Released on December 8th, 2023, Studio Ghibli’s “The Boy and The Heron” features beautifully hand-drawn animation and music in what many call Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus. Renowned director Miyazaki came out of retirement to make this movie with composer Joe Hisaishi, who has partnered with Miyazaki on every Studio Ghibli film that he has directed. Along with the signature dramatic orchestral score, the English cast features many A-List actors such as Robert Pattison as the gray heron, Christian Bale as Shoichi Maki, and Florence Pugh as Kiriko.
The film follows a young boy, Mahito, living in Japan during World War II. After his mother dies in a hospital bombing, he moves to the countryside. It is here that he meets a heron who tells him that his mother is still alive and is living in another realm which the boy can only access through an abandoned tower. Such a fantastical plot is typical of Studio Ghibli films like “Spirited Away” and the award-winning “Castle in the Sky.”
The film is one of the darkest portrayals of childhood yet in Miyazaki’s films, as most of the action is centered around the visions of traumatized Mahito, who grapples with grief, anxiety, and regret in the aftermath of his mother’s death. His new family, including his stepmother, seems to have moved on with post-war life, leaving him with no one to turn to. Many questions about the symbolism of different outlandish characters, including the troll-like heron and human-eating parakeets, are left largely unanswered, with Miyazaki twisting the stereotypical understanding of these creatures to create a disturbing image. For example, the herons seem to represent evil at the film’s beginning, haunting Mahito after his mother’s death. However, they are later revealed to be neither good nor bad in their representation of death, but simply a product of the morality and violence of the real world.
Characteristic of Miyazaki’s films, “The Boy and the Heron” uses fantasy to numb the protagonist’s pains, gradually unfolding this mysticism to demonstrate the mundane beauty of life. In his previous film “My Neighbor Totoro,” fantastical creatures appear to aid two sisters grappling with their mother’s illness, then disappear when they have served their purpose, as do the creatures in “Spirited Away” once the protagonist gains a newfound appreciation for spiritual magic through the perilous process of growing up. “The Boy and the Heron” brings Mahito back to reality to show his powerlessness in the fantastical world, emphasizing the importance of doing what one can with the circumstances they are given.
Common criticism comes from the chaos of the plot, as the film packs a plethora of different characters and scenes into a relatively short time frame. Compared to Miyazaki’s past films, which have more distinct plot lines, “The Boy and the Heron” jumps around between flashbacks and alternate realms, making it hard to keep track of symbols and fantasy versus reality. The movie is not an easy watch, and viewers should not go into it expecting to grasp the plot, if there is a definite one at all. The film could have benefited from some pauses in the action to allow the audience to contemplate and soak in the aesthetics of the movie, such as the bus stop scene in “My Neighbor Totoro.” However, the chaos of “The Boy and the Heron” could also have been an intentional choice on Miyazaki’s part, meant to express the calamity of a post-traumatic adolescence where one’s present reality is deeply intertwined with past regrets.
Ultimately, there is no one way to watch or interpret “The Boy and the Heron,” as it is an extremely personal exploration of life, death, rebirth, and human resilience. Each of the characters and visuals will serve wildly different purposes to each watcher and with each viewing. With its spiritual magic woven into a fabric of stunning visuals and alluring fantasies, despite the chaos of the movie, “The Boy and the Heron” remains a beautiful, potent, and precious final addition to Miyazaki’s filmography.