Nine years ago legendary Studio Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki “retired” with his final film, a perfect magnum opus in The Wind Rises. It told a real-life story of ingenuity, creativity, and genius put to the benefit of others, and it exemplified everything about Miyazaki’s storied career, while echoing aspects of his life. Almost immediately reports surfaced about his un-retirement, and while it has taken some time, the master has returned with The Boy and the Heron, a film that fits neatly into Miyazaki’s canon and will bring joy to his legion of fans.
It’s hard to complain about Miyazaki not trying to extend himself with The Boy and the Heron, considering it’s the kind of fantastical, message-heavy adventure he is so adept at making and that viewers enjoy. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wish to see something that wasn’t just a lesser version of Spirited Away or any number of his other stories set in magical worlds separate from reality, where distressed human children interact with strange talking animal creatures and the laws of physics don’t exactly apply.
Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel How Do You Live? inspires and even makes an appearance in The Boy and the Heron. Set during the Pacific conflict of WWII, the film begins in surreal fashion as Mahito awakens to the sound of a firebombed hospital, one where his mother happens to be working. Still in his pajamas, he rushes out to save her, only to watch her be consumed by the flames, vanishing like an apparition. Years later, Mahito is struggling to get over her death. His father, a manufacturer of weapons parts (Miyazaki’s own father did the same), has moved on and is married to his former sister-in-law, Natsuko, who is now pregnant.
They have moved to a robust estate tended to by seven old diminutive maids, not unlike the Seven Dwarfs, who wait on them hand and foot. Miyazaki loves his misshapen old grandmother characters! Mahito is harassed by a mysterious grey heron with human characteristics, and can’t connect with Natsuko who is trying her best to relate to the boy. When she goes missing, Mahito wanders into a strange tower that leads to a trippy Miyazaki-esque alternate world, confronting the mischievous heron, battling giant parakeets, meeting younger versions of familiar faces, and all sorts of other weirdness that will be heartening to lovers of Studio Ghibli.
Miyazaki has always moved at his own pace, but even for him The Boy and the Heron is deliberate in execution. Once Mahito crosses over into that strange new world, the film is overwhelmed by the sheer number of bizarre phenomena and creatures that need to be explained. Such as the warawara, cherubic little marshmallow creatures that drift into the sky, consume everything in sight, and will eventually transform to become human spirits in our world. This is just the tip of the iceberg, especially as we begin to learn more about that annoyingly silly heron with his big nose and human features.
The search for Natsuko parallels Mahito’s quest to find his missing mother. Drawing from his own love for his mother, Miyazaki tells a downbeat story of a son who must learn to grow up, get over the selfishness that causes him to act out (Mahito injures himself with a rock for attention), and toughen up in a war-ravaged world where pain and loss are everyday occurrences. Mahito is such an uncommon Miyazaki protagonist. Reserved and quiet, he’s a far cry from the spirited, fearless female characters of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and others. He might be closer in personality to Miyazik’s childhood but Mahito isn’t the most compelling character to follow. Only when dealing with that pest heron or granny sidekicks does he truly come alive.
Miyazaki often explores grief in this way, by having his characters flee from the harsh reality into places unbound from it, where death is the start of something new. The Boy and the Heron doesn’t stray from the master filmmaker’s well-worn path, but underlines it one more time, perhaps for the last time. If that’s the case, then Miyazaki went out telling the kind of soulful story that he loves to tell, and that he knows people will be comforted by.
The Boy and the Heron opens in theaters on December 8th.