After the release of his 2013 animated feature The Wind Rises, Miyazaki announced his retirement from animated cinema. It was a shock to many fans as he is considered an icon in the genre, considered by many as “the Walt Disney of Japan”. This decision didn’t last long as several years later, he decided to come out of retirement to the joy of film fans around the world – and The Boy and The Heron (OV: How Do They Live) marks his first film in ten years.
Originally named after Genzaburo Yoshino’s novel How Do They Live (a childhood favourite of Miyazaki), The Boy and The Heron takes place in Japan during WWII in 1943. After losing his mother in a fire, Mahito (Luca Padovan) and his father Shoichi ((Christian Bale)) relocate from Tokyo to the countryside as Shoichi remarries Natsuko (Gemma Chan), his late wife’s younger sister. Upon settling at her estate, Mahito discovers an abandoned tower and enters a strange world with a talking grey heron as his guide.
Following in the footsteps of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke is no mean feat and combined with Miyazaki’s return to the world of cinema, the anticipation for The Boy and The Heron is palpable – even more so when its original Japanese release had no marketing materials or trailer before its initial release. It is enough to build the hype not only in its home country – where it grossed $13.2 million in its opening weekend alone – but also overseas, where it debuted internationally at the Toronto Film Festival before being screened at this year’s London Film Festival.
The visceral opening scene makes a lasting impression as it is when the animation is at its rawest state. Blurring action, emotion and tragedy, the first few minutes capture Mahito’s desperation as he races to save his mother and the fear of the local inhabitants trying to fight a growing fire. This provides a ferocity that immerses the audience yet still feels dream-like, significantly as the pace suddenly slows when the narrative moves to rural Japan and into Miyazaki’s trademark terrain of magic realism.
The sense of magic realism is a common trope in Studio Ghibli’s features but it collides with philosophy, environmentalism, and science fiction in its latest film. Throughout the film, there is a large blend of elements that play a part in the narrative yet not all of them mix well together. Aside from the eponymous heron, who is a cranky character who taunts Mahito over his selfishness, there is a no-nonsense sailor, a young pyrokinetic girl, and an elderly man who maintains his world through building blocks. The depth of these increasingly complex elements leads to a confusing narrative so younger audiences may not fully understand what is going on.
When the heron mentions his mother is “waiting for him”, Mahito is eager to reunite with her. His need betrays his reluctance to let her go, especially when he is haunted by the night of the fire and visions of his mother, as it would mean surrendering his childhood and carefree past. However, the narrative soon explores the concept of death and evolution through a myriad of aviary characters, enabling Mahito to understand that life cannot be what he wants and even a perfect world needs the bad as much as the good.
But this is where Miyazaki shines – as audiences have seen from Chihiro in Spirited Away and Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbour Totoro, the youth of Studio Ghibli’s characters experience a coming-of-age adventure and Mahito is no exception. Through the lonely youngster, the filmmaker channels his confusion, angst and determination as Mahito struggles to find closure for his demons in an unfamiliar world. Although he is initially closed off due to the sudden changes in his life, his journey sees him come to terms with his grief and accept the simple fact that times change.
As The Boy and The Heron follows Mahito on his journey, the animation becomes more elaborate but retains a calibre expected of Studio Ghibli. Unlike his previous films, Miyazaki focused on shaping the story while animation director Takeshi Honda (who previously worked on From Up on Poppy Hill) oversaw the animation process. Each frame is immaculately detailed and full of colour, providing a dazzling vibrancy that elevates the magic of the narrative and absorbs audiences into the film’s vast and fantastical worlds. As a result, The Boy and The Heron puts itself as one of Studio Ghibli’s deeper features, as well as one of its finest works.
Overall, The Boy and The Heron will appeal to audiences young and old, and through a celebration of childhood inspirations, Miyazaki may have created the most personal yet fantastical feature of his career.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Luca Padovan, Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Gemma Chan, Willem Dafoe, Karen Fukuhara, Mark Hamill, Robert Pattinson, Florence Pugh (UK voice cast)
Runtime: 124 minutes