Film Reviews

‘Never-Ending Man’ Goes Inside a Master’s Mind

Doc observes animator Hayao Miyazaki in “retirement”


Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki
(Japan, 70 min.)
Dir. Kaku Arakawa

“It’s an insult to life,” mutters filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki to a flabbergasted colleague in Never-Ending Man. The legendary Japanese animator makes the terse remark as he endures his colleague’s demonstration about the alleged wonders of computer-generated animation. The demo features a ghastly zombie-like character who rolls around the screen. The younger tech-savvy CGI demonstrates to Miyazaki a new algorithm that dictates an animated creature’s movements, but cannot decipher a character’s leg from its head. The onscreen movements are thus a macabre dance of flailing limbs that might look cool in a video game, but they’re an understandable affront to an animator like Miyazaki, who has spent nearly every day of his illustrious career hand-drawing frames that are both true to life and wonders of imagination.

Miyazaki is sensitive to the differences between newfangled animation and the traditional ways because Never-Ending Man observes him as he struggles with the latest chapter of his life: retirement. (For about the third time.) The film begins in 2013 just after Miyazaki completed his then-final feature The Wind Rises and closed the doors of the famous Studio Ghibli. Director Kaku Arakawa follows Miyazaki back home and observes the elderly man as he tries to slow down and relax. Retirement doesn’t suit him, though, as their candid conversations quickly evoke his restlessness.

The no frills doc, shot intimately if haphazardly, isn’t much to look at, but it’s an intriguing window into the psychology of a master filmmaker as he struggles to relinquish his craft. The itch that eats away at Miyazaki is a confession he made to his staff before closing up shop: he thinks he’s too old for the CGI animation that is the norm these days. Never-Ending Man sees a master test his limits as Miyazaki comes out of retirement and vows to conquer new technology. He is determined to prove that the human hand and heart will always trump a computer’s wizardry.

The first tests don’t go well as Miyazaki labours to find the best match between the computer’s algorithms and his demands for perfection. The doc also captures the brutality of Miyazaki’s uncompromising vision as he distrusts everybody’s work save for his own, spending countless hours drawing frames and fretting about minutiae to validate his legacy. His computer-versed assistants do their best to keep pace with his uncompromising vision while producing the short film Boro the Caterpillar. The results are surprising.

Never-Ending Man essentially leaves off where Mami Sunada’s 2014 documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness ended. (The film is available to stream on Kanopy.) The continuity between the films offers delightful insight into one of cinema’s singular artists. They reveal the demands, dedications, and philosophies that distinguish a master filmmaker from the crowd. There’s something especially humbling to the portrait of Miyazaki in Never-Ending Man, however, as the master reaffirms the superiority of the hand-drawn image to a computer’s code. Miyazaki is the last of a dying breed and the film observes the sun setting on an art form that introduced many a cinephile’s love for film . It leaves one eagerly awaiting Miyazaki’s next masterpiece before he retires again.

Never-Ending Man opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on June 28.