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Film Review: Never Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

“I’ve always done my best so I have no regrets” – Hayao Miyazaki

C7Jx7ZRVAAA4D8DA fascinating, albeit somewhat melancholy, insight into Hayao Miyazaki in later life. The documentary begins with a brief review of Miyazaki’s main oeuvre – clips in rapid succession from his feature length animations, the foundation on which his well-deserved reputation is founded after which is his public announcement of his retirement in 2013 at the age of 72. These two elements set the scene against which his later actions are juxtaposed. Animation and retirement.

The camera pans around the Ghibli Studio, empty at this point in the documentary and there is a visit to Miyazaki’s atelier where seemingly ill at ease on the lense end of the camera, he reflects on encroaching old age and the associated problems ‘that prevent him from working’ and the need to keep himself busy, a point with isn’t lost on those of us who have reached the age of ‘retirement’.

The documentary then follows a six chapter structure taking, for each chapter title a pointed theme from Miyazaki’s dialogue. In the first chapter he is seen still working, designing exhibits for the museum whilst talking about himself in a needlessly self-deprecating way whilst the producer Toshio Suzuki remarks on the necessity for him to keep going… …quit but not quite. Miyazaki remarks about the end of his involvement with full length feature films and the demise of animation in favour of CGI. As he sketches during the film it is obvious that his attention to detail is one of his major trademarks, one with which he furnished his full length animation films with his characteristic Miyazaki flourish.

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Continuing in a melancholically reflective way Miyazaki comments on the theme of animation versus CGI as he prepares for a move into CGI with the production of a short film called, ‘Boro the Caterpillar’ which, as the production process continues, gives him a sense of at first rejuvenation then induces a disappointing alienation. However the rejuvenation is done with a nod to the disbandment of Miyazaki’s previous production team and the new start with the hiring of a new youthful contingent of CGI animators. An analogy is made between Miyazaki’s tendency to ‘devour’ his teams with the devouring of characters by the No Face in ‘Spirited Away’.

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The juxtaposition of old with new, youth with age, animation with CGI, naturalness with mathematically generated computer images are themes which are continued with the introduction of Yuhei Sakuragi, the CGI Director, and his initial approach to the CGI animation of Boro and Miyazaki’s insistent interjection to inject an instance of natural representation into the CGI process, something which from this point forward becomes a recurrent theme for the rest of the documentary in an at first almost duel like, though amicable, manner.

At this point there is an amusing and charming scene with Miyazaki and Toshio sitting on a bench like two old ‘geezers’ (a term Miyazaki likes to use in self-referral) talking about what ails them, which may have been intentional, though in this case it is a discussion about the people involved in the production process.

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The earlier empty studio is now beginning to revive as it gets a lot busier and the production team are shown pushing the limits of CGI, and that CGI is limited is a serious point made by Miyazaki at this juncture and which is responsible for his sense of alienation from CGI. This sets another of the contextual points of tension in the documentary which is explored further with the continued development of the opening scene of ‘Boro the Caterpillar’; the attention to detail which is required which at first is assumed that CGI can provide versus the same attention to detail which hand drawn animation does give. Once the two are married a middle way is found, artistic blocks overcome and the production process rejuvenated in much the same way as Miyazaki is once again rejuvenated.

Ultimately it is Miyazaki’s need to embrace change yet still remain the same that forces the issue and helps him to embrace the project, to save the part of the production process that is inherent his approach to film making that he is unable to  neglect, and to the benefit of the film a hybrid is born.

Then Miyazaki gets a phone call informing him of the death of Masako Shinohara, a previous Studio Ghibli animator, which sets him off on intermittent reflections on his own old age and sense of approaching death. This itself is once again juxtaposed with the introduction of another youthful member of the CGI team Yukinori Nakamura and leads to the penultimate chaptered theme that had been referred to earlier on; that of Miyazaki’s propensity to absorb youthful energy, as though old age itself consumes youth whilst youth, in its role as the Hermes Psychopompos, is the deathly escort that conducts old age towards the door of its own demise, continuing the good natured theme of the duel between old age and youth highlighted earlier. This constant toing and froing, back and forth and between old and new marks this documentary with various tensions in an extraordinary and remarkable way, unafraid to air what in the West we might very well until recently have gone out of our way to avoid. Unavoidably it’s not all about just the animation, CGI and the production process, and THAT is what makes this documentary so engaging.

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The final part of the documentary is once again about Miyazaki being at war with himself. His drive, being driven and the hassle that this causes. Taking things apart and putting them back together in a seemingly endless cycle.

Miyazaki begins to input directly into the CGI programme embracing the new as the young people in the new production team have had to embrace the old hand inputting his hand drawn elements into their process. The amalgamation of the old and new provides for a palpable sense of relief as this breakthrough is made.

Miyazaki continues his reflections. What is he? A person who creates? What is his purpose?

Finally the making of a full length animation film which Miyazaki was so adamant at the beginning of the documentary would not be made is discussed. If it will take longer than he has left to live will have to be left to fate.

A final twist in the tail is when Nobuo Kawakami, Chairman of the Dwango media company and Ghibli Productions intern introduces the concept of Artificial Intelligence and AI ‘deep learning’ as a method of developing CGI in the production process which backfires very badly causing Miyazaki to give a difficult lesson to his production team on the hidden layers of meaning in his life’s oeuvre and his approach to the naturalness of nature of that oeuvre.

Atsushi Okui, the cinematographer, finally reflects on the prospect of the proposed full length animation film… …treatment, funding, and most importantly the schedule involved…

Tick tock, tick tock, goes the clock, counting down…

If you have an interest in anime, CGI and Hayao Miyazaki and you see one film this year make it this one. A fascinating, insightful examination of the life of a genius which is both melancholy but ultimately uplifting. Full of life’s meaning – you won’t be disappointed.

“I followed Miyazaki closely over a ten-year period. After retirement, he lived a quiet and solitary life, but when I visited Miyazaki in January 2015, he talked about making a short animation called Kemushi no Boro (Boro the Caterpillar). That was the spark that led to filming this documentary. At first, he just reworked the CGI artist’s pictures, but he soon realised this was no good and he decided to redraw everything himself. Then the fire started blazing again and the passionate Miyazaki of old started to reappear. It made me realise – it doesn’t matter how old you are, if your passions are aroused, you can do anything.” – Kaku Arakawa, director

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki will be broadcast on NHK WORLD TV  on 3 June 2017 at 15:10 /21:10 and on 4 June 2017 3:10/9:10 on Sky (ch 507), Freesat (ch 209), Virgin (ch 625) and TV Player and online and via the NHK WORLD TV app. See https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/ for details.

Running time: 70mm

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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