Something I never thought about when I was younger was the impact I would be making on this world. When you’re nubile and full of life, you tend to take the mere act of living for granted and don’t focus on how your choices could help or hurt others. As we grow older, we tend to become more reflective and seek to do better… well, most of us anyway.
That is something that acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki explores in his 12th directorial feature, The Boy and the Heron. Possibly the most personal film Miyazaki has ever made, there’s a real joy in experiencing this as blind as possible and having the entire experience wash over you. In fact, the marketing in Japan leading up to its release was simply a single poster and nothing more.
I will honor that decision with this review, though I’ll still give my thoughts on how I viewed the experience. There might be very slight spoilers here, but The Boy and the Heron is thought-provoking enough to avoid giving any direct details and still lead to fruitful discussions.
Watch this video on YouTube
The Boy and the Heron
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: July 14, 2023 (Japan), October 1, 2023 (NYFF), December 8, 2023 (US)
10 years ago, Hayao Miyazaki released his then-final film to the world in the form of The Wind Rises. After a long and prosperous career, the world-renowned animator announced his retirement and would pass the reins over to his son, Goro Miyazaki. At the behest of producer Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki would direct a short for the Ghibli Museum in Japan titled Boro the Caterpillar released in 2016. During the process of working on this, the ideas for The Boy and the Heron percolated until Miyazaki decided to come out of retirement for his now “final” feature film.
While none of that is immediately apparent when watching the film, what does come to mind is how The Boy and the Heron acts as a reflection of Miyazaki’s life and career. The plot shares some details with Miyazaki’s own life and almost acts as a reckoning with the choices he has made over the last 82 years. Did he prove his worthiness to his family, specifically his mother? Did he leave a positive impact on the world, even when he was agitated at the decisions certain countries were making? Is life really worth treasuring when so much death and destruction are perpetuated by systems out of our control?
These are just the tip of the themes that The Boy and the Heron covers. The opening 30 minutes don’t so much set up a plot as take us through the aftermath of a tragedy that strikes its protagonist. The young boy has moments of tranquility and mundanity broken by quick bursts of violence that shake him to his very core. Unable to really process the specific loss he has faced; the boy becomes somewhat introverted and doesn’t take kindly to new people. It leads to a scenario where his father tries to move on and the boy rejects that.
From there, the film adapts a structure not unlike Spirited Away. While that movie presented the goal of Chihiro working to free her parents from the clutches of the headmaster Yubaba, the majority of the film was centered on the day-to-day happenings of the bathhouse Chihiro found herself in. The Boy and the Heron transplants its protagonist from his home in Tokyo to the countryside and then follows him on seemingly disconnected adventures.
During these events, we see shades of The Castle of Cagliostro in terms of architecture, moments ripped straight from My Neighbor Totoro, some callbacks to Castle in the Sky, and even the darkness approached by Princess Mononoke. There’s a sense that the moment-to-moment plot is less about what its protagonist is doing and more about displaying the thoughts and feelings Miyazaki had when creating some of his masterpieces. It’s kind of an autobiographical movie in the form of pure fantasy.
That doesn’t mean Miyazaki has eschewed the formula of past Studio Ghibli projects. In a retrospective we at Flixist did this year, I began the series by noting that I believed Miyazaki’s films used its characters as an audience surrogate to introduce them to fantastical new sights. That is absolutely true for The Boy and the Heron, even if the true adventure doesn’t begin until the halfway point.
Once things get set into motion, the movie then shifts to a plane of existence you could call purgatory. The protagonist has to explore a realm between the living and the dead and it’s very probable that this is Miyazaki musing on the creative process. When creating art, ideas will linger in your head much like life gestates inside the womb before birth. As those ideas grow, they are in a period of neither life nor death. It’s not until the art is finished and given to the world that it truly becomes alive, but the steps required to finish that art take hard work. The protagonist has to go through a lot before he can accomplish his goal.
Throughout this process, he learns to open his heart to things we once viewed as evil. That might be giving a bit too much away, but as anyone who has spent even a small amount of time online in the past 20 years will tell you, there are memes of Miyazaki saying things like “anime was a mistake” and proclaiming that iPads are akin to making masturbatory gestures. It’s not too far-fetched to say that this development reflects Miyazaki throwing away his grumpy attitude in his old age.
More than anything, it’s the ending of The Boy and the Heron that made me realize how this film was an interpretation of what becomes of your work once you finally die. That is all I feel comfortable saying for this review as detailing it will surely give too much away. Suffice it to say, I left the theater with a new perspective on Miyazaki’s work and an appreciation for the finer details that Studio Ghibli always laboriously puts into its projects.
Do I even need to tell you that the animation is incredible here? While it’s a little unclear if there are any CG-assisted moments within The Boy and the Heron, the majority of the film is hand-drawn. That is one of the very reasons this movie took nearly a decade to release, not to mention the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the entire world. All of the heart and soul Miyazaki has always embedded in his work is on full display here and it’s astonishing to see it play out on the big screen.
The sound design and score are also top-notch, evoking memories of past Miyazaki pictures and feeling incredibly personal. As discussed before my viewing by GKIDS representative Lucy Rubin, longtime Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi had gifted Miyazaki with a song for one of his birthdays. That song then formed the basis for key moments within The Boy and the Heron. It repeats a few times throughout the film and each usage gives it new meaning within the context of the story. It’s simplistic, yet powerful; bold, yet restrained.
As much as I can write about The Boy and the Heron without going into a deep dive, the real majesty here is that this complex film beckons me back for another viewing. I think more than any other film in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, this one will be the project that fans and scholars pour over for decades to come. There is so much to glean from any one scene that it’s hard to take everything in with just a single viewing. Did I miss symbolism somewhere? Am I doing justice to the film’s message by writing a bizarrely non-specific review? Will Miyazaki even care if people don’t engage with this movie?
I mentioned above that one of the themes of The Boy and the Heron is worthiness and trying to prove that to the world. Miyazaki didn’t lose his mother at a young age, but she passed right on the cusp of him becoming a cultural icon. Miyazaki also never reckoned with his negative views of his father, lamenting how he never had a serious discussion with the man before his passing. To me, I believe that this film showcases Miyazaki trying one last time to prove to his family that he was worthy of their love.
Whenever Miyazaki does pass and he gets to be reunited with his parents in the afterlife, I’m certain they will look him in the eyes and tell him he was.