Late in the freewheeling action of The Boy and the Heron (Kimitachi wa Do Ikiruka), the director’s young stand-in returns to the realm of the living after encountering an ancestor who gives him a handful of stones, instructing him to build a tower with them every three days to create a world of beauty and balance, free from malice. That’s as apt a summation as any of what 82-year-old anime master Hayao Miyazaki has been doing throughout his celebrated six-decade career as a consummate artist and a storyteller of unfettered imagination.
Miyazaki’s first feature in 10 years follows 2013’s The Wind Rises, a project that was announced at the time as the legendary animator’s farewell. That film’s elegiac tone and inspiring themes of molding dreams into reality and choosing creation over violence and destruction made it a fitting swan song.
The Boy and the Heron
The Bottom Line
A late gift from a master.
But Miyazaki clearly was not done weaving his phantasmagorical worlds. He has returned from retirement with what will likely be one last story to tell, drawing from formative childhood memories to reflect with dizzying flourishes of fantasy on loss and legacy, on finding peace and even comfort in sadness and holding tight to one’s sense of self in a life inevitably destined to slip in and out of chaos.
At least that’s one interpretation of an exquisite artisanal film that perhaps will mean different things to every viewer who surrenders to its enchantment.
We’ve come to expect transfixing imagery from Miyazaki, a holdout champion of hand-drawn animation who has mostly resisted the form’s predominant shift to CG, other than for enhancement purposes. But even by his own standards, The Boy and the Heron looks astonishing, from the lush green landscapes of its principal rural setting to a field of flowers in the breeze to the gentle rays of morning sun peeking over the architectural grandeur of the protagonist’s home.
Virtually every impeccably framed composition could be a distinct work of art, with painterly backgrounds so gorgeous in their colors and textures they invite the viewer to get lost in them. Then there’s the exacting attention to foreground detail and movement, all of it stitched into fluid visual storytelling in which even the oddest elements cohere into a harmonious whole.
Just the heron of the title alone is a marvel of ink and brush work brought to vivid life — the ripple, plop and splash of the wading bird’s webbed feet leaving the water; the lazy first flaps of its wings during takeoff; the graceful extension into full aerodynamic form as it soars and swoops and comes in for landing. That’s before the shapeshifting trickster begins taking on human characteristics.
If some of the film’s more fantastical narrative tangents can at times become perplexing, the images wash over you, a constant reminder of the descriptive power of Miyazaki’s visual language. The effect is rendered even more beguiling by the melodic emotionality of Joe Hisaishi’s lovely score.
The central character is Mahito (voiced by Soma Satoki), an 11-year-old boy living in a Tokyo thrumming with the sounds of World War II — soldiers marching, tanks rolling through the streets, air-raid sirens, falling debris. Devastated by the loss of his mother in a hospital bombing, he is whisked off three years into the war to live in the country, where his engineer father, Shoichi (Takuya Kimura), will run a factory making parts for fighter planes. Their new home is the family mansion of Mahito’s late mother; Shoichi has married her younger sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), already pregnant with their child.
Haunted by dreams of his mother and initially reluctant to accept Natsuko as her substitute, Mahito is taciturn and sullen. He does seem somewhat amused by the seven stout old crones that have served as housemaids there for decades, who have fond memories of his mother. But his new school proves unfriendly, and when he gets into a fight, Mahito deliberately injures himself to make it look worse, giving him an excuse to stay home.
He’s irritated at first by the Grey Heron perched on the roof and its seeming fixation on him, but he follows the bird when it flies inside a tall tower, which he learns was built by a great uncle who mysteriously disappeared there. Separated from the main house decades earlier by flood damage, it’s now mostly sealed off for safety.
Mahito is startled when the bird appears at his window and speaks (with the voice of Masaki Suda), making cryptic comments about him being the chosen one and offering to lead him to his mother: “She is awaiting your rescue.”
Accompanied by the head housekeeper, Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki), Mahito follows the heron — which by now is grinning with human teeth and acquiring the facial characteristics of a gnarled old man — inside the tower and into another dimension, where the dead outnumber the living. With the heron as his unreliable guide and the suddenly youthful, swaggering Kiriko as his protector, Mahito is thrust into a strange world, magical and sometimes scary.
He encounters flocks of pelicans, starving because the sea is cursed and no longer inhabitable by fish; an army of man-eating parakeets that march in formation like fascistic soldiers; and large numbers of chattering white kawaii creatures called Warawara, which inflate like balloons and float up to the mortal world to be born as humans. That’s if the hungry pelicans don’t pick them off.
Many of the Warawara are saved by Lady Himi (J-pop star Aimyon), a fire woman with a curious resemblance to Mahito’s mother. Or is it his new stepmother, who has meanwhile gone missing? She takes him deeper into the underground chambers beneath the tower, its mysteries revealing echoes of Mahito’s real world, like the wooden talisman dolls that look suspiciously like the maids from his new home. Himi leads Mahito to his Great Uncle (Shohei Hino), who entrusts him with an important role. But first, Kiriko has to get him through the corridor of time separating the two dimensions before they split apart forever.
There’s a lot going on in this enigmatic, at times narratively overstuffed but clearly very personal film, which has a number of elements in common with the director’s past. Miyazaki’s family fled the bombing of Tokyo and resettled in the countryside, his father worked in an airplane factory, and although his mother lived until much later in his life, he has talked about her profound influence on him, just as Mahito remains inextricably attached to his mother.
Often, the film evokes characters and themes from elsewhere in Miyazaki’s work — Spirited Away, especially, often comes to mind — that Studio Ghibli aficionados will enjoy dissecting. While The Boy and the Heron will likely prove more challenging for children than the majority of the director’s output, the generations who grew up with his animated tales will find it loaded with meaning. There’s tenderness, melancholy and wonder at its core.
The original inspiration was a 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino given to Miyazaki as a youth by his mother, titled How Do You Live? The writer-director ultimately took a different path with the project but shades of its theme of spiritual growth survive. The film could be read many ways, but fundamentally, it plays like a heartfelt depiction of resilience in the face of conflict and grief, a gentle call to find friends and trusted allies, to move forward and bring humanity and understanding to the world.