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Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki
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by Lybarger

"Miyazaki turns flipping papgers into alchemy."
4 stars

Much of the reason Hayao Miyazaki’s movies have been so rewarding is that they reflect their creator. They are a type of funhouse mirror of his own life. It’s certainly helpful that he’s a fascinating guy.

Because animation is such a painstaking, time-consuming process, it’s hard to think of anything less exciting than watching a 77-year-old put together a short film about a caterpillar.

If, however, you know anything about the writer-director of Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s no denying something special is about emerge, if he can complete it. We probably don’t need a reminder that Miyazaki is a great filmmaker, but Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki is still a treat for fans and a good introduction to his work.

In 2015, the Oscar-winner from Japan decided it was time to retire because his body couldn’t take the punishment he put it through as he made his cartoons.

Even by Japanese standards, Miyazaki is a workaholic. In a behind-the-scenes featurette included with the American DVD edition of Spirited Away, he decides to leave for home earlier than usual.

It’s 2:00 a.m.

Many of the master’s long-time collaborators are now dead, and others who are younger than he is are not long for the world. Alone at home, he even wonders if the movies that have delighted people all over the planet are any good. The market for his hand-drawn films is also shrinking even though Totoro toys can be spotted in stores everywhere.

Director Kaku Arakawa regularly visits Miyazaki as he makes tea and ramen at home and slowly discovers that while Miyazaki can make mythical creatures come to life, he can’t stay idle.

He draws a series of sketches of a caterpillar named "Boro." While Miyazaki complains that he can’t concentrate the way he used to, he also can’t stop sketching or painting, either.

Soon, he’s collaborating with some CGI artists to build a story around the character. While he might initially seem like a Luddite, Miyazaki goes from mopey to euphoric as a young team of artists work as hard as he does to figure out how to make his idiosyncratic sensibilities work digitally.

Arakawa achieves an astonishing intimacy with Miyazaki, even accompanying him into private meetings with producer Toshio Suzuki. Miyazaki and Suzuki have worked together for decades and talk about each other with astonishing frankness. The two chain-smokers say with calm voices some remarks others would never utter. Suzuki notes that Miyazaki thrives on working with younger collaborators but can age them in the process. Miyazaki even admits he can consume people the way his monster No Face does in Spirited Away.

The animation director has a delightfully cynical sense of humor that keeps his musings about life from getting pompous and dull. If he could be harsh on animators before his retirement, he seems a lot nicer to his new team. Apparently, his newfound vitality makes him more accommodating to others.

It also doesn’t hurt that while Miyazaki doesn’t enjoy getting older, he hasn’t lost his sense of wonder or compassion. When some experimental CGI artists show him a twisted figure limping across the screen, Miyazaki says he can’t watch it because the footage reminds him of a friend who has a disability. He also gazes into the horizon noting that he can’t see Mt. Fuji through the clouds.

Perhaps the most charming moments in Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki come when he shows sketches to his team. He’s the only guy I know who can mesmerize an audience simply by flipping papers.

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originally posted: 01/02/19 16:45:33
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