As Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki opens, it finds the Japanese animator at a low ebb in his life and career. Having recently announced his retirement from filmmaking, and not for the first time, Miyazaki appears to spend most of his days shuffling around his atelier, cooking ramen and bemoaning the state of his beloved industry. As CGI reigns supreme, the era of hand-drawn animation is, the master fears, coming to an end. But Miyazaki’s restless genius can’t be contained. Soon enough, he’s creating new characters—“doodling,” as he self-deprecatingly calls it—and before you know it, he’s announcing his plans to reconstitute Studio Ghibli and begin work on a new short film, Boro the Caterpillar. The kicker: It’ll be animated with computers.
The bulk of Never-Ending Man‘s 70-minute runtime is focused on Miyazaki’s working habits as he navigates this new world of technology. The legendary filmmaker reveals himself to be something of a paradox. He’s an open-minded experimenter who nevertheless falls back on tried-and-true methods. (Unhappy with pure digital animation, Miyazaki ends up painstakingly drawing over much of the computer imagery by hand.) And he’s a warmhearted humanist with a vampiric propensity for sucking the youthful energy out of his staff, most of whom seem fresh out of art school.
Through it all, Miyazaki is relentlessly self-critical, agonizing over the smallest details of his project—a puff of hair here, the movement of a head there. He seems to obtain little joy from all this work, but the grueling process seems to be the only thing keeping this man—a relentless chain smoker and bad eater who’s seen a number of his younger colleagues pass away—alive.
Never-Ending Man is thus a potent paean to the revitalizing power of creativity even as it offers an uncommonly raw look at the pain and mental anguish of the artistic process. Shot on what appears to be consumer-grade digital cameras, the documentary is pretty cruddy-looking, and its tacky score—a mix of cheesy chill beats and chintzy jazz—only serves to underline the overall scruffiness of the production. All of which might seem incongruous for a film about a man who’s spent his life meticulously crafting images of indelible fluidity and beauty, but director Kaku Arakawa proves himself, like Miyazaki, to be a keen observer of human behavior. See, for example, the way his camera homes in on Miyazaki’s chronically tapping leg, a simple but effective visual synecdoche of his restless creativity.
Arakawa’s film ultimately offers little more than glimpses of its subject’s mercurial personality, but these are nevertheless highly illuminating. We see Miyazaki at the depths of despair, castigating a man presenting a tech demo of a new deep learning AI software that his work (a monstrous zombie animated by the program) is “an awful insult to life.” And we also see him at the height of his creative passion, declaring his mission to show the unnoticed beauty of the world. Never-Ending Man doesn’t attempt to summarize a career as storied as Miyazaki’s, nor does it pretend to paint a definitive portrait of the venerable animator. But what it does offer is still invaluably revealing: a candid snapshot of the artist as an old man.