Monday, December 10, 2018

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

Don’t call it a comeback. Sure, legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement yet again, but everyone hoped he still really didn’t mean it. It turns out we might just get a little bit more from him after all. Kaku Arakawa captures the auteur as he comes to grips with the current state of animation and his mortality in Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and also has two special nation-wide Fathom Events screenings.

When Arakawa first visits the master in his retirement, he is clearly bored, but leery of starting any new projects, due to his age. Rather regrettably, he has recently attended several funerals for former Ghibli colleagues. The absence of so many past collaborators contributes to his reluctance. Yet, Miyazaki just can’t stop himself.

Before long, he is working on a short for the Ghibli Museum titled Boro the Caterpillar, but the kicker is this time around he is working with a team of CGI animators. Initially, Miyazaki is convinced only computer techniques can replicate the movement of a caterpillar, but he soon falls back only his old working methods. Inevitably, that includes stressing out his long-time (long-suffering) producer, Toshio Suzuki.

Admittedly, there is a lot of puttering in Never-Ending Man, but it eventually evolves into a surprisingly philosophical meditation on the nature of creativity and maybe even the implications of the singularity. A key moment comes when a CGI start-up pitches their technology to Miyazaki using a stunningly poor choice of animation clips. It is an awkward scene in which the master makes it crystal clear how appalled he is by the grotesqueness of it, but to Miyazaki, it becomes an example of something no human animator could stomach if they had to hand illustrate it frame-by-frame. Indeed, sometimes it takes a cranky humanist like Miyazaki to remind us how process and technology shapes an artist’s vision and values.

This happens to be an excellent time to dig deep into Ghibliana. In addition to Arakawa’s documentary, Susan Napier’s Miyazaki World: A Life in Art, a popular scholarly analysis of his oeuvre, just released a few months ago (look for a review this week, hopefully). Not to be spoilery, but it has been widely announced Miyazaki has even more to come, which is happy news. If anyone can be the next Manoel de Oliveira helming films well past his centennial, Miyazaki could. Quiet but smart, Never-Ending is a slyly revealing film that really says more to those interested in the creative process than fans looking for a rose-tinted history of the storied studio. Recommended for cerebral animation connoisseurs, Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyzaki opens this Friday (12/14) at the Metrograph in New York and screens via Fathom Events on Thursday (12/13) and the following Tuesday (12/18).