Never-Ending Man

The documentary "Never-Ending Man" follows Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's surprise return from retirement.

At the end of the 2015 documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” it seemed clear that legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki was well and truly retired. Miyazaki has been called the “Walt Disney of Japan” for his classic animated films, including “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away.”

But while Disney was an extroverted showman, Miyazaki is an introverted craftsman, hovering around his Studio Ghibli in an apron, cigarette dangling from his mouth, quietly criticizing his animators’ work. In “Kingdom,” he seemed dispirited and defeated, especially as his beloved hand-drawn animation was going out of style in favor of computer-generated animation from Pixar.

“Filmmaking brings mostly suffering,” he tells the camera, a very un-Disney thing to say.

What a surprise and a delight it is, then, to see Miyazaki back at the drawing board in a new documentary, “Never-Ending Man.” The documentary by Kaku Arakawa screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Marcus Point Cinemas, 7825 Big Sky Drive, and Marcus Palace, 2830 Hoepker Road.

At the beginning of the new 70-minute film, originally shot for Japanese television, Miyazaki insists that he was serious about retiring and disbanding Studio Ghibli, even though that’s a threat he’s made several times before. “Our era is ending,” he tells the media, and then chuckles. “This time I mean it.”

It’s clear he still feels the pull of drawing, try as he might to fight it.

“I’ve decided to treat any desire to continue as the delusions of an old man,” he says, but he can’t shake one idea he has for a movie, a short film about a caterpillar named Boro.

And he decides that, for the first time, he will make the film with the help of CGI. The no-nonsense Miyazaki doesn’t consider any broader implications of this, of the changing state of animation or the hand-drawn traditions of Studio Ghibli.

He just can’t draw a caterpillar very well on his own, and CGI is a tool that will help him do it right.

“Never-Ending Man” is a fly-on-the-wall documentary, where viewers watch his attempts to integrate this new technology into his old ways of working, and imparts his vision to a new cadre of younger animators. Sometimes this is an exercise in frustration, as his very specific directives on how a character should look or move aren’t carried out to his satisfaction. But more common is a sense of wonder or accomplishment, as he sees the little caterpillar he created come to life on a laptop.

Miyazaki said he wants his animation to reveal the beauty of the world, a beauty too overlooked in modern society. In one pivotal scene, a group of young animators pitches an idea to him that involves a grotesque, zombie-like creature scuttling around on the ground. He calmly dresses down their concept as “an awful insult to life.” As cool as it may look, if it doesn’t make the world more beautiful in some way, he’s not interested.

“Never-Ending Man” doesn’t end with a big moment of triumph, but with Miyazaki at his crafting table, still working.

“I just trudge along, forward, always forward,” he says, likening himself to that little caterpillar. Let’s hope he continues trudging for a long time to come.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.