February 7, 2024
Strange Happenings- 11-year-old Mahito prepares to face off against a strange talking heron (Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli)
This article contains spoilers for ‘The Boy and the Heron’.
‘The Boy and The Heron’, the latest Studio Ghibli movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was released in Japan in mid-July and was released to U.S. and Canadian theaters on December 8th of last year. Despite the film’s relatively recent release, it has already received numerous awards, including the award for Best Animated Feature Film at the Golden Globes.
The film, originally titled ‘How Do You Live?,’ takes place in 1940s Japan and follows 11-year-old Mahito as he attempts to fit into the rural town he recently moved to. ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is semi-autobiographical in nature, inspired by Miyazaki’s memories of wartime Japan and the loss of his mother later in his life.
The movie begins unusually dark for a Ghibli film, with Mahito’s mother dying in a hospital fire following an air raid on Tokyo. Mahito witnesses this, and his memories of the event haunt him throughout the film. We then see Mahito a year later, forced to move out of Tokyo and into the countryside after his father remarries.
As Mahito struggles to adapt to his new home, strange things begin to happen. The house is staffed by a group of prattling old ladies and a strange grey heron who insists on bringing Mahito to an old tower nearby, telling him that his mother is still alive. When Mahito enters the tower in an attempt to find his stepmother after she goes missing, he becomes absorbed into an alternate universe, very different from his own. Full of giant predatory parakeets and magic-wielding heroines, the universe offers a very complex environment that Mahito uses to navigate his grief and the imperfections of life.
The film is beautifully animated, with the majority of the scenes painstakingly hand-painted and drawn. The film’s message about learning to live with grief is also incredibly impactful. Despite this, the actual plot feels slightly cluttered. There are many smaller storylines that could be explored further, but they end up seeming out of place when combined and added to the main storyline. The audience is introduced to a fisherwoman, Kiriko, who saves Mahito from a group of seagulls and bears a similar scar to Mahito. The story behind her scar and how she got her role in the world is never explained. The Parakeet King is introduced as the main antagonist later in the film as he attempts to remake the magical realm, but his motivations for this are not really explored. This makes the film feel like a fever dream, albeit a beautiful one.
Compared to past Ghibli films like ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’, I would not consider ‘The Boy and the Heron’ to be one of Miyazaki’s best. Despite this, the film is visually stunning, entertaining, and leaves the audience with something to think about. It is definitely worth watching. Miyazaki has reportedly decided not to go back into retirement, as he has done after previous Ghibli films, and is said to be coming up with new ideas for films. ‘The Boy and the Heron’ was overall a wonderful film, and it will be interesting to see what Miyazaki comes up with next.