On Sept. 1, 2013, Hayao Miyazaki, the imaginative creator of My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Spirited Away, and The Wind Rises, announced his retirement. Cameras flashed, and reporters asked questions. This wasn’t the first time the 72-year-old animator claimed he was stepping away from the game. But, as Miyazaki told the room, “This time, I mean it.”

Well, maybe not. While some welcome retirement with open arms, Miyazaki’s mind would not sit still. And after two years on idle, the Japanese filmmaker decided to get back in the game. Yes, it takes years to animate a movie, and at his age, he might not live to see its completion. But that’s not his goal. Instead, he would like “to die with something to live for.”

Never-Ending Man documents Miyazaki’s return while also addressing his premature retirement. Along with fellow animator Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli became Japan’s preeminent animation studio with a creative output to rival Disney. But, when Miyazaki decided to step away, he could not find a proper replacement, and production ground to a halt. A few films trickled out in the subsequent years—the phenomenal The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the haunting When Marnie Was There, and the serene The Red Turtle (a co-production with Wild Bunch). Still, the future of the studio remained uncertain.

Then came an offer too good to turn down: animate a short film for a museum, Miyazaki’s first with computer-generated imagery. Why CGI? Because, “I can’t draw a caterpillar with a pencil,” the old man says with a smile.

Images courtesy GKIDS.

Making the short Boro the Caterpillar provides Never-Ending Man director Kaku Arakawa a framework. Shot using consumer-grade digital cameras—which gives the movie an intimate feel despite an ungainly appearance—and running a brief 70 minutes, Never-Ending Man feels like a beefy DVD special feature. For die-hard Miyazaki fans, Never-Ending Man is manna, offering a privileged look at how the master sets about his day—from his spare and empty kitchen, where he makes coffee and converses, to his drawing desk, cluttered with paper, pencils and the ubiquitous ashtray.

But the real value of Never-Ending Man is the ability to spend time with Miyazaki, a man who does not take his position in Japanese animation lightly. He is a tough leader, always pushing young animators to try harder and aim higher. Movements are not mechanical, he tells them, and each one has a motivation. Understanding that motivation is the foundation of Miyazaki’s humanism. In one crucial scene in Never-Ending Man, he wields it like a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting to the heart of a very sticky matter.

Rare is a pleasure as great as watching a master at work. And though there is a little bit of an old dog learning new tricks in Never-Ending Man, the real delight of the movie is the chance to see Miyazaki hunched over his desk, pencil lightly gracing the page, life and personality emerging from just a few strokes of graphite and color. The doctor is in.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki / 終わらない人 宮崎駿 (2016)
Directed by Kaku Arakawa
Starring: Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Yuhei Sakuragi, Yukinori Nakamura, Nobuo Kawakami, Atsushi Okui, Michiyo Yasuda
GKIDS, Not Rated, Running time 70 minutes, Opened Dec. 14, 2018.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 28, “‘To die with something to live for.’