The Boy and the Heron distinguishes itself instantly. The Studio Ghibli logo, featuring Totoro and pals, fades away, replaced by flames and a screeching air siren. We are in a nightmare, filled with ghostly impressions of people and one boy facing unimaginable loss. The nightmare breaks, giving way to Miyazaki’s latest dreamscape. The Boy and the Heron is another staggering achievement for the master of animation, but there is truly so much beneath the surface it’s impossible to feel all at once. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it at TIFF, and it’s not even my favorite Miyazaki!
Mahito is a quiet boy whose mother recently perished in the firebombings of Tokyo. His father has whisked him away to the countryside, where he meets his aunt Natsuko and the merry band of old ladies that work at his family’s ancestral home. His aunt informs him that she will soon be his mother, and that she is pregnant with his younger sibling. Mahito doesn’t want to think about this and starts to take in his new surroundings. He dreams of his mother burning every night, and when he attends school he’s bullied for his father’s fancy car. On his way home, Mahito decides he isn’t beat up enough to deserve sympathy, and he hits himself in the head with a rock. While recovering, a talking gray heron comes to visit, claiming his mother is alive and only Mahtio can save her. Naturally, Mahito wants this bird dead for coming up with such a lie, so he carves a nice bow and arrow to do the job.
From here, Mahito enters a world much like the one Chirio found herself in in Spirited Away, though far more alien and less whimsical. There’s no sense of community beyond a poo-covered tower full of parakeets. The characters we meet seemingly live alone, including a pirate and a girl who controls fire. It’s a dreamlike world between life and death, and it obeys different rules. Mahito is too traumatized to really question what’s going on, which does aid in his quest. The heron is still an asshole, but he can be reasoned with, especially when the mysterious old man who controls this world tells him to work with Mahito. This world is a journey towards Miyazaki understanding himself.
Mahito is a very internal character, plagued by PTSD and rage. He takes this out on himself, refusing food and self-harming with the rock that has had both audiences I’ve seen the film with gasp in shock. It’s difficult to watch this boy suffer without any adults beyond his new stepmother really trying to understand him, but that’s what makes a good story. We understand, and we root for him to survive this world between life and death and find some kind of peace. He is confronted by a wise old man who keeps this world alive by stacking a pile of stone blocks in a Jenga-like configuration every three days, searching for a successor to relieve him of this burden. Is this man Miyazaki, desperate to pass on his knowledge of animation and perfectionism? Is Mahito Miyazaki, still feeling like a lost child unworthy of talent? We know he’s not Goro, as the whole thing feels like one last dig at Miyazaki’s untalented son. But there’s even some grace extended there, if you look close enough.
There will never be another Hayao Miyazaki. We know this, and so does he. While I do believe he’ll end up making another movie (no one can stop him), if this is his final work, he has managed to convey everything he believes through wondrous animation, a kaleidoscope of emotion and conviction. I am very much looking forward to watching the dub, if only to hear Robert Pattinson make all those nasty heron noises while taunting a grieving child.
The Boy and the Heron
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Opens Friday, 12/8 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, and theaters everywhere