Home » ‘The Boy and the Heron’ Review – Hayao Miyazaki’s Affirming and Triumphant Return | TIFF 2023

‘The Boy and the Heron’ Review – Hayao Miyazaki’s Affirming and Triumphant Return | TIFF 2023

by Ron Hilliard
The young boy Mahito looks shocked as he's covered in toads and frogs in the animated film THE BOY AND THE HERON written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki. If you’re at all familiar with Japanese animation then you’ve most assuredly heard of the renowned writer-director. Even if you’re not familiar with that sphere of anime, you’ve most definitely heard the name Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata, it’s a studio whose works have almost become a genre onto themselves. Studios Ghibli’s iconography, memorable cast of characters, and unique (often cute) creatures have permeated pop culture. This is partially thanks to the previous distribution deal between Walt Disney Studios and Studio Ghibli which began with the release of the acclaimed Princess Mononoke in 1996. GKIDS took over North American distribution for the company 12 years ago and now has the pleasure of releasing Miyazaki’s latest masterwork, The Boy and the Heron.

The former distribution deal with Disney may be partially responsible for introducing Ghibli’s films to Western audiences, but the brunt of this success goes to the man who shepherded the studio to where it is today. From his first outing, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to his last “final” feature, The Wind Rises, Miyazaki has forged one of the strongest visual and cinematic identities in all of animation. With his triumphant return to cinema, The Boy and the Heron proves that this is still the case and reminds us why his movies have become a staple within animation.

How do you live? That’s the question Miyazaki poses in The Boy and the Heron. The question comes from the title of the 1937 Japanese novel written by Genzaburo Yoshino. That title might seem a bit vague, (live with what?), but the book was a favorite of Miyazaki’s growing up and his new film seems to be thematically in conversation with it. In the novel, a young boy struggles with identity of the self, and the whole – his relationship with others and the world. Though Yoshino’s original story is completely separate from that of the movie, its impact on Miyazaki’s screenplay is easy to spot.

The Boy and the Heron immediately puts us into a war-torn Tokyo in the midst of World War II. Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki), our 12-year-old protagonist, wakes as air raid sirens pierce through the shroud of night. All he’s ever known is burning around him. Mahito, his father Shoichi Maki (Takuya Kimura), and a few others rush from the house half-dressed and in a panic in search of their loved ones. Mahito yells for his mother, knowing that she could be in danger as the bombings persist. Unfortunately, it’s too late to save her. 

The young boy Mahito makes his way through fire sparks in a chaotic crowd after a bombing in the animated film THE BOY AND THE HERON written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
‘The Boy and the Heron’ courtesy of GKIDS

We find out from Mahito as he and his father are moving to the countryside that his mother died in a hospital fire. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that this harrowing war scene and somber aftermath set the tone for the story (the film is actually quite humorous), it would be fair to say it does set expectations for the quality of the animation. Sure, it’s a Miyazaki-directed Ghibli movie… of course, the animation is going to be spectacular. It’s a given that The Boy and the Heron is a visual feast for the eyes. However, in this opening scene, the animation is a feverish and desperate sketch of the world.

As Mahito runs around Tokyo, society becomes a blur of fire and fear. The visuals carry an energy that could not have been anticipated from the film’s promotional materials alone, of which there were very few.  In some ways, it is tonally reminiscent of moments in co-founder Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. Soon after we find out that this is a recurring nightmare of Mahito’s, a sign that while to others in his life he may seem abrasive or stand-offish, inside he’s just a grieving boy who’s trying to process the inexplicable cruelty of the life he’s been given. 

Upon their arrival to the countryside, Mahito is introduced to his father’s new wife and his mother’s younger sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). They are taken to their new residence, populated with many familiar Miyazaki archetypes – strange animals, comical elderly matrons, and of course, ominous fantastical structures. It’s during this brief time on the estate that we get further insight into just how far from “alright” Mahito is. He’s angry, and prone to acts of violence. He’s sad, even grieving when he sleeps. Mahito is someone who wants to retreat from reality and everything in it. However, the eponymous heron (Masaki Suda) soon appears to ensure that Mahito doesn’t get his wish.

The mischievous grey heron with a human face and giant nose shows off a sinister smile in the animated film THE BOY AND THE HERON written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
‘The Boy and the Heron’ courtesy of GKIDS

The mischievous grey heron becomes a nuisance, bothering Mahito at all hours in an attempt to lure him to the strange structure, his great-great-uncle’s long abandoned tower. After several failed attempts, the heron succeeds. Natsuko has gone missing in the tower and Mahito decides to attempt a rescue. This is where the plot starts to introduce more of the fantastical elements that Miyazaki films have come to be known for. Mahito is whisked away to a nexus of sorts, a world connected. It’s on this journey, or rather because of this journey, that Mahito is finally given the chance to process his pain and choose for himself what kind of person he’s going to become. 

As we traverse this strange world with Mahito, we are treated to wondrous and odd sights. The Warawara, which resemble the Kodama from Princess Mononoke, militant parakeets, treacherous seas, star-salted skies, and many bizarre and impossible interior locations. What Miyazaki and his team are able to accomplish with traditional 2D animation should not only be commended but also seen as an inspiration to the studios that default to 3D animation for every project. Picturesque and cinematic all at once, there’s not a single frame of The Boy and the Heron that looks like it doesn’t belong on a canvas.

Hayao Miyazaki and his team prove that there’s still value in and an inherent beauty to traditional animation that 3D alone is not able to capture. In the decade since his “retirement,” the industry has become even more saturated with 3D animation and it’s only recently that we’ve begun to see a shift away from it and see the burgeoning of a new style that seeks to bridge the gap with 2D art. In addition to just how great Miyazaki’s latest is, it’s ever so refreshing to see the filmmaker stick with the style he’s mastered in lieu of trying to appeal to modern animation sensibilities.

Much like The Wind Rises, The Boy and the Heron seems to be deeply personal for Miyazaki. And like the majority of his filmography, its central idea is about us and how we relate to others and the world around us. Are our own personal tragedies important? Well, yes. Loss and grief are a part of life. Everyone will experience those particular pains. In Miyazaki’s eyes though, that shouldn’t be an excuse to pull away from the ones who care for you or from the rest of the world.

If there’s any singular “takeaway” from The Boy and the Heron it’s this: Death has its place, as does grieving for those we’ve loved and lost. It’s not easy choosing to live in a reality where you’re going to get hurt. Choosing to live in a world that you know is flawed and unfair seems nonsensical. Yet, life is precious. Being connected to other people and the universe at large may seem daunting, but, ultimately, it’s necessary to live. More than that, it’s worth it. 

Even if its ending feels slightly abrupt and the central conflict is resolved within mere moments, there can be no denying that The Boy and the Heron is a tour de force. It’s a worthy addition to Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography and a much-needed reminder that while he is often imitated, he can never be duplicated. Only Miyazaki, who has been honing his craft for decades and who is very intentional in his storytelling, could have accomplished this. He is in a league of his own when it comes to animation and this film proves it. Whereas this could have been another fitting send-off for the director, it seems The Boy and the Heron has inspired him to keep telling stories and postpone his retirement yet again. A world where Miyazaki is still willing to share his passion for life and for animation is definitely one worth living in.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Boy and the Heron premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The film releases in theaters December 8!

Follow writer Ron Hilliard on Twitter: @darkmotifs

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