holding it back. The film allows the events to unfold without narration explaining things. Hell, by the end of the film we aren't even told if "Boro the Caterpillar" completed production or if the one-scene breakthrough didn't prove enough to sustain the rest of the film. In point of fact, it was completed and premiered at the Ghibli Museum in March 21, 2018 - one of many Ghibli short films that are only shown at the Museum Theater.
Never-Ending Man is an interesting companion piece to The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. That film highlighted the toll that work put on Miyazaki, the painstaking attention to detail that went into his storyboarding, his split-second decision making, and overall was a testament to his undeniable genius. While some of the artists interviewed in that film talked about how difficult Miyazaki could be to work with, it doesn't quite come across. Ghibli looked like a wonderful place to work under the tutelage of a severe but passionate genius. In Never-Ending Man, it looks like a very stressful place to be. This documentary displays Miyazaki more on edge, less avuncular and more severe... though both films highlight his obvious love of children, which is as much a part of his character as his grim view of the rest of mankind. It's an interesting new piece of the puzzle that is Hayao Miyazaki, one of the world's great living filmmakers.
Never-Ending Man is being released on Blu-ray and DVD by GKids. Besides a trailer for the film, the extra available on this release is an alternate 48-minute version of the movie, edited with different footage and including English narration. This alternate version is very much a mixed bag - while some of the different footage provides new insight, the English narration is cloying. The narrator's voice sounds like she's talking to four-year-olds, and explains unnecessarily what we're seeing on screen.