Arts movie review

The Boy and the Heron explores grief, acceptance, and Hayao Miyazaki’s inability to retire

The film reflects on Miyazaki’s childhood in classic Studio Ghibli fashion while also featuring birds — a lot of birds.

The Boy and the Heron
(How Do You Live?)
Directed, written by Hayao Miyazaki

— JP voice: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon
— US voice: Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson, Karen Fukuhara

(w. Christian Bale, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh, Willem Dafoe, Dave Bautista)

Released July (JP), December (US) 2023
Rated PG-13. Now Playing

After officially retiring for the second time ten years ago, acclaimed Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli fame, has brought yet another “big fantastical film” to theaters. Coming on the heels of his previous “retirements”-turned-feature films with the releases of Spirited Away in 2001 and The Wind Rises in 2013, Miyazaki’s new movie The Boy and the Heron (titled アリスとテレスのまぼろし工場, or How Do You Live?, in Japan) is an animated fantasy film about a boy moving to the countryside, encountering a paranormal creature, and subsequently finding himself in a magical new realm where he learns about himself and his family in the process.

The Boy and the Heron’s release is sandwiched between a series of high-profile Japanese animated fantasy features with coming-of-age themes, following 2021’s Belle (竜とそばかすの姫), 2022’s Suzume (すずめの戸締まり), and 2023’s Maborishi (アリスとテレスのまぼろし工場), while preceding the hotly-anticipated 2024 release of Kimi no Iro (きみの色). This placement reaffirms Studio Ghibli’s place among newer, flashier animation studios, allowing it to remain relevant as its original audience grows older and introduces its works to the next generation. Despite its well-established cult-classic predecessors and highly competitive release environment, The Boy and the Heron is perfectly set to become a classic.

It’s a typical coming-of-age story ripped straight from Studio Ghibli’s tried-and-true formula for storytelling success, sharing a lot of elements with past Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). However, that doesn’t take away from its own uniquely retrospective narrative.

The works of Studio Ghibli have been an integral part of childhoods since 1984’s Nausicaä, serving as thematic comfort in the face of looming adulthood. While I only got into Ghibli films midway through high school, I know a lot of people whose childhoods were populated with memories of Howl walking Sophie through the sky, Chihiro nursing Haku back to health, and Sōsuke declaring his love for Ponyo. In a lot of ways, from familial to romantic, love defined Ghibli narratives. The Boy and the Heron, however, navigates connection in a much darker way.

The film follows 12-year-old Mahito moving to the countryside in the midst of WWII with his father after his mother’s death. With his father’s remarriage to her sister and his isolation in an unfamiliar environment, Mahito’s internal grief isn’t given the space to be processed — and instead turns into an outward bitterness as he withdraws from his community and engages in self-destructive behaviors.

Mahito is transported to a miserable fantasy world filled with various types of birds by a talking grey heron (a thematic extension of Miyazaki’s obsession with flight — but in this film serving as a statement of helplessness instead of a demonstration of freedom ). He engages with the world’s inhabitants and meets companions who help him through his journey,  eventually coming to terms with his birth mother’s death and accepting a relationship with his stepmother.

While still carrying on the Ghibli tradition of whimsy, the film is more graphic and mature than its predecessors: we see Mahito bloodily beating his head with a rock; the grotesqueness of a fish being gutted from start to finish; and a conversation with a dying pelican as it affirms the cruelty of the world and the need to kill to survive.

A lot of the creatures from this fantastical world are born of learned helplessness. From the spirit-eating pelicans that inhabit the vast oceanic expanse to the evolved parakeets who are trying to seize control of the realm, all of the world’s creatures exhibit a level of defeatist nihilism that greatly parallels Mahito’s own disbelief in the joy of humanity. Even more so, the land itself is a manifestation of discord and malice, espoused to the protagonist by its creator. Intended to be a conflict-free landscape to hide away from hate in the real world, its corrupted progression echoes the world of Narnia with an inevitable descent into madness.

The Boy and the Heron’s tale of acceptance mirrors and ultimately contrasts that of Nausicaä: within the brutal landscapes of both worlds, their respective protagonists have to contend with widespread despair and hopelessness. But the pivotal difference between the two is that of accepting malice in the world, not denouncing it. The creator of the realm — Mahito’s great-granduncle — attempts to pressure him into taking on the role of its steward, asking him to remake the world into one that is truly free of malice. Mahito declines, and returns to his reality; he cannot accept the role of a perfect guardian because he himself has given into malice before. However, Mahito comes to recognize that while some — like the pelicans that prey on the spirits of unborn babies out of food scarcity — have no choice but to harm others to survive, for others, doing good is an accessible privilege. Thus, he can return to his world committed to fostering respectful understanding, if not necessarily love, with his stepmother and newfound life. 

The film definitely features a more adult take on the classic moral of the story, but that’s what makes it so special: in contrast with the usual adolescent effects of Ghibli optimism, the coming-of-age–ness in this film is made especially apparent by the complexity of the protagonist’s journey. It’s directly applicable to our situations, not just as an idealization of what we could be but how we can live now. We can accept our past mistakes and reckon with the less desirable aspects of ourselves, but that doesn’t rule out our ability to still bring our best.

The success of The Boy and the Heron gives a clear direction for Ghibli moving forward. With the film industry as a whole calling for simultaneously more thematically mature subject matter and more whimsical presentations, The Boy and tbe Heron’s approach allows for the studio to gradually explore more and more complex modalities in its coming films to contend with this decade’s film scene.

Ghibli exists as a studio outside of Miyazaki’s influence, yes, but the careful balance of mature storytelling presented within a kid-accessible format is a skill that has not thus far been matched in its works by other directors and writers. Still, it’s clear as well that in the ten years since Miyazaki’s last film and the three years since Earwig and the Witch, that Studio Ghibli itself has grown significantly. The Boy and the Heron excels not just in its context but also its technical execution: it makes excellent use of 3D animation and more modern presentation techniques not to supplant the studio’s traditional hand-painted work (previous attempts of which have resulted in negative feedback from its audience), but to supplement and revitalize its signature style.

The film is definitely one of Miyazaki’s (and overall the studio’s) best, a perfect swan song to close off a storied career — that is, except the fact that he has no plans to retire; Miyazaki is currently in the works for his next big production for Studio Ghibli, and I can’t wait for what he plans to explore in the next one.