The anime films of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are revered around the world, and the fact that the acclaimed director keeps retiring and un-retiring has become somewhat of a running joke over the years. If you ever found yourself wondering why it’s so hard for him to put down the pencil for good, you owe it to yourself to sit down with the Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki documentary for a little over an hour of introspection and behind-the-scenes artistry. It may not bring us much closer to fully understanding what makes the creator tick, but it’s about as close as we’re going to get for the time being.
Never-Ending Man starts off with Miyazaki’s 2013 retirement press conference, in which even he jokes about how often he threatens to call it quits. This time it’s for good, he proclaims, but the documentary would have a much different title if that were the case. As we see during some intimate moments—in which Miyazaki casually chats about the life of a “retired geezer” in his modest atelier—even the briefest of respite doesn’t sit too well with him. It isn’t long before he embarks upon his next great challenge—which isn’t a word he likes to use, but it’s nonetheless apt—directing his first CGI-animated short, Boro the Caterpillar.
From this moment on the audience gets to witness the conflict that rages within Miyazaki on a seemingly constant basis. On one hand, he doesn’t trust anyone else to work on his projects, and he clearly gets a major boost in energy from the creative process. On the other, every aspect of his work seems like a total bother. Each step is a “hassle” in some way, and there are many times he appears eager to call it quits, especially when things aren’t going his way.
Pre-retirement work footage is occasionally interspersed, and Miyazaki seems no less bothered by everything in the not-so-distant past. These scenes are some of the finest displays of his meticulous attention to detail and his dedication to realistically depicting all characters. He reprimands animators who can’t seem to grasp the way your average person would carry a bundle of items. They wouldn’t let them hang, they’d wrap them tight in their arms! He’s as serious as can be when he says these youngsters aren’t going to cut it if they can’t get that right.
But it’s also these young animators on which he leans so heavily. Many of the film’s most insightful comments come from Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, who describes the way in which Miyazaki absorbs youthful energy and gets revitalized. He loves working with young people, but, in turn, working with him causes them to age. “What Hayao wants is a copy of himself,” Suzuki says of the impossible reality of it all.
It’s a never-ending cycle that Miyazaki himself sums up perfectly in this single quote, which almost makes him sound like a creature from one of his more fantastic films: “I trained successors but I couldn’t let go, I devoured them. I devoured their talent.”
That’s one of the key reasons Studio Ghibli as a whole is so dependent on Miyazaki to this day. As Suzuki says after the director’s last retirement, if he’s not working, there’s no reason not to disband the staff. At this point, with no overwhelmingly talented successors churning out work, Miyazaki remains the studio’s lifeblood. Meanwhile, he keeps having to attend funeral after funeral, which causes him to wonder why people are dying that should have outlived him. “Why wasn’t I taken first?”
At its core, Never-Ending Man is about an aging man struggling with the fact that it’s his work that keeps him going. I could watch this documentary a dozen times and still not fully understand what it is that gets him out of bed each day; whether he truly enjoys what he does and what he creates, or if it’s all just compulsory at heart. You may not find answers of your own here, but it’s still fascinating to watch him try to work everything out; to contend with new technology and face the future, somehow both enthusiastically and begrudgingly.
Perhaps it’s much simpler than we’re making it out to be, though. If there’s one defining piece of this puzzle, it’s Miyazaki’s response to the question of what motivates him.
“It’s boring doing nothing.”
Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki will be available on Blu-ray/DVD from GKIDS and Shout! Factory on April 30.