Workaholic anime legend Hayao Miyazaki has “retired” so many times after completing difficult films that each announcement is met with a great deal of public bemusement. However, after the completion of his last feature film in 2013, The Wind Rises, and the virtual shuttering of his Studio Ghibli production offices, it appeared like his retirement might have a better-than-average chance of success. This documentary opens in that fallow period after his latest retirement, as he whiles away his days puttering around his house and bemoaning his increasing age. It’s an odd choice of timeframe for a documentary, until Miyazaki suddenly gets a new creative itch he yearns to scratch.
After avoiding CGI for his entire career, he finally gets inspired to explore its application for the development of a short film about a caterpillar. Working with a team of young CG artists, he tries to realize his vision with technology, but mostly delivers detailed hand-drawn cinematics that the youngsters then have to try to replicate in their computers. The documentary exposes Miyazaki’s frustration with the creative process and his long-known proclivity for being an exacting taskmaster, especially during the development of the opening scene that he finally solves to his satisfaction. All along the way, he doubts whether he can really complete the film, he reminds everyone that he’s an old man, and yet he’s shown to be the only one working on it over weekends.
Here’s the thing though: hardly anyone will ever have a chance to see his completed film, making his exhausting execution of its production all the more remarkable. The animated short was produced to be screened solely at his Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan, a notoriously difficult venue to gain admission to due to its extremely limited daily tickets that must be purchased weeks in advance, and even there it joins a roster of about seven other short films he’s directed solely for the museum over the years, meaning that even the tiny audience that gets into the museum still only has a slim chance of being there on a day that this film is screened (they only screen one short per day, replaying it throughout the day). I had the distinct pleasure of finally visiting the museum last month, but sure enough, the caterpillar film wasn’t on the schedule. Miyazaki seems to mostly be driven to create for his own amusement, and at this stage of his towering career that’s perfectly fine.
As a documentary, the film leaves a bit to be desired. It was produced by the NHK television network in Japan, making it feel more like an episode of 60 Minutes than a proper documentary film, especially due to its brief 70-minute runtime. It doesn’t delve into historical footage or studio back story, assuming that its audience is fully aware of Miyazaki’s legacy. Although it was shot over a two-year timeframe, it’s not really clear that much time has passed during the film. There’s no voiceover narration to guide the proceedings presented on screen, unless you select a shorter and inferior alternate cut of the film included on the Blu-ray. There’s no real payoff, since we don’t get to see the caterpillar short or even see any clear indication that it was successfully completed and delivered to the museum (it was, over a year ago). We’re left with a mostly empty studio and the potential folly of a legend who doesn’t know when it’s time to quit, surely enough impetus for the most devout Miyazaki fans but not recommended for casual viewers.
The Ghibli ethos was explored to much greater effect in the 2013 film The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (as with this film, also distributed by GKIDS in the U.S.) as it showed the studio operating at full power while churning out two simultaneous feature films at the end of a remarkable decades-long run, likely the final days of glory for the studio. Unfortunately for this film, it doesn’t even get to serve as a bookend for Miyazaki’s career, as he is currently once again hard at work on a new feature film targeting release around the time of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.