Arts and Entertainment

Life, Death, and Birds

Hayao Miyazaki produced yet another heavy-hitting, entrancing animated feature—The Boy and the Heron—after unexpectedly coming out of retirement.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Emile Lee-Suk

When acclaimed animation director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement for the third time in 2013, he stated in an online press conference, “If I said I wanted to [make another feature film], I would sound like an old man saying something foolish.” Ten years later, the 82-year-old director returned to filmmaking (possibly for the last time) with The Boy and the Heron (2023), but no one could call him foolish. The Boy and the Heron, loosely inspired by Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel How Do You Live? (the film’s Japanese namesake), tells the story of Mahito (Soma Santoki), a boy who loses his mother in the crossfire of World War II, and his quest through a fantastical world to find his missing stepmother while grappling with his grief. Alongside the consistently beautiful visuals of Studio Ghibli’s animation, Miyazaki masterfully consolidates themes of depression, humanism, existence, and war in a surreal, entertaining story immediately distinguishable as one of his most impactful works. The Boy and the Heron was released in Japan in July but made its United States premiere at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on October 1. 

The Boy and the Heron opens with Mahito evacuating Tokyo to the Japanese countryside to escape the ongoing war. There, all he can think about is his dead mother, but by dwelling on his troubled past, he has trouble adapting to his new home. His father has moved on to a new woman—Natsuko (Yoshina Kimura), Mahito’s maternal aunt and his mother’s spitting image. To intensify matters, Natsuko is pregnant with Mahito’s younger sibling. Mahito feels uncomfortable that his father replaced his mother so quickly, which manifests as open resentment toward Natsuko. He also shows symptoms of PTSD; he constantly relives the night his mother died and imagines her begging him to save her. In his struggle to navigate his emotions, Mahito acts cold and distant to everyone around him, from the entourage of fawning elderly housekeepers in his home to his classmates at school. Mahito is also constantly harassed by an eccentric talking gray heron (Masaki Suda), who sadistically taunts him with claims that his mother is still alive. When Natsuko mysteriously disappears, Mahito, accompanied by the unhelpful heron, ventures into a magical world filled with man-eating parakeets, giant fish, and sentient blobs called “Warawara” to find her. Mahito appears almost desensitized to the danger and unfamiliarity of his situation; when asked to compare the two worlds, he retorts that he never truly enjoyed his life back home. Mahito sees this new world as a fulfillment of his unhealthy escapist fantasies; rather than work through and learn to live with his problems, Mahito chooses to embrace the fantastical, using the goal of finding Natsuko, a woman whom he appears to feel nothing but bitterness for, as justification.

From the start, The Boy and the Heron is visually brilliant. The film’s cold opening—the death of Mahito’s mother—is an intense, dynamic scene filled with chaos. It depicts Mahito running through Tokyo, a war-torn city on fire. The animation is fast-paced and fluid; Mahito moves with hot-blooded urgency as his limbs push through countless others in an inhuman frenzy, desperate to find some trace of his mother at a burnt-down hospital engulfed in flames. The rest of the film is more serene, but the animation maintains its quality. The film ranges from the visually mystifying moment Mahito watches a stream of Warawara peacefully float into a dark, star-filled night sky to the more jagged and unnatural movements of the heron accompanied by Suda’s acrid, rugged voice. Realistic yet colorful and idealized painted backdrops decorate every scene, drawing the viewer into the lush trees and modern houses of reality and then the endless oceans and ancient buildings of fantasy. Miyazaki’s timeless, signature hand-drawn style is the film’s dominant force, bringing viewers a sense of comforting familiarity as the most triumphant sign of Miyazaki’s long-anticipated return. 

Mahito's journey concludes in an intimate conversation with his great-uncle (Shohei Hino), whom he discovers is a godlike wizard and the fantasy world’s protector. Mahito and his great-uncle are similar in many respects: both are disillusioned with the real world, especially since the ravages of World War II. Mahito’s great-uncle sought to turn his world into one “free from malice,” something he hopes Mahito can accomplish. He offers Mahito the chance to take his place, taking over the work of trying to perfect the alternate world. Mahito's great-uncle represents the darkest outcome of his escapist desires—he is completely detached from reality and his humanity, dedicating all his time to creating an idealized world from scratch. He hasn’t even succeeded in this goal; as shown through Mahito’s travels, this “ideal” world is quite flawed, from the army of antagonistic, weapon-wielding parakeets analogous to the real-life soldiers of World War II to a flock of starving, suffering pelicans forced to consume the Warawara for survival. 

When the rock that the world’s foundation is built upon is destroyed, the world starts to crumble, forcing Mahito to return home. In communicating the fragility of a false world, Miyazaki reinforces the necessity of reality. For Mahito to truly create a malice-free world, he must build on the real world he comes from. His great-uncle’s offer to continue living in a fantasy may seem like the easy, comfortable decision, but it would only reinforce Mahito’s denial of reality. Mahito can’t hide from the violence and strife that took so much from him, but that doesn’t mean he cannot seek to improve his circumstances. In his case, this means becoming more accepting of and open with his new family. Rather than provide a definitive answer to the underlying question of “how do you live?” Miyazaki reaffirms the value of everyday human existence, even when humanity continues to be a vessel of hatred and violence around the world. A “world free from malice” is an impossible, overly idealized goal. Humanity may never be able to overcome the horrors of oppression, war, and poverty.  However, humans should still work toward doing so by trying to improve the lives of themselves and others as best as they can. Mahito applies this perspective in the final scene, the film’s least outlandish one. It’s a hopeful, satisfying epilogue: in the aftermath of the war’s long-awaited conclusion, a more settled and content Mahito prepares to return to Tokyo with his family—including Natsuko, whom he has finally come to accept as his stepmother.

The abstractness of The Boy and the Heron and its unexpected release have led many critics to speculate that the film’s metaphors serve as a meta-narrative of Miyazaki’s career and the director’s swansong. Admittedly, the film is vague about what Mahito’s journey truly represents; it isn’t immediately apparent how talking birds, the Warawara, magical family members, themes of life and death, and constant allusions to World War II all tie together to form a cohesive hidden meaning. One analysis sees the great-uncle as Miyazaki’s self-insert, “passing the torch” of his art to the next generation. Just as the world the great-uncle created falls apart, Miyazaki’s career and the fictional worlds he invented draw to a close. It is also possible that the film’s existence arose simply from an intense desire to keep creating in the restlessness of retirement. Miyazaki has aged and is aware of his impending mortality: it appears that he intends to continue his life’s craft in the few years he has left. Though the film was released after a long hiatus, Miyazaki doesn’t seem to plan on stopping and is allegedly back in the Studio Ghibli office, planning and preparing for future works. While the potential of this film to be Miyazaki’s final piece certainly may have affected its development and scope, that fact does not need to define it. The Boy and the Heron should not be exclusively labeled as a retrospective epilogue or definitive ending to Miyazaki’s body of work—rather, it is Miyazaki at his everlasting peak, another thought-provoking masterpiece in a series brimming with them.