There are few animators with quite the same reputation as Hayao Miyazaki. The Japanese legend has been working for over half a century and, despite multiple claims from the man himself of previous films being his last, he continues to churn out incredible content at the age of eighty-two. The 2014 Honorary Oscar winner has been celebrated for films including Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Wind Rises, and his latest effort The Boy and the Heron follows in the same dazzling visual and thematic style, adding a new magical entry to his already esteemed portfolio.
Set in the 1940s, The Boy and the Heron opens on Mahito, a twelve-year-old boy, mourning the loss of his mother, Hisako, in a hospital fire during World War II. After he moves with his father and his new bride, Hisako’s younger sister Natsuko, far from the city, an unhappy Mahito becomes fixated on a large heron that leads him to a mysterious tower in the woods. Convinced by the heron that his mother is somehow still alive, Mahito enters a magical world where everything and everyone is different, giving him some hope at reclaiming his lost childhood and finding the woman who mattered most to him.
The Boy and the Heron, which made history as the first animated film to open the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, is at once a grand tale filled with many wondrous creatures and a solitary story of a young boy who just wants to believe in something bigger than himself. Health and wellbeing are prominently featured, as Mahito hits himself on the head with a rock and then, following his recovery, discovers that his new stepmother has gone missing while in the midst of a very difficult pregnancy.
The look of this animated film is typically gorgeous, reminiscent of Miyazaki’s past films and able to bring its characters to wondrous life. The energy in Mahito’s eyes is palpable, as is the confusion and the sadness, and it makes following him along on this incredible journey all the more enticing. The transformation of creatures, particularly the heron, who, after being shot through his beak, turns into a little man inside a suit, is marvelous, and it’s easy to become entranced by what Mahito sees because it really does come alive and feel distinctly and impossibly real. The score by Miyazaki’s longtime musical collaborator Joe Hisaishi enhances that immersion greatly.
While animation, especially within the United States and as produced by major studios, often trends towards younger audiences, this film, like many of Miyazaki’s past projects, features children but deals with extremely mature themes. It might be possible, however, for those who can’t fully comprehend loss or heartbreak to watch this film and be swept away by the wonder of it all, examining merely what’s presented at face value rather than the underlying meaning of it. The Boy and the Heron works on both levels, as an invitation to join Mahito on his self-exploration and a challenge to go deeper to confront how he copes with his pain.
Whether The Boy and the Heron will indeed be Miyazaki’s last film doesn’t affect its quality, but it certainly serves as a worthwhile argument that the filmmaker has plenty left in him. His process is his own, and like other renowned auteurs who take however much time they need to complete a project, the finished result is always worth it. The Boy and the Heron doesn’t feel like a film produced in 2023, but instead a timeless classic, a film set in a particular area but also removed from time, focused instead on a boy, his imagination, and the magic that allows him to travel back towards happiness.
The Boy and the Heron debuts in theaters on Friday, December 8th.