8 Reasons to Watch ‘The Boy and The Heron’
Jan 11, 2024   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Jan 11, 2024   •   Mikhail Lecaros
Ten years after his previous film, The Wind Rises, the latest from master animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro), has arrived. Presented in Japanese with English subtitles, The Boy and the Heron is the first Studio Ghibli film to be released in Philippine cinemas, and longtime fans won’t be disappointed – The Boy and the Heron is a lavishly mounted, existential treat for the senses.
Drawing thematic inspiration (and little else) from 1937 novel How Do You Live?, the film tells the story of Mahito, a young boy in World War II-era Japan who loses his mother in a hospital fire. Moving to the countryside with his father and stepmother, a despondent Mahito begins having surreal encounters with a talking heron. Spurred by the heron’s taunts, Mahito follows the bird to an abandoned tower, where he is transported to a fantasy world of magical creatures, impossible powers, and startling revelations.
Having built his name on whimsical fare such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle over the last four decades, it’s inarguable that Miyazaki has assembled the single greatest body of work of any animated filmmaker in history. While the majority of his films have dealt with concepts such as environmentalism, love, friendship, and war, this film is as autobiographical as Miyazaki has ever made.
Indeed, much of Mahito’s narrative was lifted directly from the animator’s own childhood, from his father’s work in munitions to being forced to live in the countryside as World War II raged (though he probably never met a talking heron, but who knows?).
The titular boy, Mahito, begins the film withdrawn and sullen, a far cry from the strong women that traditionally headline Miyazaki’s films. From getting into fights with his new classmates to inflicting himself with head trauma to avoid returning to school, it’s clear that Mahito wants nothing to do with his new provincial existence. Thus, when the heron invades his space with promises of reuniting him with his dead mother, it’s an offer the boy can’t refuse.
Many of the tropes that characterize a Miyazaki film are here, from lush, detailed backgrounds and meticulously animated characters to otherworldly transformations and irresistibly cute side characters; it’s presented here in all of its hand-drawn glory. On the surface, the structure of a young person moving into a new neighborhood and crossing over into another realm draws comparisons to titles like Totoro and Spirited Away, but the formula has never felt quite as brutally personal as it does here.
Some imagery may be intense for younger viewers, including Mahito’s body being covered by a horde of toads, or a later sequence when starving pelicans attempt to eat his soul at the gates to the underworld. Which, to be perfectly honest, brings us to the somewhat misleading nature of the title.
The English title of the film, “The Boy and the Heron”, is something of a misnomer, conjuring images of high adventure and fantasy. While those are somewhat present here, the original title, “How Do You Live?”, with its connotations of mortality and introspection, is a far more accurate descriptor for what actually takes place here.
Bringing things full circle, the original novel, “How Do You Live”, actually features into the story, but as a keepsake that Mahito’s mother intended him to have. Naturally, it’s only after he is transported to the other world that he is able to grasp its ultimate meaning; what begins as the story of a young man running away from grief quickly turns into an elaborate journey of acknowledging generational traumas while confronting one’s personal demons.
If one were to sum up the film in a word, it would have to be “surreal”. Unfolding like a fever dream on steroids, characters, creatures, and locales transform and morph in a manner that will enthrall, while rewarding repeat viewings. The epitome of this is the heron itself, which starts out as an elegant specimen with hints of otherworldliness before finally revealing the ungainly creature contained within.
The storytelling notion of using fantasy to cope with tragedy isn’t new — either for the genre or the filmmaker — but it takes on added resonance when one considers its place in Miyazaki’s filmography. With the 83-year-old having retired (and un-retired) four times since 1997, we know better now than to believe him when he says this will be his last film. Indeed, despite being delayed by factors such as the pandemic, the anticipation and hype around everything Miyazaki touches were such that The Boy and the Heron was deliberately released with only a poster to announce its arrival.
The lack of promotion hasn’t kept the film from becoming a massive hit, achieving critical acclaim and blockbuster status in its native Japan, while the English-dubbed version (featuring The Batman’s Robert Pattinson as the heron!) became the first anime film to reach #1 at the US and Canadian box office.
And all of that’s before we get to the slew of awards it’s already won and/or been nominated for since being released in September, including Best Animated Feature at the recently-concluded Golden Globes.
While not quite packing the narrative punch of some of Miyazaki’s other works, The Boy and the Heron is a well-crafted parable on coming to terms with the past and making the most out of life. If this is to be the master’s final movie, then it is a spectacular note to go out on. However, given the man’s propensity to retire and un-retire, one highly doubts that this will be the last film we’ll see from Hayao Miyazaki.
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