In 2013, acclaimed film director and animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature animation; “I’m serious this time,” he told reporters soon after. Of course, by this time in his career, Miyazaki— and by extension, the team he had cultivated at Studio Ghibli— had nothing more he had more to prove— having helmed masterworks like Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and Miyazaki has announced his retirement near the release of the Oscar-nominated film The Wind Rises. Yet, despite his retirement from feature films, Miyazaki would soon begin work on an animated short film, which would become Boro the Caterpillar. This period becomes impetuous of the 2016 NHK documentary Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, a Kaku Arakawa-directed television film following Hayao Miyazaki in the first year of Boro the Caterpillar’s production as he slowly decides that he wants to direct one more feature film.
The film acts as fascinating documentation of Miyazaki’s artistic process and resiliency to create. In one breath, the film follows Miyazaki throughout the pre-production and early production phases of Boro the Caterpillar and reveals his approach to these formative stages in the film’s life. From conceptual sketches to layout animations and tests, watching Miyazaki work and obsess over the look and motion of his characters remains a fascinating window into his creative vision. Particularly, I found myself captivated by his efforts to interrogate and solve the reservations he had about his story, which the filmmakers use as a narrative through-line in the first half, which leads to an exciting “aha” moment. Meanwhile, we also see Miyazaki diving into utilizing 3D CG animation for the first time. Some of the most enlightening moments of the film remain when he breaks down the foundational components of animation to demonstrate the motivation of the motion to his other artists. As well, it remains engaging to witness a master of his craft open himself to learning a new skill set of such adaptation would create a better film.
Moreover, the film also helps to humanize Miyazaki. In an early scene in the movie, we see Miyazaki inking an illustration for an exhibition in the Ghibli museum, which he regards as doodling— “that’s all I can do now.” Indeed, this period in his career defines itself through Miyazaki’s doubt at the idea of being able to withstand the mental and physical toll of directing another feature, yet his evident persisting passion for continuing to create art. In this respect, the film’s more lowkey production shines the most. Of course, much of the limitations that define the aesthetics of the documentary come from it being a made for television movie— qualities like there seemingly being one camera used or the abundance of digital artifacting in low light scenes weren’t artistic choices as much as they exist as symptoms of a presumably low budget. However, they help give the film its intimate personality— at times feeling more like a home allowing the viewer an impromptu-esque fly-on-the-wall point of view of Miyazaki, both as a shepherding artist also as a man growing increasingly aware of the mortality of himself and his art. The viewer witnesses Miyazaki both at his most animation-dad— as he rattles off inspiring quotes and draws layout animations to help his CG artists— but also Miyazaki as a flawed person doubting his abilities and overworking on layouts because he feels he can’t trust the other animators to create it to his standard. Contradictory portraits of Miyazaki— like a scene of him leaving biscuits out for a small bird at his window shown minutes before a moment of him berating a young animator in the fourth chapter of the film titled “Hayao Absorbs Youthful Energy”— exist simultaneously to help illustrate the artist as a depthful, multifaceted person.
Indeed, the film works best to illustrate Hayao Miyazaki as a person driven to create. In this respect, I’d recommend this film most emphatically to other artists. Although a delightful watch regardless, the film often opts for a relatively objective portrayal of Miyazaki’s creative process while rarely interrogating what inspires him to create. As such, this choice on the filmmakers’ part becomes more permissible when you also get it— when you don’t need an explanation for why someone would pursue their craft with ambition even into the twilight of their life. Of course, you can easily find comedy in the situation when pulling away for a moment— especially in the scenes where an Oscar-winning director questions the validity of his legacy as he stresses over making a funny cartoon caterpillar move fluidly— but and thus, the film serves as a reflection of what it is to be an artist— to “move always forward” by shooting for the stars.
The Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki is available to stream on HBO Max. This is not an ad. I just like animation.