Vague Visages’ The Boy and the Heron review contains minor spoilers. Hayao Miyazaki’s 2023 movie features Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda and Takuya Kimura. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Hayao Miyazaki’s purportedly final film — The Boy and the Heron, inspired by the 1937 Genzaburō Yoshino novel How Do You Live? — is like walking through a Studio Ghibli funhouse. The animated production comes after the director’s last “final” movie, the 2013 masterpiece The Wind Rises. The Boy and the Heron matches that film’s perfection, even if it trades elegance for picaresque chaos, becoming Miyazaki’s most referential and summative animated project.
The Boy and the Heron characterizes sea life in similar fashion to Ponyo (2008). It contains a narratively significant stone structure, like Castle in the Sky (1986) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and the film includes a guide to help its protagonist navigate a fantasy world, like in Spirited Away (2001) and The Cat Returns (2002). The Boy and the Heron also has the backdrop of a war film, making it comparable to Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Porco Rosso (1992) and the aforementionedThe Wind Rises.
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Miyazaki’s 2023 film is fundamentally about birds, which recalls the interests in flight of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and some of the films already listed. But in The Boy and the Heron, flight takes on new meaning. During the Pacific War, Mahito (Soma Santoki) evacuates to the countryside with his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) and aunt/step-mother Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). The film’s premise is like an inverted Hamlet, but Miyazaki mines this set-up for hope and renewal, rather than rebellion and tragedy.
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The Boy and the Heron reminds of a scene in Castle in the Sky, in which Sheeta (Keiko Yokozawa) and Pazu (Mayumi Tanaka) arrive at the titular flying island writ large, because Mahito repeatedly feels awestruck by the things he sees and experiences. Discovering an abandoned tower on his aunt’s estate, Santoki’s protagonist follows a talking grey heron (Masaki Suda) into an alternate world where he must find and save his aunt. This dimension is populated by giant castle-guarding parakeets who serve a king wishing to overthrow Mahito’s aunt’s grand-uncle. The relative keeps the order by protecting a stack of magic building blocks, which also control the real world Mahito has left behind.
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As Mahito quickly learns, this new world connects the dead to the living. At one point in The Boy and the Heron, he meets scores of little white bubble-blobs called “Warawara,” which feed until they expand, then float up into the sky and join the real world where they become new babies. Pelicans try to intercept the Warawara on their important journey, giving this touching idea a qualification, as Studio Ghibli films so often do. Fulfillment and better life await, but difficult terrain must be traveled over to reach them. These are the conditions of flight in The Boy and the Heron, as in many of Miyazaki’s beloved films.
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Sweeping, romantic and universal metaphors are not all that Miyazaki revisits in The Boy and the Heron. There are a series of slapstick comedy routines and scene transitions at the estate before Mahito finds the tower, echoing the palace staircase scene in Howl’s Moving Castle or the bathhouse episode of Spirited Away. In these early stages, The Boy and the Heron’s physical comedy comes from the old maids who work for Mahito’s aunt, because Miyazaki again collapses the gaps between children, adults and the elderly. Mahito fits in more easily with older generations; his isolation amongst people his own age is shown in a brief montage where he gets bullied at his new school, before hitting his own head with a rock on the way home. Mahito is at first bedridden, then a scar beneath a shaved patch of hair is visible for the remainder of the film.
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Adult struggle imposes itself on 12-year-old Mahito, triggered by the death of his mother, who appears to him in a recurring nightmare in which she is engulfed in flames. In Santoki’s character, there are shades of Howl’s Moving Castle’s eponymous protagonist, who can be read as a character suffering from depression and struggling under the weight of his duties as a 27-year-old wizard alongside the demands of young adulthood. Mahito is exposed to an equally tricky, overwhelming adult world far sooner, which is added to by the obstacles he encounters in the alternate universe.
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The first of these is the deceitful heron, who wanders into the real world and gets Mahito’s attention by reappearing to him on the estate and repeating, “Your presence is required.” The heron shows him the entrance in the stone tower and pretends that his mother is still alive on the other side. Later in The Boy and the Heron, Mahito is told what he realized before entering the alternate world: “All grey herons tell lies.” The heron’s true form of a small man inside an animal is revealed, too. It is not the film’s only link to The Wizard of Oz (1939), because Miyazaki’s accumulation of anthropomorphic side characters and a patient journey structure offer further similarities to the classic Victor Fleming film and L. Frank Baum’s children’s book.
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The Boy and the Heron also seems to be in conversation with author Lewis Carroll, as Mahito’s initial relationship with the heron recalls Alice’s with the white rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Mahito’s process of following the heron into the tower is more gradual than Alice going down the rabbit hole; he wades into the water after the heron, being called by chanting fish while drowning in frogs that clamber up his body… until the maids arrive and beat the animals away with their brooms. Mahito is both Alice and not Alice, because he does not fall into his wonderland, but does arrive there with his head injury. Conversely, Alice falls but her landing is safe, so she remains uninjured.
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More explicit, cinematic references are scattered throughout The Boy and the Heron. There is a version of Federico Fellini’s iconic POV shot of a foot attached to a rope being pulled out of the sky in 8 1/2 (1963), there is a monolith a la Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and there’s a brief undercover rescue scene reminiscent of George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), when Luke and Han disguise themselves as stormtroopers for the Leia breakout. There are also subtle allusions in The Boy and the Heron too, which has traces of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surrealism and Andrei Tarkovsky’s quest narratives.
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A distinctly Ghibli feel pervades The Boy and the Heron, which more comprehensively and ambitiously connects the studio’s interests than ever before — in whimsy and poignancy, struggle and adventure, the serious and the magical. Miyazaki’s latest last film carries the indistinguishable spirit his work has always contained, and it would not be an overstatement to describe his movies as world-moving or life-changing, depending on who discovers this essential collection of films and at what point in their life.
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In 2008, the late Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata told The New Yorker that Miyazaki is always “demanding that the audience enter the world he has created completely.” Takahata’s comments about his friend and colleague ring true for The Boy and the Heron. Far from an exception, the 2023 film asks viewers to surrender everything and be swept up in the most magic a Miyazaki film has ever had. It’s a pity that it must end.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) has just finished a PhD on contemporary fiction at King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer. George’s recent publications include Avatar Review, BRUISER, Clackamas Literary Review and Watershed Review, and he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at: https://georgeoliverkowalik.wordpress.com/.
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