THE STORY – While the Second World War rages, the teenage Mahito, haunted by his mother’s tragic death, is relocated from Tokyo to the serene rural home of his new stepmother Natsuko, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the boy’s mother.
THE CAST – Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki & Takuya Kimura
THE TEAM – Hayao Miyazaki (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
A decade after publicly stepping away from the film world, master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki returns with what might be presumably his final film, “The Boy and the Heron.” In 2013, “The Wind Rises” was celebrated as a culmination of Miyazaki’s career, a bittersweet swan song from a legendary artist that was as perfect an ending as possible. Is “The Boy and the Heron” a second try at that swan song? Is it better or achieving more of the same? Leading up to the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, many anticipated this to be his last hurrah (again). Now rumors are swirling that Miyazaki may have more films left in him to tell. Does it matter if “The Boy and the Heron” is his final feature? Not in the slightest. Regardless of its timing or what other films may or may not come in the future, “The Boy and the Heron” is a timeless work of art about life, death, and choosing how we live in the face of tragedy.
That phrase, “how we live,” is key. Though changed to “The Boy and the Heron” for North American audiences, the Japanese title of Miyazaki’s latest is “How Do You Live?” referencing Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 Japanese novel of the same name. This film isn’t an adaptation of the novel but instead features the novel within the movie itself. The titular question is vital for the protagonist of “The Boy and the Heron,” young Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki), as he embarks on a fantastical journey of hope through his grief.
The film opens with sirens blaring in the distance. Tokyo is being firebombed in World War II, and the hospital where Mahito’s mother works is ablaze. In a genuinely visceral sequence, Mahito, his father (Takuya Kimura), and the rest of the city rush through burning ash to try and reach his mom. The rest of the city blurs and stretches away, leaving the focus purely on Mahito’s deep fear as he loses his mother. Flashes of these terrifying moments come back throughout the film, haunting Mahito. Following his mother’s death, Mahito’s father remarries his wife’s younger sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), and the family moves to the countryside, further from the dangers of war. It’s a typical beginning for Mahito’s coming-of-age story. He’s bullied by kids at school and even smashes a rock into his own head to get out of having to attend. Still, in typical Miyazaki fashion, fantastical elements begin to break into Mahito’s world of grief as his new mother is kidnapped and brought into an otherworldly tower. Fearing losing his “mother” again, Mahito sets off to locate Natsuko through time and space.
While entertaining for the viewer (especially those already familiar with Miyazaki’s work), the outlandish elements of “The Boy and the Heron” are often tinged with dashes of horror. A blue heron greets Mahito with a close flyby when the family first moves into their new home in the aftermath of the war. Initially, this seems like a good omen for their time there. Soon enough, that heron comes alive, calling out to Mahito in a chilling yet hilarious, gravelly voice (courtesy of Masaki Suda). The heron calls Mahito into a bizarre world beyond imagination, full of beauty and terrors, big and small. This heron isn’t even a heron, after all. A troll-like creature protrudes from the bird’s beak, accompanying Mahito on his journey. They encounter floating soul-like creatures called “warawara,” murderous parakeets, and so much more throughout this world as their search for Natsuko takes them to unexpected places and through many dangers.
“The Boy And The Heron” throws a lot at its audience, essentially eschewing a three-act structure altogether. Moving at a rapid pace, the story can be challenging to follow the longer it goes on and the deeper Mahito and the heron travel world within worlds. It’s not that the events are complicated. Still, the constant introduction of new creatures and elements along Mahito’s misadventures regularly disrupt the world’s rules, forcing the audience to re-adjust to whatever new environment or obstacle the characters are facing. Not all of the pieces add up to build a thoroughly understood narrative but rather enhance the atmosphere and tension building inside Mahito. It’s also quite funny throughout (the murderous parakeets are likely to provide some giggles), keeping the mood light despite the heavy themes of grief and death surrounding the story.
As expected, every moment is stunningly animated. “The Boy and the Heron” indulges in the beauty of every landscape and creature. There are long stretches without dialogue, giving the audience the opportunity to take in the splendor of the imagery. Gorgeous clouds, delectable food, and even fish guts are visual delights under Miyazaki’s imaginative eye. It’s a dream-like fantasy world that begs the view to get lost within its over two-hour runtime. Composer Joe Hisaishi’s moving score also amplifies the mood, often effective in its emotional simplicity.
With an often unfocused structure, surely one viewing isn’t enough to fully unpack the depths within “The Boy and the Heron.” Yet, even knowing there are pieces left to be discovered, Mahito’s story is full of hope. This is an adventure to the other side of grief and full of reflections on the end of a life. It’s a tragic and beautiful cycle that helps make life worth experiencing. “The Boy and the Heron” captures the confusion of heartache well and the choices one makes on how to keep living. Final film or not, it’s clear that Miyazaki’s reflecting on what he wants to say to his loved ones toward the end of his life. This is one of his most personal, artful films that will likely grow in richness as time passes.