Written by Tom Augustine.
One of the really notable things about the films of Hayao Miyazaki are the yawning silences that populate them. In an animated landscape where every new offering seems to pack every cheaply CG’d frame with garish colour and event, overstuffing the experience with cloying music and antic sound design, Miyazaki’s willingness to let an image play unfettered transforms his works into meditative experiences which have been unparalleled in quality for decades, and has ensured a lasting, wide-reaching cultural impact because of the willingness the filmmaker has to not fall for the lure of maximalism, an absolute rarity in pop cinema. That’s not to say that Miyazaki’s films aren’t intricately designed, or giant in their own way – certainly not – but Miyazaki has enough confidence in the transportative power of his images that he knows they’re enough to keep a viewer watching, agape, without unnecessary extra adornment. The Boy and the Heron, the eighty-two-year-old Miyazaki’s latest film, is filled with these silences, accompanied at times by only the barest of sound effects; a gentle footfall, a slight gust of wind. It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned approach, and its effect is dreamlike – the worlds of Miyazaki become liveable even as they so regularly defy understanding. It’s almost certainly the best animated film of 2023, a fine wine sitting dignified amidst a row of cheap swill.
As with Miyazaki’s previous film (also at the time reported as the filmmaker’s final effort, only to be overturned by the announcement of a new project later on) The Wind Rises, this latest work functions at least partially as a personal document, an excavating of twentieth-century Japanese history of which Miyazaki was a first hand witness. Unlike The Wind Rises, this film then overlays those remembrances and excavations with a layer of potent fantasy. Loosely based on an Irish novel by John Connolly called The Book of Lost Things, the story of The Boy and the Heron focuses on a young boy named Mahito who, following the death of his mother in a factory fire at the height of World War Two, moves with his businessman father to the countryside. His father has remarried, to Mahito’s mother’s younger sister Natsuko. In this new, alienating landscape, Mahito finds himself drawn to a mysterious tower, and coming into conflict with a strange and frightening heron that seems to be following him. When Natsuko goes missing, Mahito must follow the heron into a mystifying fantastical kingdom adjacent to our own world in search of her. Autobiographical details of Miyazaki’s life abound in the detail of the story – like Mahito, Miyazaki’s father was a manufacturer of fighter plane components during World War Two (an element of significance in The Wind Rises, also). Miyazaki’s family also fled from the city to the countryside during the War. Perhaps most importantly, The Boy and the Heron is primarily a film about mothers and sons, reflecting Miyazaki’s grief over the loss of his own mother, who reportedly was an inspiration for a range of strong-willed female characters in the director’s oeuvre.
Master of the animated form Hayao Miyazaki returns for what was initially reported as the auteur’s final film. Though that is no longer the case, the film remains an essential document, a moving, dazzling story of grief and memory in which the worlds of reality and dreams intersect with their own blissful kind of logic. It’s the year’s best animated film.
The fantasy world that Mahito is drawn into is a classic mish-mash of Miyazaki touchstones, mingling horror and delight with the deftest of touches. At the heart of this is the heron, an initially terrifying creature that later becomes one of the film’s most endearing elements. Within the body of the heron lives a red-nosed little man, who is drawn out of his costume at times of conflict. This initially manifests in the uncanny image of a heron with giant, human teeth, one of the more memorably unsettling images of this unapologetically surreal film. As the relationship between Mahito and the heron deepens, and the heron becomes a friend instead of an antagonist, the world Mahito has stepped into continues to reverberate outwards, a phantasmagorical other-scape that operates to the thrum of its own bizarre logic. Miyazaki playfully walks a tightrope between reality and imagination, and it’s never entirely clear what of The Boy and the Heron is merely a projection of Mahito’s fraught psychological landscape – parallels to that other great fantasy film, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, abound.
All the while, Miyazaki blesses us with images both awe-inspiring and lovely, as is to be expected in a Ghibli offering. Most evocative are the sequences of the film set at sea, including an interlude in which Mahito comes into contact with a younger but no-less feisty version of one of seven chattering old maids that service Natsuko’s estate, manifesting in this fantasy-world as a hardy, sea-faring fisherwoman. The fish she catches – a giant, three-eyed beast, is then used to feed the Warawara, extremely adorable, floating marshmallow-shaped beings that, we are told, eventually turn into people in the world we inhabit. It’s one of the most soulful, enchanting sequences Miyazaki has ever conjured.
Perhaps reflective of the telling of this story from the perspective of someone looking back on a long, well-lived life, there is a good amount of expansive, meditative stillness to The Boy and the Heron – those yawning silences I mentioned earlier. In the later half of the film, this means the narrative becomes both exceedingly complex and deliberately slow-paced. The drag here is noticeable, particularly as some of the later segments of The Boy and the Heron fail to be as memorable as the ones that preceded them – a long sequence featuring a race of giant, sentient parakeets never quite clicks into place – before Miyazaki delivers a finale of resonant power, all the more profound for its simplicity and restraint, leaving these qualms in the rearview. The original (and superior) title of The Boy and the Heron was How Do You Live?, referring to a story-book left for Mahito by his mother. Accordingly The Boy and the Heron seems to be trying to capture the essence of how best to operate in the short time we have on earth – to put aside the things that divide us and strive for lasting peace. Reportedly, Miyazaki intended the film as a document for his own grandson, paralleling Mahito and his mother once again, in order to leave him some lasting message after he has passed on to another world. The swirling, immense depths of The Boy and the Heron are hidden magnificently in the film’s surface subtlety and dignified quiet – it’s another major gift from one of the most important cinematic artists of the past century, one to be shared by us all.
The Boy and The Heron in cinemas now.
The Boy and the Heron
Movie title: The Boy and the Heron (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Movie description: Master of the animated form Hayao Miyazaki returns for what was initially reported as the auteur’s final film. Though that is no longer the case, the film remains an essential document, a moving, dazzling story of grief and memory in which the worlds of reality and dreams intersect with their own blissful kind of logic. It’s the year’s best animated film.
Date published: December 7, 2023
Author: Hayao Miyazaki
Director(s): Hayao Miyazaki
Actor(s): [ENG], Robert Pattinson, Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh, Karen Fukuhara, Gemma Chan, Dave Bautista, Tony Revolori
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Drama