Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki
(Check out my previous Hayao Miyazaki film review here: The Wind Rises)
Late last year, GKIDS brought the 2016 Japanese made-for-TV documentary Never-Ending Man to U.S. theaters through Fathom Events distribution. As a Ghibli fanatic who enjoys any window into the production and personal sides of the the studio’s operations, and one who thoroughly enjoyed their previous documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I made it a point to mark my calendar and ready myself for 70 minutes of interviews with Miyazaki and in-depth behind-the-scenes coverage of the studio.
But first, a bit of backstory is necessary to put you readers who didn’t see the film into my headspace at the time (and likely the headspace of many American otaku). In 2013, Miyazaki released The Wind Rises, which was slated to be his last feature length production after his umpteenth retirement announcement in early 2014. What’s more, Isao Takahata, the Studio’s founder and Miyazaki’s mentor, had just released his first film in 14 years The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Due to Takahata’s advanced age, it was speculated rightly by many that this would be his final film. Moreover, Miyazaki was no spring chicken and it seemed he might really go into retirement this time around.
To add complications, Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki’s protege Yoshiaki Nishimura left the Studio during this production halt in 2014 to found their own studio: Studio Ponoc. And every prospect for the continuation of Studio Ghibli animation was now working elsewhere on productions outside of the Studio including Kitaro Kosaka at Studio Madhouse, Sunao Katabuchi at Studio Chizu, Mamoru Hosada at MAPPA and Studio M2, directors Tomomi Mochizuki and Hiroyuki Morita so turned off by directing due to the pressures of past Ghibli work that they rarely helmed a production themselves anymore, and Ghibli’s greatest prospect Yoshifumi Kondo long dead from a karoshi-related heart attack due to his long hours and hard work at Ghibli. Although Goro Miyazaki had begun to blossom as a director at the Studio, he was only able to do so when surrounded by great animators and directors who had now left the Studio and when his project’s screenplays were shaped by his father Hayao. Even so, after Goro’s direction of the first Studio Ghibli CGI and first TV series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, no new projects had been discussed for some time for the young director (whose primary interests always lay in architecture and installation art anyway).
So, in late 2014, when Ghibli announced that Miyazaki was partially coming out of retirement to develop a short CGI film entitled Boro the Caterpillar, I was elated with hope that this production might gestate into another feature-length animation, or scratch that, that it might help the Studio finally find another successor to mantle of head director and creative visionary. Never-Ending Man follows Miyazaki from his initial decision to jump back into the fray through the film’s completion and into his future plans for his work and for the Studio.
But none of this would have occurred at all without the happenstance appearance of a group of young CGI animators who just graduated college and wished to elevate themselves into a full-fledged production company. To do so, they went out on a limb and took many chances including offering up their skills and showing highlight reels of their work to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki. Miyazaki found the possibilities of the format of CGI to be refreshing and new, and as such, he took up the helm and decided to begin production on a short film for release at the Studio Ghibli Museum Theatre. However, he also came head to head with the limitations of the by now three-decades old technology that had still yet to reach a degree of realism and beauty on par with the kinds of works he could produce on pen and paper blindfolded, with just his pinky, and one hand tied behind his back.
Because of these limitations, Miyazaki became the old taskmaster once again and pushed the young animators to work harder than they may have ever imagined they could. At many stages along the way, Miyazaki considered scrapping the project in its entirety and either returning to retirement or firing the CGI staff for a hand-drawn approach. Ultimately, he rescinded his reservations with Suzuki on numerous occassions and only succumbed to changing his plans once when he invited another promising young CGI animation crew to show hi their work in the hopes of supplementing the work of his own crew. Unfortunately, this new crew of animators were interested in the surreal and horrific possibilities of the medium of CGI and AI-assisted animation. What they presented Miyazaki and his team with as a highlight reel was the animation of human bodies by AI without knowledge of human locomotion. The traumatizing figures shown within the reel used their heads as limbs and distorted and contorted their bodies in unnatural and heart-rending manners that was about the farthest thing from realism. But more importantly to Miyazaki, these images reminded one immediately of the locomotion of the physically handicapped and deformed, and thereby elicited an ethical response in Miyazaki (and in myself) of horror. He felt that the young animators were immoral youth who never even considered how such images, though only a highlight reel of their program’s possibilities, could negatively affect the mental health of handicapped individuals. While holding back tears, Miyazaki abruptly asked the young animators to leave his sight hence and forevermore.
By the film’s end, Miyazaki managed to push his initial crew extremely hard while animating elements himself and producing thousands of renderings and cels for the guidance of his crew in adjusting their models to be more realistic and more Ghibli-esque in their aesthetic qualities. And while the film was a critical success for those who have seen it, the entire process left a bad taste in Miyazaki’s mouth. He has now realized once again that traditional, hand-drawn animation has yet to be matched by any other form in its aesthetic quality and ability to draw out emotion in its characterizations. And what else could you expect? A mere decades-old technology like CGI animation does not have the history of millenia to draw upon like hand-drawn animation, and I would argue, could not thereby ever even approximate its visual quality or power.
In the film’s final moments, Miyazaki discusses how CGI was a mistake and how he will never attempt to return to it ever again in his work. Furthermore, he explains that his new plan is to develop another feature film, a film he has already dedicated to his grandson and plans to leave behind as his final picture for posterity. It is tentatively titled How Do You Live? based on the title of a novel by Yoshino Genzaburo, which was the first work in years to influence Miyazaki’s worldview in such a way as to make life seem new and beautiful to him once again. The protagonist of the film is, like Miyazaki, hopelessly enamored with this book and finds it invigorating and en-spiriting in his own life.
Though details of the film’s release are hazy, we know a few things. 1. It was initially planned for release before or around the time of the 2020 Olympics in Japan. 2. It will not be finished in time for this great cultural event. 3. It is now slated for a release between 2021 to 2022. 4. Reports from as early as late 2017 seem to show that Goro Miyazaki is also working on a feature film simultaneously on which he will incorporate CGI animation. 5. There was a year-long period in which no new news was forthcoming on either project. 6. Now, it seems that Goro may be helping his father to create his the former film and the latter film’s production may be halted as reports are contradictory at this time and Ghibli has made no formal announcements (at least none that the Western press has interpreted and commented upon).
Nevertheless, even if this is the final Ghibli film and the studio decides to call it quits after this one, revel in this time while you can. A new Miyazaki film is forthcoming, various Studios and Directors have emerged in his wake to create beautiful animation inspired by his and Takahata-san’s examples, and no end is currently in sight to these developments as digital assistance technologies make traditional animation models more cost-efficient and lucrative. At least for the foreseeable future, Miyazaki’s work and spirit live on a time horizon that is never-ending in its scope and influence.