World Cinema Spotlight: The Boy and the Heron (reviewed by Jin Kobayashi)

The Boy and the Heron film poster

Title: The Boy and the Heron (reviewed by Jin Kobayashi)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki  

Released: Dec. 8th 2023  

Country: Japan  

Language: Japanese/English/20 + other languages  

English Subtitles: Yes  

Closed Captioning: Yes  

Streaming: [Prime Video, Apple TV+, Vudu (Starting 6/25/28)] [Max (start date not settled)]   

Hayao Miyazaki’s first Golden Globe winning film, The Boy and the Heron, is nothing short of a masterpiece. In what is rumored to be his final work, Miyazaki reflects on his life and philosophy, illustrating a beautiful world that leads viewers into a journey of heart ache, wonder, and rumination of humanity and the world at large. The film’s vivid imagery and resonating message are arguably the finest by Miyazaki, a perfect finale to his legendary career.   

[Warning: This review contains spoilers]

The story begins with the protagonist, a boy named Mahito, running through a chaotic crowd of people in a city engulfed in flames during the Pacific War. He hurries to the hospital his mother was in, only to find it had already been consumed by the fire. After the death of his mother, Mahito moves to the countryside to live with his aunt, Natsuko, who married his father and is heavily pregnant with Mahito’s brother. Mahito is bullied at school and struggles to accept his aunt as his new mother, all while dealing with grief at his mother’s death which seems non-existent in others around him. The journey truly begins when a series of strange events leads Mahito into a mysterious tower, which takes him into an alternate world created by his granduncle. The fantasy world is a beautiful explosion of fantasy and wonder comprised of the living, the dead, and souls waiting to be reborn. While the granduncle strives to create and balance a world of perfection, the fantasy world has its own evils and imperfections such as soul-eating herons and human-eating parakeets. Despite being given the opportunity to become his granduncle’s successor and attempt to create a perfect world of his own, Mahito chooses to return to reality which he knows is unfair, full of violence, evil, and pain.

The film is new and unique in the sense that Miyazaki projects himself into certain scenes and details to illustrate his experiences and philosophies through the story. The hospital fire, Mahito’s father’s profession in aircraft manufacturing, his family’s financial stability during the war, etc. are details that resemble Miyazaki’s life, and looking for these hints is another enjoyable aspect of the film. This personal narrative gives the audience the perspective to view the film with an eye out for something Miyazaki wanted to leave us with to end his career. If you are familiar with his other works, The Boy and the Heron will give you a nostalgic feeling, comforting you with a standard of artwork incomparable to other animations. This time, the story has a different taste, though. While the film is undeniably visually breathtaking, it is certainly a difficult movie to follow. The intriguing mixture of realism and fantasy is nothing new to Miyazaki films, however, this piece reveals more questions than answers, provoking a feeling that differs significantly from his other films, like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. Miyazaki’s desire to define his legacy and to leave his fans with a piece of his heart is expressed fully throughout his final piece.

In many ways, the granduncle’s desire to create a perfect world and Mahito’s choice to return to reality reflect Miyazaki’s ideology on life. The film is very immersive in nature, with viewers left with a heavy heart, experiencing the unfairness of life alongside Mahito in the beginning. As the journey is taken through the fantasy world and Mahito chooses to return to the real world despite all of its imperfections, we see Miyazaki wanted us to understand that the real world is in fact full of beauty. Humans are capable of creating such beauty, not perfection. In many of his past films, protagonists go through a series of conflicts, illustrating the many flaws of the real world, like wars, harm to the environment, poverty, etc. However, in every film, you also see the beautiful aspects of humans and the world in general that make it worth fighting for and living in, such as love, wonder, dreams, the warmth of family and friends, personal development, building community, and helping and protecting others. The Boy and the Heron acts as the final defining chapter of Miyazaki’s career, encompassing this idea of the beauty in the imperfections life withholds.

Two images from film The Boy and the Heron

Figure 1: Mahito in the fire at the start of the film (top). Mahito reunited with his mother (bottom).

The film provokes questions about many other aspects of life, leaving much up to individual interpretation. Mortality, how to deal with grief, the beauty of love, and many other relatable aspects of life are shown and left for viewers to take and think about. The film is not designed to leave you with a complete, resolved, or light feeling, but rather an empty space you are tasked to fill yourself.

Take for example, the fantasy world is balanced by the granduncle with a set of blocks of various shapes (cylinders, prisms, and spheres) precisely stacked on top of each other. When the granduncle offers Mahito the opportunity to create his own world of perfection, he asks Mahito to place another block on top, where initially there were 12 blocks, the 13th being Mahito’s. Miyazaki has directed 12 films including this one, thus hinting that the viewers are the ones up to finish the story. Like Mahito, we have the amazing opportunity to contemplate and make decisions in our lives. In Japanese, the title is “君たちはどう生きるか”, which translates to “how will you live?”, clearly displaying Miyazaki’s desire for us viewers to think and find an answer for ourselves.

Hayao Miyasaki

Figure 2: Writer and director Hayao Miyasaki.

No matter what you leave the film with, The Boy and the Heron acts as a farewell message to all Miyazaki film fans. Its goal is to provoke a rumination on life. It is arguably Miyazaki’s most beautiful work and is produced with one of the largest budgets in the history of Japanese animation films, featuring many renowned voice actors. It is a film you simply can’t miss. Throughout his career, Miyazaki has created numerous masterpieces that have stayed in the hearts of many around the world. Now that he has said goodbye, leaving The Boy and the Heron behind, viewers face the quest to find answers to his questions, viewing life through a new lens, the Miyazaki way.