Minor spoilers ahead
A decade after his professed retirement, Hayao Miyazaki, internationally renowned co-founder and director of the beloved Studio Ghibli, returns with an absurdly poignant cinematic rollercoaster, “The Boy and the Heron,” released Dec. 8, 2023. Miyazaki breathes to life a Wonderland-esque world brimming with outlandish surrealism and their underlying complexities, all for the sake of posing one singular question: “How do you live?” (the film’s original title in Japan).
“The Boy and the Heron” follows 12-year-old Mahito’s move to the countryside after his mother tragically passes in a hospital set aflame by wartime bombing. There, he is to live with his new stepmother, Natsuko, who is pregnant with his soon-to-be little sibling. Despite this new chapter in life, Mahito shoulders an internalized grief and remains haunted by memories of his late mother in recurring nightmares. The tauntings of an unusual grey heron don’t help, as it claims that Mahito’s mother remains alive at the eerie tower standing lone amidst the vast, sprawling grounds. It is a tantalizing offer — one that Mahito cannot refuse. As Mahito soon learns, the otherworldly dimension within the tower has a mind of its own; it has entrapped Natsuko, who Mahito must now rescue. As Mahito navigates through this dizzyingly mystical realm inhabited by talking pelicans, gargantuan fish and armed parakeets (just to name a few), he is constantly forced to confront his past and future along with the hard truths that come with them.
This theme of self-discovery, reminiscent of previous Ghibli films like “Spirited Away,” is echoed throughout the film, though “The Boy and the Heron” interlaces this theme with motifs of grief, humanity and agency. All the same, the movie is distinctly Ghibli in the way it touches on overarching Ghibli themes of war’s devastating consequences (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”) and abstractionism within spellbinding, purely fantastical worlds (“Spirited Away”).
Signature to Ghibli is also their impeccable animation. Their animation team has once again outdone themselves. They do what they have always done best — show not tell. Their techniques in drawing and animating an early scene of Mahito fighting his way through flames produces a flickering, hallucinatory effect. They spare absolutely no expense in drawing the “other world” as well. It is fiercely vibrant, splashed with bold colors to match the fantastical characters that are more chaotic than ever. Miyazaki did not hold back in crafting arguably his most inventive world yet, filled with such intense detail that it can be slightly visually disorienting at first.
Of course, it isn’t a Miyazaki movie without a film score composed by longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi. “Ask Me Why,” the film’s theme song, instantly becomes another stunning addition to Hisaishi’s most memorable compositions. It is simplistic, the humble melody carried solely by piano, in comparison to other significantly more symphonic scores like “A Town With an Ocean View” from “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” But it is this minimalism that shines and pairs perfectly with Mahito, whose name means “‘sincere one.’” Hisaishi’s piece captures Mahito’s sincerity — the raw honesty of adolescence that embodies the coming-of-age spirit of the film.
While “The Boy and the Heron” is undoubtedly an immersive experience like its predecessors, it isn’t the easiest to follow storyline-wise. Rapid sequences of events and introductions of characters can feel overstimulating; the scope of the worldbuilding, though gorgeous, seems to expand excessively at times. Still, Miyazaki’s magic has its evocative effect. Despite leaving viewers in a constant state of simultaneous confusion and wonder, the film elicits emotions, that which cannot be easily verbalized upon first watch. This is a movie that demands a second viewing or earnest reflection at the very least.
“The Boy and the Heron” is a glimpse into Miyazaki’s imagination unleashed. It will take its place proudly amongst Ghibli classics, perhaps not as an overwhelming fan favorite but as one of Miyazaki’s most profound works precisely because he does not answer but instead explores timeless questions. So, how do we live through grief, in the face of the inevitable, through life? How do you live?