​Promotional image for 'The Boy and the Heron,' © 2023 Studio Ghibli.
Promotional image for 'The Boy and the Heron,' © 2023 Studio Ghibli.

'The Boy and the Heron' is a Statement Miyazaki Had To Leave Behind

'The Boy and the Heron' is Hayao Miyazaki's letter to grief, a hectic story of how to live with loss and beyond.

Hayao Miyazaki could not leave this world without making The Boy and the Heron. In 2017, Studio Ghibli producer, Toshio Suzuki, explained Miyazaki’s motivation for making the film. It was a way for the director of anime classics like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke to explain to his grandson that “Grandpa is moving on to the next world, but he’s leaving behind this film.” This gift is an abstract adventure epic, a roadmap through grief and a meditation on joy, regret, and the way one chooses to move through life.

The Boy and the Heron begins shrouded in death. A moonlit WWII Tokyo cityscape is punctured by a burning hospital, the workplace of young Mahito’s mother. After her loss, change rains down on Mahito’s life. His father and his mother’s sister are expecting a baby and he is forced to move into the countryside. This is where the titular boy encounters the titular heron, a half-human hybrid claiming Mahito’s mother to still be alive. The heron yanks Mahito from his increasingly painful reality, into a plane of existence where new souls are given life, and the souls of the dead come to rest.

Veering away from its original Japanese title can’t remove The Boy and the Heron from the philosophical question at its core: How Do You Live? Miyazaki aims to capture the full picture of the unending, uncaring and inevitable cycle between life and death, having his characters react to that and showing the various ways in which they cope with their unavoidable demise. The heron seems to despise the idea of death, acting selfishly and being antagonistic towards Mahito, who only sees the heron — and everyone else stumbling through life — as someone in need of help.

\u200bPromotional image for 'The Boy and the Heron,' \u00a9 2023 Studio Ghibli. Promotional image for 'The Boy and the Heron,' © 2023 Studio Ghibli.

A career in traditional animation is a career spent obsessing over how the finer points of a person’s movements and gestures can be used to communicate their character. It’s the job of the animator to get under the skin of a character and ask; How do you walk? How do you run? How do you speak? It’s a natural development for Miyazaki to eventually take an all-encompassing look at the very purpose of walking the way you do, running the way you do, living the way you do.

As is natural for one of the great visual artists of his, or any, generation, Miyazaki communicates these lofty ideas through unmatched attention to detail in his animation. Miyazaki is a man obsessed with process. We know that when a character steps in soggy mud, the ground will squelch around the sides of their shoe, Miyazaki wants to show that, to render it in tactile detail. He applies this filmmaking philosophy to The Boy and the Heron’s world beyond death, a reality so divorced from our own that it could never make sense to an outsider. But through Miyazaki’s dedication to process, we feel like we have a rope to hang on to.

A rope is all one can expect to grasp, however. The Boy and the Heron visualizes its themes of impermanence with great splendor and horror. Any surface is malleable, a concrete floor can become a sea of molasses, a bright blue sky can fade into a star-lit void, the body of a heron and the body of a man can exist in the same character model and the corpse of a person can melt away with a touch. Miyazaki is very capable of turning a movie around quickly, but the process of animating a world by hand where any object can transition smoothly into another at a moment's notice needs to be gotten right.

This lack of solidity makes The Boy and the Heron a frantically-paced movie. Plotlines spew from the film omnidirectionally, an unavoidable side-effect of a film determined to analyze the morality of one’s existence. This is done through a “dream-logic” plot structure, something employed by Miyazaki most notably in Spirited Away. However, unlike Spirited Away and other Ghibli classics, The Boy and the Heron lacks a truly enchanting lead character to tie the whole thing together. Mahito is likeable, but is quieter and less charismatic than Whisper of the Heart’s Shizuku or Ponyo’s Sosuke. The Boy and the Heron is deeply weird and one’s enjoyment comes from submitting to that, something not every audience member can do when the main character is not always engaging.

\u200bPromotional image for 'The Boy and the Heron,' \u00a9 2023 Studio Ghibli. Promotional image for 'The Boy and the Heron,' © 2023 Studio Ghibli.

Over 40 years on from making his feature directorial debut, through the struggles of Ghibli’s early days, the joys of their golden era, the deaths of coworkers and the temptation to put the pencil down for good, Miyazaki still feels the pull of his purpose – to tell stories. Few are able to sustain a career so long and retain the ability to show an audience something they’ve never seen before, to conjure an image so powerful that even out of context it forces an emotional response.

Even if The Boy and the Heron has its share of blemishes, it gains them in search of something larger than a single film, a single filmmaker, a single legendary animation studio. When the woman who brought you into this world disappears before you reach adulthood, when life scars you with images a child should never see, when you’re forced to leave home, when you have to confront a world that existed before you and will continue to after you’re gone, when you learn that all that you know is temporary and might just hold no meaning at all, how do you live?