The Boy and the Heron review: A masterful work of art by Hayao Miyazaki

Japanese animator takes fans on another epic fantasy adventure

Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, The Boy and the Heron, was released in the UAE on December 14. AP
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It is unbelievable and comforting that after 60 years, one of the greatest storytellers of our time still has something new to say.

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film The Boy and the Heron is characteristic of his signature style, tone, and approach – but there is also so much more.

The story follows a young boy, Mahito, consumed by grief and guilt over the death of his mother in the bombing of a Tokyo hospital during the Second World War. The first hour of the film is dedicated to Mahito’s new reality, living in his mother’s ancestral home in rural Japan with his father, a factory owner, and his new wife, Natsuko – Mahito’s aunt.

Mahito is unable to adapt to his new life. He’s angry, cold, withdrawn, haunted by his mother's death and taunted by a heron bird. A sinister creature with strangely human teeth, the heron attempts to lure Mahito to an abandoned tower in the woods by telling him that his mother is still alive.

The Boy and the Heron

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Starring: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Ko Shibasaki

Rating: 5/5

After attempts to attack the bird with a bow and arrow, Natsuko, who is pregnant, disappears. Mahito has no choice but to enter a tower to save Natsuko and discover the truth about his mother.

Through the tower, Mahito enters a fantastical world where the living, dead and soon to be born exist in stunning landscapes, skies and seas. It’s a world where man-eating parakeets are fighting for independence, desperate flocks of pelicans are struggling to survive, and loveable creatures called warawara, are waiting to mature and float through moonlight to begin their destiny.

This is not the first time that Miyazaki leads us into unique, oddly familiar, gorgeously drawn worlds, filled with peculiar and unexpected creatures.

The Boy and the Heron contains many of the compositional elements and world-building structures seen in Miyazaki’s other works such as Narcissa Valley of the Wind (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), Princess Mononoke (1997), the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2001) and the cult classic, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).

But even at the age of 82, Miyazaki doesn’t rest on his laurels.

From a stylistic perspective, Miyazaki leans into his technical prowess, evoking more than engrossing representations of reality from his pencil and brush. His characters’ present and dormant feelings ooze out or project through technique and style. Memory, yearning, grief and hope are ever-present in the film through light, shadow, colour, form and movement.

While it may take some time to understand the context, one is always feeling the moment.

Miyazaki’s storytelling here is akin to a literary novel, a style that came out in full force in his previous film, The Wind Rises (2013). Incredibly introspective with reoccurring motifs, the story is propelled forward or slows down through character.

Miyazaki is often cited for “breaking away” from traditional plotting – a statement I take umbrage with. Traditional compared with what? Western storytelling techniques and tropes have been viewed as the standard for decades. So, it’s no surprise that it's perplexing for some audiences when Miyazaki takes facets of Japanese storytelling methods and folklore, universal themes and narratives, and European references, and melds them with his own distinct voice.

It’s a style Miyazaki has played with over the course of his career. In The Boy and the Heron however, plot structure and the motions of Mahito’s mind are not separate things. They simultaneously create and depict a dream-like world, where Mahito is at the crossroads of what is a coming-of-age story.

Miyazaki’s references in the film are subtle and layered. The 1937 novel How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino greatly influenced Miyazaki and is read by Mahito at a pivotal moment in the story.

The influence of Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Bocklin, particularly his painting Isle of the Dead (1880), can be seen in the landscapes and architecture of the film. The work of French artist Jean-Francois Millet and particularly his use of light is also a prominent influence on Miyazaki’s colour palate. In fact, Millet’s famous painting The Sower (1850) is used as an illustration in the copy of How Do You Live? that Mahito reads.

Bearing in mind self-referencing from the greater Studio Ghibli universe as well, Miyazaki balances all manner of details and the greater picture with such refinement, that the world in The Boy and the Heron is incredibly textured, enriched, and feels part of a greater narrative.

The climax of the film poses a question to Mahito. Embroiled in a world on the verge of destruction, he must make a choice. Should he create a new world in this fantasy realm, one of his own dreams and desires, or go back home to face reality – how does he want to live?

Miyazaki speaks directly to the audience, perhaps his fans, through Mahito’s predicament.

Amid grief and anger, against the backdrop of war and the ambition of politicians, we cannot take sole responsibility for rebuilding the world in our own image nor can we escape to the universes of fantasy no matter how good or tempting they are.

Facing our truth, recognising our scars, and balancing art and reality, is the only way to forge through life.

Many have been calling this Miyazaki’s last film. A sad idea to contemplate. However, it feels as though Miyazaki, who has retired and returned to animation more than once, will continue to tell stories. This isn’t simply a fan wistfully and stubbornly holding on to hope. Objectively, if one looks at Miyazaki’s oeuvre, each film feels like a farewell to the audience.

The Japanese version of The Boy and the Heron is showing in cinemas across the UAE now. The English dubbed version will be released in the UAE next year

Updated: December 15, 2023, 6:02 PM
The Boy and the Heron

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Starring: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Ko Shibasaki

Rating: 5/5