Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest directors of the last forty years. Directors of live-action movies get all the hype, but his work in animation has been consistently brilliant. My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are just a few of the masterpieces he has created during his incredible career. Now, a decade after what was supposedly his final effort, he is back for what may actually be his final effort, the characteristically beautiful, thoughtful and enchanting The Boy and the Heron.
It is a story of acceptance, grief, love, friendship, life and death. It is a story about a child that could only be told by an old man (Miyazaki turns 83 next month). Like the majority of this master’s output, while this is a fantastical story featuring magic, strange creatures and visual wonders, it is firmly grounded in human fears and emotions. The first half-hour or so is pretty slow, yet once it gets going, it is very engaging, building up to an affecting conclusion. It doesn’t matter if it is one of Miyazaki’s best or not. Just getting another movie from him is enough. Lucky us that it’s this good.
It takes place in World War II Japan. Some time after the tragic death of his mother, a boy named Mahito goes to live with his father and his father’s pregnant fiancé. Immediately upon arriving, he begins to be pestered by an odd heron. The bird, who can talk, tells Mahito that his mother is still alive and is in a mysterious tower on his father’s property. Mahito’s attempt to learn the truth leads him on an adventure to a world that stretches between life and death.
The Boy and the Heron (119 minutes, minus the end credits) has lovely animation, a captivating story, interesting characters and strong themes that drive the action all the way to its heartfelt ending. These are hallmarks of Hayao Miyazaki, though there is something more personal to the ideas at play this time. To see deep issues of existence, such as a fear of our own mortality, through the eyes of a traumatized child who goes on an unintended journey of self-discovery with a talking half-man/half-heron, requires a deft hand. It is basically adult themes being explored in a family movie. Miyazaki is excellent at balancing sadness, joy and even some humor in a way older kids and up can all enjoy.
The screenplay takes its time getting Mahito on his way, doing perhaps a little too much early world-building. Once he enters the tower, his courage and curiosity take things in a fascinating direction. The character designs, whether human or not, tell us so much about their personalities. There are so many open spaces in this world. That makes the closed-off nature of the ancient tower even more imposing. It becomes about Mahito’s bravery versus the ominous structure and what it represents. At the end of this quest is a choice Mahito must make. This choice fits just fine in the plot when taken at face value. It is really intriguing if you give it deeper thought after you leave the theater.
At its core, that is a large part of the charm of the films of Hayao Miyazaki. He deals with subject matter that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in an animated movie (not in the United States, at least) and sticks it in a fantasy setting in a way that enhances the concept, while also telling an entertaining fantasy story. The Boy and the Heron may not crack Miyazaki’s top five; I’d have to watch it again to decide (something I definitely plan on doing). That says more about the overall strength of his filmography than anything else. It is touching, thought-provoking and, if this does prove to be the final cinematic treat we receive from this legend, a worthy goodbye.
4½ out of 5
Soma Santoki as Mahito Maki
Masaki Suda as The Grey Heron
Yoshino Kimura as Natsuko
Aimyon as Himi
Kou Shibasaki as Kiriko
Takuya Kimura as Shoichi Maki
Written/Directed by Hayao Miyazaki