What They Say:
After an encounter with young CGI animators, Miyazaki embarks on a new project using these techniques. But the artist, who has been adamant about hand-drawn animation, confronts many challenges that threaten to cancel the film. Can an old master who thinks he’s past his prime shine once again? Shot over two years, Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki provides a unique, fascinating glimpse into the mind and creative process of one of animation’s most iconic storytellers.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Hayao Miyazaki is the rare person where those outside of anime outside of Japan know his name. There’s a lot of great talent working in the anime field for the last few decades with some projects that are beyond belief. But Miyazaki, though his highly accessible standalone works, managed to break through to audiences around the world in a way little else has. His films were able to be family friendly without shying away from darker issues, choices, and ideas but still delivering not characters but people and their stories in a way that were compelling across languages and cultures. Most everyone remembers their first Miyazaki movie and many remembering when they explored his TV material, or if you were like me you were able to introduce your kids to his work through Panda Go Panda and grow them into so much more from there.
Having enjoyed his work since the ‘80s and read so much about him I feel like I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know at this point. What sticks in the past decade or so are his attempts at retiring, which haven’t stuck at all. This documentary begins with him going through the process of entering retirement. We see how the Studio has been shut down. The staffers let go. The empty desks. The lights off. The quiet. Miyazaki walking through there as the camera lingers behind. All while your mind races wondering what was created where, the frustrations that were born in such a setting, the disagreements, the mentoring, the joy of it all with a project that came to life. Knowing that your favorite film was likely brought to reality there that will sit with you forever is something to really grapple with.
One can only really imagine what he thinks when he sees that.
What you do get is a man who cannot sit still. He wants to create. He jokes at one point that if you break his skin he’ll bleed ink. But at the same time he’s facing two very different frustrations. One is that he is old, talks about it as a defense mechanism at times, and cannot create the way that he did before. Concentration is hard, things aren’t coming across in the same way, and he knows he doesn’t have it in him for another feature film. The other thing is that the world is shifting to CG animation and he has no love for it. But it may be the thing that he needs by working with a new team of animators, a path for him to tell a short film story of Boro the Caterpillar. The bulk of the film is about him entering this process, working with these young animators, and trying to find the right path not just for him but for them.
There are a lot of fascinating things that come to light in this project as it goes along. His mild joking about how he ended up having no real successor to take on for him eats at him because he knows it was his own cause. He consumed the young animators and creatives rather than nurtured into something that could give the studio a greater legacy. Tying these words to scenes from Ponyo with everything being eaten up is a perfect representation moment. What you get sense of here is that he hopes he can teach some of these CG animators what it means to do this. Not just to create the images, but to create the story, the reason for the details, the why of certain motions, the truth of storytelling beyond the bits and bytes of technology. One of the best moments for me was where he talked in years past about how you’re not working on characters, you’re working on people. Treat them as that and not as characters to tell their tale authentically.
The process of creating the CG short film is engaging throughout and it moves back and forth in time, gives us time with Miyazaki in his home, and also lets Toshio Suzuki work some really good moments in talking about his longtime friend and collaborator. The sequence that really stood out for me comes later in the film when a different group of people come in to pitch their work to him. Now, I can’t know what their real intention was but they wanted to show someone of renown how artificial intelligence could take over for people in doing animation. There are reasons to pursue this and deal with it because there are a slew of other applications. But they did it in such a way with such a person that he could only shut it down. It was disgusting. The use of a partially limbed figure or one with no head and showing how it would move and that the AI came up with it was the worst choice possible. When Miyazaki shows such concern and understanding by relating the story of a friend that was disabled and how everything was a struggle, you could just feel time stop.
I could not feel bad for the AI group that came in. They bungled everything about their presentation and they were working the opposite of what Miyazaki espouses. There was no humanity to what was produced. It was grotesque. And he called them out on it. It’s a case of not questioning if you should do something like AI illustration but how you apply it. And they applied it in the worst absolute way possible.
Of course, as the larger documentary goes on, we see how Miyazaki can’t help but to go to Suzuki with the idea of one more feature film. It’s almost comical when you get down to it as they have their secret meeting filmed by the documentarian. And as Suzuki looks like he could go either way in reacting. Seeing them map out a three year plan and the first stages of what’s to come – that doesn’t have a date as of this writing but should be out within the next year – leaves you excited. Not just because it’s another Miyazaki film but because you know that even though he has bent the CG animators to his will during Boro the Caterpillar, he himself has learned and grown as well. And there is a far better sense that this next tale is the one that is the most important to him after this long career that has left him unsure if he’s leaving anything of value. A story for his grandson, a legacy to him. It’s one that I’m already getting the tissues ready for and this documentary has me even more excited for it.
The extras for this release are interesting in that we get the usual pieces here with a couple of the trailers from both Japan and the US. But we also get the “alternate” version of this film that was recut for an NHK broadcast. That clocks in at 48-minutes and is a more traditional documentary style with an English narration to it. It covers largely the same things but it definitely has a different tone and it’s another way of looking at how a project can be edited into something that’s almost very different.
Just as much as many Hayao Miyazaki movies belong in every anime fans’ library, this film deserves to be there right alongside them. It’s an engaging piece into the later years of his life and career, all pleasantly sanitized I’m sure, but there’s a lot of important things in here to take with you not just when viewing his works but others as well. His films have been a significant part of my life and my kids lives and it’s heartbreaking when you hear him wonder if it was worthwhile, but he’s asking a very different question than the one I’m thinking of when he says that. There’s a good bit of tragedy mixed into this and that helps to balance things out a lot. It’s a very worthwhile project to take in and I can’t recommend it enough.
Japanese Language, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Trailers, Alternate Version
Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: B+
Released By: Shout! Factory
Release Date: April 30th, 2019
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.