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Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron (2023)

No filmmaker, not even Steven Soderbergh, announces his retirement as unconvincingly as Hayao Miyazaki. The master of animation and Studio Ghibli cofounder who has conjured such magical works as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001) has “retired” several times over the course of his long career. In September 2013, he issued a statement declaring that The Wind Rises, released a few months earlier, would be his last feature. He was seventy-two at the time, and it looked as if we could finally, however reluctantly, take him at his word.

Just three years later, though, Miyazaki began drawing up storyboards for a project that evolved into The Boy and the Heron. Vague hints emanating from Studio Ghibli led to the impression that the film would be an adaptation of Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel How Do You Live?, the story of a teen learning life lessons from a wise uncle. Reviewing The Boy and the Heron for Sight and Sound, Adam Nayman notes that the “original How Do You Live? was aimed at school children as a kind of humanist philosophical tract, and [it] makes a crucial cameo here; while Miyazaki’s screenplay retains nothing of its source material’s original narrative—and in fact piles on a swaying heap of mystic-slash-mythic complications to rival anything in Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)—its gentle didacticism is very much of a piece.”

Two years into the Second World War, an Allied bombing raid on Tokyo takes the life of the mother of eleven-year-old Mahito (voiced by Soma Satoki). The following year, Mahito’s father, Shoichi (Takuya Kimura)—he oversees the manufacturing of parts for Japanese war planes—and Mahito move to the countryside estate belonging to his mother’s family. Shoichi has married his late wife’s younger sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), and she’s already pregnant. None of this goes down well with Mahito, naturally, and to make matters worse, he hates his new school.

At home, Mahito notices that a grey heron seems oddly fixated on him, and his suspicion is confirmed when the heron comes knocking at his window. In the raspy voice of Masaki Suda, the heron tells him that his mother is alive—“She is awaiting your rescue”—and beckons him to come and see. From here on, The Boy and the Heron “expands and expands as it goes,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, “forsaking the grounded drama of its first act for a wild trip through the many doors of infinite-timeline possibility.” Rolling Stone’s David Fear suggests that what’s “less important about The Boy and the Heron than the details of its numerous narrative detours is the feel of it, which is what truly puts it in the company of Miyazaki’s best work.”

Will Sloan, writing for Cinema Scope, assures us that the film is “replete with the expected visual delights—from those gorgeous, Monet-like hand-painted backdrops, to eccentric creatures like the Warawara (little blob-like spirits that become human souls), to smaller details like the look of jam as it’s spread over a piece of bread, or blood as it flows down a character’s face, or the way a 1940s car jitters when it’s being revved up.”

For Vulture’s Alison Willmore, what makes the film “most compelling are the ways in which the real and the magical are equal presences. The magical universe may be a means of evading a reality that’s on fire, but it’s not without its own ugliness, all of it brought in from the outside by those looking to escape. If The Boy and the Heron ultimately feels less universal in its emotional appeal than past Miyazaki work, it’s only because Miyazaki is grappling with something very specific—that we can’t leave the world behind when we’re a part of it.”

Miyazaki is “drawing from formative childhood memories to reflect with dizzying flourishes of fantasy on loss and legacy,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “on finding peace and even comfort in sadness and holding tight to one’s sense of self in a life inevitably destined to slip in and out of chaos. At least that’s one interpretation of an exquisite artisanal film that perhaps will mean different things to every viewer who surrenders to its enchantment.”

Mahito’s “journey to the center of a crumbling underworld” eventually leads him to “the aging magus who created the world Mahito will, perhaps, inherit,” writes Mark Asch for Little White Lies. “His instructions to Mahito are heavy with the tearful hope of every aging artisan: that his mentee will imagine more wildly, will strive more doggedly, will somehow complete the work that the older man must, as he now knows, leave unfinished.”

Before releasing The Boy and the Heron in Japanese theaters in July, Studio Ghibli famously decided that the best marketing campaign for Miyazaki’s twelfth feature was no marketing campaign at all. No trailers, no clips, no stills—just a simple poster depicting an anatomically mysterious heron hand-drawn by Miyazaki himself. It worked. The film’s opening weekend was the biggest ever for the studio. The Boy and the Heron saw its international premiere when it opened Toronto’s forty-eighth edition last week, and it now heads to festivals in San Sebastián,New York, and London before GKIDS releases it to U.S. theaters on December 8.

In Toronto, a Studio Ghibli executive told a packed audience that Miyazaki had already returned to his office. He’s now begun work on a new project.

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