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Everything We've Learnt About Hayao Miyazaki Since His False Retirement

Revelations from the first UK screening of the director's cut of 'Never Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki' and an interview with its director, Kaku Arakawa.

All stills from 'Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki' and courtesy of NHK World TV. 

When Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013 – "quite serious" this time – documentary director Kaku Arakawa was skeptical. He first met the animator in 2005 and started filming behind the scenes of his productions Ponyo (2008) and The Wind Rises (2013). 

"I personally didn't want him to retire," says Arakawa. "I continued to visit his studio and to interview him, this time without the camera. We would chat and drink the coffee that Miyazaki made. At that time, Miyazaki often said, 'I'm finished, just leave me alone.'" 

Arakawa's disbelief in his subject's intentions paid off, because it meant he was there to film a documentary when he decided to work again.

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki begins with Miyazaki's retirement, leads up to his decision to make the short film Boro the Caterpillar, shows him working on that project and ends with him deciding to make yet another full-length film and beginning work on that. Shot with a single handheld camera and no crew, Arakawa's film provides a fascinating insight into the director's life, disposition and the highs and lows he went through to finally decide on making another proper film.

These are the revelations from both an interview VICE conducted with director Kaku Arakawa and the first UK screening of the director's cut, hosted by NHK World TV.

Miyazaki hasn't even seen the documentary

"After I finished filming I visited him to let him know the documentary was finished and had been broadcast on NHK," director Kaku Arakawa told VICE. "Miyazaki had never seen any of the films I made about Studio Ghibli, in which he featured, nor did he even watch Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki. But when Miyazaki's long-standing producer, Toshio Suzuki, told him the title, Miyazaki said it could also be called 'The Man Who Couldn't Stop'. That's because something – karma – was driving him to continue with filmmaking beyond his will."

He does his best philosophising over coffee and a cigarette

"I've stopped accommodating others," Miyazaki says bluntly, over coffee. He takes long drags on a cigarette. He always seems to be smoking. He is also always making funny, dry observations. Another thought: "That song 'Let It Go' is popular now. It's all about being yourself." Another drag. "But that's terrible. Self-satisfied people are boring. We have to push hard and surpass ourselves."

Old age is a persistent theme in his life

Throughout the documentary he repeats variations on "I'm an old man," "I'm a pensioner" and "I'm a retired old geezer." The viewer is reminded of this sentiment as we watch the seasons change over the course of filming and hear about friends of Miyazaki's who have died, some of whom are young than him. Notably, this includes his dear friend and Ghibli colour designer, Michiyo Yasuda.

It's a case of him protesting too much, though. He's very self-aware and you could bet on him not really believing himself to be an old man. One day, for example, he goes in for his driving review test and says he was shocked by how old all the other pensioners were. He pulls out a quick sketch of the men he saw there – it's a funny line drawing of some decrepit-looking elderly blokes. He doesn't identify with them, and it's impossible for an audience to lump him in with them too, with his thick white hair and surplus energy.

But his drive to work is completely relentless

In the beginning of the doc, when he's at home "on retirement", he's consistently having to tell himself he's too old to work. He says his constant drawing at home is just "doodling" in order to "keep busy". Throughout, he repeats his mental and physical weaknesses as if he's convincing himself of his need to be retired. Until, of course, he resists and does the short film, then relents again when he agrees to a feature length film with a grin – something he swore he'd never do. His work ethic treads the line between obsession and simply having to be a taskmaster because it's all he knows and loves, coming into the empty office on days off, returning home to packet ramen and coffee when it's pitch black. 

"Some people who know Miyazaki very well say that he is even more interesting than his films," says Kaku Arakawa of the animator's character. "People think Miyazaki is a little bit scary or difficult, but actually he is very friendly. He tells many interesting stories and I often think any one of them could become his next film. Because I've been filming Miyazaki for around a decade, we've become close, and it's impossible to be objective about him. What I like most about him is when he smiles to cover up his shyness."

The battle against hand-drawn animation is being won by CGI

Miyazaki shows himself to be hugely flexible and open when he decides to do a short film for the Ghibli Museum, Boro the Caterpillar, using CGI. His reasoning is that it'll be quicker and easier with technology. There's an amusing scene where he has to give notes to one of the animators and is using their display. He tries to draw over the caterpillar and instead pastes multiple copies of what he's drawn over it. It's like watching any 20-something who's lied on their CV about their Photoshop proficiency trying to blag it on their first day at work.

With his readiness to change you almost believe that the project could work. However, as it goes on, you can see it fails to capture the spirit of a true Ghibli film. For most of the doc the main character of the caterpillar just looks like a turd on a screen. Miyazaki goes home every night increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the new technology. 

While Miyazaki being alive and working means traditional animation isn't dead, it feels like the end is nigh. At one point, a group of techies who are working on "deep learning" AI pitch Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki their dream of replacing human animators entirely with machines who can learn to paint naturally as humans. Miyazaki shuts them down in a heated speech that leaves the camera to pan across their dejected faces. As Suzuki tells the camera at the start of the doc, the Ghibli animation team was disbanded when Miyazaki retired, and at the end, when Suzuki and Miyazaki discuss the new film they wonder where they can even find enough of the right animators to complete it.

Hayao Miyazaki as a young man

Hayao Miyazaki as a young man

Young people give him life

Despite his dissatisfaction at the results of the CGI, he is fascinated by the animators – who are, comparably, kids with long emo fringes – and clearly takes great pleasure being around them. "Hayao likes young people," explains Suzuki. "They energise him. He absorbs youthful energy and gets revitalised." Young people adore him, too – at one point a small child runs into his house, with no context given as to the relationship between them, and Miyazaki brings down a jar of giant jelly babies for him.

He may have desired a true successor but he'll never have one

If you've seen any previous documentaries showing the inner workings of Studio Ghibli, you'll know how tough he is on his staff. If something isn't right, he'll keep sending an animator back, not holding back criticism. A gleaming bit of self-analysis comes when Miyazaki tells the camera, "I trained successors. But I couldn't let go. I devoured them. I devoured their talent." He adds, "There was no one left to take over. That was my destiny. I ate them all."

At a later point Suzuki says, "What Hayao wants is a copy of himself. But he can't expect that."

He'll won't stop working until he dies

While making yet another coffee, Miyazaki insists that doing anything in life other than filmmaking is boring. "I'm not being nihilistic," he insists, comparing himself to other film directors who worked right into their old age. Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that he must work until he dies. Talking about his latest feature film – the one he said he wouldn't do – he says, "I'm prepared to die before it's finished. I'd rather die that way than die while doing nothing. To die with something to live for." 

On the planning board he has drawn up for Suzuki there are the three years that the film would take marked out as squares, leading up to 2019, just before the Tokyo Olympics. "Am I alive at age 78?" says one note. Together, he and Suzuki joke about how big a hit the film would be if he died before it came out – and that's how the documentary ends. 

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki will be broadcast on 3 June 2017 at 15:10 /21:10 and on 4 June 2017 3:10/9:10 on Sky (ch 507), Freesat (ch 209), Virgin (ch 625) and TV Player and online and via the NHK WORLD TV app. See nhk.jp/nhkworld for details.

@hannahrosewens

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