Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron

poster art, The Boy and The HeronHayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron (Japanese title 君たちはどう生きるか or Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka – “How Do You Live?”) had won a couple of Golden Globes the previous day when we finally bestirred ourselves to see it at the local independent theater. We’ve been Miyazaki’s fans since we, like much of the rest of the world, were spirited away by Spirited Away in the early 2000s. It was the first DVD we bought when we first got a player, and one of a very few films we’re content to watch repeatedly.

The Boy and the Heron is the first full-length film for Miyazaki since he emerged from a brief retirement in 2016; in fact he and Studio Ghibli have been working on it since then. It is reportedly the most expensive film ever shot in Japan, has already won many honors including the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film, and has been nominated for many more.

We initially thought we’d prefer the sub-titled Japanese version but decided that dubbing is less of an issue with animation than with live-action and saw the dubbed version, which features some familiar names including Robert Pattinson, Christian Bale, Mark Hammill, Florence Pugh, and Willem Dafoe. That freed us up to focus more on the film’s beauty.

In the end, despite its 124-minute run time, it’s a simple tale. Like most of Miyazaki’s films, it’s a coming of age story. This time, a child comes to terms with mortality and with the violence and malice that are present in every human being, including himself. He learns that each generation must pass into and out of this world through its own door. And that the world and its systems built by our ancestors are made of weak and fallible materials, and each generation needs to try to create it anew with better stuff.

On the way to delivering that message in a typically non-didactic manner, this magical film draws you in with a blend of very human drama and visuals that range from hyper-real to bizarrely surreal, plunging characters and viewers alike deep into the human psyche.

As with Miyazaki’s previous film The Wind Rises, Heron takes place in Japan during WWII. The opening scene immediately plunges us and the protagonist young Mahito Maki into the chaos of a Tokyo conflagration, implicitly the result of an Allied bombing raid. One of the casualties is Mahito’s mother Hisako, whose fiery death in a hospital sends Mahito’s life in new and unpredictable directions. We skip forward a year to find Mahito and his father, owner of a munitions factory, arriving at a mountainous country estate, where Mahito meets his new step-mother, Hisako’s sister Natsuko, who is pregnant.

Almost immediately Mahito meets the titular heron, which seems to be trying to get the boy’s attention and leads him to a crumbling, overgrown tower on the property to which Mahito is of course inexorably drawn. He’s repeatedly warned away by the gaggle of grannies who are the family maids – they tell a tale of the tower dropping from the sky long ago, and of a great uncle who was obsessed with it and eventually disappeared into it.

Then Mahito gets a head injury and descends into a world of dreams and hallucinations dominated by the heron, which seems to grow ever more malign. When he sees Natsuko (who has taken to her bed with what a maid calls morning sickness) disappearing into the forest and follows her, the true adventure begins. He, the heron and one of the grannies descend through level after level of reality, encountering all manner of strange and enchanted creatures – fireflies, pelicans, ravenous budgies, ghosts, and shmoo-like Warawaras, the avatars of souls waiting to be reborn.

Visually of course, the film is stunning, with vast panoramas of mystical cloud, land and seascapes, 3-D structures with maze-like interiors, and always fire in one form or another. The imagery and the motivations of various spirit beings and animals may not make much sense to Western viewers; it may be best to simply sit back and soak it in, and let your psyche create its own meanings. On the surface, though, a child’s quest to find meaning and security in a dangerous and chaotic world is something that’s easy to grasp, for it’s something we’ve all experienced to one degree or another.

(Studio Ghibli, 2023)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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