Last week, an NHK documentary chronicling Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement and un-retirement, “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki” opened in select theaters across the United States. The same day on the other side of the world, his 1988 classic “My Neighbor Totoro” was released for the first time in theaters across China — 6,000 of them.
Next month, Miyazaki will receive the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Career Achievement Award. In 2019, also in LA, the largest-ever exhibition of his work will inaugurate the prestigious Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
Meanwhile, in Japan, Tokyo’s Shinbashi Enbujo Theater will stage a kabuki version of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” Miyazaki’s 1984 sci-fi epic. And 2020 (or soon after) will see the premiere of “How Do You Live?,” his 12th feature film, followed by the opening of a Studio Ghibli theme park near Nagoya.
“Through the years I have frequently talked about retiring, so many of you are perhaps wondering if this time I am really sincere,” he said. “I am.”
The Japanese anime and film industries were convulsed by the news. Commercially, no more Miyazaki meant no more bankable nationwide summer releases in Japan for major film distributor Toho Cinemas, or DVD and subsidiary sales overseas for global partners like Disney. Artistically, Miyazaki was the last living master of a craft being trampled by technology — hand-drawn 2D animation. No more him meant the end of an art form.
Ghibli’s full-time staff, many of them veteran artists, were given pink slips and scrambled for work elsewhere. (One of them, Masashi Ando, would help make the highest-grossing anime film in history, 2016’s “Your Name.,” while employed on a short-term contract.)
To paraphrase American humorist Mark Twain: Reports of Miyazaki’s retirement have been greatly exaggerated.
Not everyone believed him, of course.
“(He) could change his mind,” said fellow Ghibli director Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s longtime friend and artistic partner, after the press conference. “And if that does happen, I don’t want you to be surprised.” (Takahata died this past April.)
In Kaku Arakawa’s “Never-Ending Man,” Miyazaki grows dour in his own home, alone, downing coffee and chain-smoking. Colorist Michiyo Yasuda, his friend and colleague of over four decades, dies midway through the film. Miyazaki’s body stiffens and sags. “People are dying who should’ve outlived me,” he muses over another cigarette. “What to make of it? Time is short.”
To animate means to bring to life. In “Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art,” scholar Susan Napier’s new book, published this September, the director is brought into vivid focus as a stubborn, driven taskmaster obsessed with depicting the realities of living things — particularly the human spirit and creativity of children who must fend for themselves. Napier, a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, traces Miyazaki’s obsessions through chapters that dissect each of his 11 feature films, relating them back to his own conflicted feelings of guilt, wonder and horror as a privileged child during World War II.
“Life is the light that shines in the darkness,” Miyazaki wrote toward the end of his “Nausicaa” manga, considered by many to be his most ambitious masterwork.
Napier cites this line to argue that “perseverance, endurance and acceptance are major themes in ‘Miyazakiworld,’ emphasized in the many invocations to ‘live’ in works as early as the ‘Nausicaa’ manga or as late as the final lines of ‘The Wind Rises’ (his last film to date).”
While meeting with the director at his studio, Napier encounters a man fearing less the specter of death than the bane that haunts all aging artists: the risk of producing subpar work.
“He stated that he ‘did not want to become another (Akira) Kurosawa,'” she writes in “Miyazakiworld,” “the great live-action film director who, in some minds at least, continued creating films after he had lost his touch.”
Napier now believes that Miyazaki is motivated to make another movie by both his energetic imagination (“he can’t turn it off,” she says) and the simple desire to rejoin a group. Despite his notoriously harsh treatment of his staff, “there’s a part of him that does appreciate working with people” she says during a recent telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Japan is a collective-based society, and he really does believe in the collective. I also think there’s a kind of joy and a life force he gets just from being with people.”
A team of younger animators joins Miyazaki in “Never-Ending Man” to teach him the finer points of computer-generated (CG) animation for his 2018 short film, “Boro the Caterpillar.” During the process, the director points out to them what works and what doesn’t, often using his observations of movement in the real world as touchstones.
“You see how working with the CG artists energizes Miyazaki,” says animation critic and author Charles Solomon from his home in LA. As he offers them advice and encouragement, Solomon says, “Miyazaki seems to grow younger before your eyes. There’s a spring in his step. He wags his foot at his desk while he thinks.”
But some see a darker competitive streak driving the 77-year-old now. Over the past five years, it’s not only technology that has transformed anime, but also the fresh talent of rising stars. Two years ago, 45-year-old Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.” topped all of Miyazaki’s films at the global box office (except in Japan, where Oscar-winner “Spirited Away” still reigns). Shinkai’s next film opens in July.
Helen McCarthy, author of “Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation” sees parallels with Miyazaki’s former model, Osamu Tezuka. “Miyazaki’s refusal to cede the stage to Shinkai and the next generation is absolutely a Tezuka-like response,” she writes in an email from London. “Shinkai is essentially using a Miyazaki-influenced aesthetic to tell stories appealing to a newer generation.”
Another Twain quip — about smoking, Miyazaki’s other unbreakable habit — may also apply to his filmmaking: Quitting is easy, the writer once said. I’ve done it thousands of times.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.