This post explores Studio Ghibli's latest film, The Boy and the Heron. | Written by Daniel T. Dodaro
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
Introduction to Studio Ghibli
Although each is unique in its own right, all of Studio Ghibli’s films maintain a unifying aesthetic. This aesthetic, springing from Studio Ghibli’s celebrated, hand-drawn animation, makes every one of its films intensely colorful, stunningly magical, and endearingly heartfelt. The characters are charming. The stories are whimsical, frequently fantastical, and always adventurous. The triumphant instrumentals, often produced by the legendary composer, Joe Hisashi, are emotional.
The secret ingredient to Studio Ghibli’s success is the Studio’s prolific creator, Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is a legendary animator and storyteller from Japan, who is as dedicated to his craft now at eighty-two years old as he was in his twenties. Throughout his career, he has woven enigmatic characters like No-Face and Jiko-bô, charming characters like Porco and Calcifer, and colorful characters like The Radish Spirit and Dola into existence. And although some of Miyazaki’s stories are adaptions of previously written works (Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, for example), he puts his own epic spin on everything he touches.
Very Brief Synopsis of The Boy and the Heron
Like most Studio Ghibli films, The Boy and the Heron starts by introducing us to a young character (Mahito) at a sort of crossroads in life. This is typical of Miyazaki. Chihiro moves to a new town. Ashitaka journeys to find a cure to his mysterious ailment. Ponyo leaves home and embraces a new sense of autonomy.
What sets The Boy and the Heron apart from Miyazaki’s other films is that the backdrop is a bit darker; Mahito is displaced by the horrors of World War II, which has recently led to the death of his mother. Because of this, he is encumbered by her loss and haunted by her memory. And so, his father takes him to the countryside to live with his second wife, Natsuko (who also happens to be Mahito’s aunt on his mother’s side).
In his new environment, Mahito has trouble fitting in. Eventually, however, he encounters a talking heron who lives on Natsuko’s estate. This bird’s ominous obsession with Mahito and the eventual disappearance of his aunt ultimately lead him to his granduncle’s abandoned tower. This same tower is later revealed to be a portal into a world overflowing with magic, mayhem, and diabolical parakeets. Thus, Mahito embarks on a journey through a fantasy world to find his aunt. Along the way, he teams up with the Heron, meets a younger version of his mother, and eventually is offered the keys to his granduncle’s world. At the end of it all, he is given a choice: should he carry the torch of his granduncle’s dream or light a fire of his own?
Parallels to other Studio Ghibli Films
How does The Boy and the Heron fit in with other Ghibli movies, you may ask? Like Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Princess Mononoke, it is on the fantastical end of the spectrum of Miyazaki’s works. And in a strange sense, it feels like Miyazaki is using this film as a way to reminisce over his past creations.
There are many similarities between The Boy and the Heron and his other films. Characters like the Heron, Wizard, and Parakeet King are as outlandishly fairy-like as the spirits that predominate the Spirit World in Spirited Away. The Walla Walla are eerily similar to the Kodama in Princess Mononoke. Natsuko’s maids share the same energy as the colorful women living in the senior living home in Ponyo. The air munitions business owned by Mahito’s father is reminiscent of Jirô’s plane manufacture in The Wind Rises. The Heron’s initial reluctance to help Mahito and his ultimate friendship with the boy are comparable to Howl’s relationship with Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle. The focus on Mahito coming to terms with his mother’s death is akin to Mei and Satsuki’s underlying anxiety for their mother’s health in My Neighbor Totoro. This list could go on and on and on.
Two Themes (of Many) Presented by The Boy and the Heron
Choice & Individuality
The Granduncle, who is later revealed to be the creator of the world Mahito is sucked into, is coming to the end of his life and in search of a successor. He decides that Mahito would make a fitting heir. By the end of the film, however, Mahito turns down his Granduncle’s gracious bequest. He chooses not to live in someone else’s fantasy and instead decides to carve a path of his own.
This is a major theme of the movie: Choice. Individuality. Autonomy. The Boy and the Heron was titled How Do You Live? in Japan, and that is quite a fitting name considering the themes predominating this film.
Mahito makes the difficult decision to return to reality and forsake his Granduncle’s limitless world. Why? Because it isn’t Mahito’s world. The younger version of Mahito’s mother residing in her Granduncle’s world decides to go back to reality as well, despite knowing that she’ll eventually die, because she sees the value of her own journey, despite its frightening destination. Although Natsuko isn’t Mahito’s biological mother, he chooses to accept her new role because he can. All of these characters are deciding how they want to live their lives throughout the film, and this is what Miyazaki seems to desire the audience to do as well.
We should take the helm of our lives. No matter how pre-determined life may seem at times, we all have the ability to choose how we live.
There is also a more “meta” level to this message because the Granduncle parallels Miyazaki in many ways. Like how the Granduncle ultimately accepts Mahito’s decision to let his world die, Miyazaki seems to have made peace with the idea that Studio Ghibli may not be able to function without him. Although he has greatly impacted animation and storytelling, Miyazaki suggests that it is other creators’ turns to free their imagination and inspire the world.
Good & Evil
All of Miyazaki’s movies grapple with the hazy line between good and evil. Characters will commit terrible deeds, only to later act selflessly, honorably, and kindly. Miyazaki shows us, in this sense, that no one is entirely a hero or villain. These roles are dynamic.
There are many examples of this dynasticism throughout Miyazaki’s films. No-Face becomes corrupted and monstrous in Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away, only to later transform into a peaceful and helpful assistant. Curtis is pompous and ruthless throughout Porco Rosso, yet there is a gentle and kind side to him as well. In Castle in the Sky, Dola and her gang start off as a selfish band of thieves, but by the end of the film, they risk everything to save Shita’s life. In Princess Mononoke, this theme is the backbone of the story: humans destroy nature, and nature destroys humans. Both do this in an effort to live (Man versus nature is also a common theme in other Miyazaki films as well).
Finally, in The Boy and the Heron, the Heron begins the story as a grimy villain, only to ultimately risk his life to save Mahito.
Conclusion & Rating
The Boy and the Heron is a new favorite of mine—a film I plan on rewatching again and again. I have been waiting for years to see Miyazaki’s next masterpiece, and this film did not disappoint. It was a gift in a sense, considering Miyazaki’s redacted announcement that The Wind Rises would be his last movie.
This film is 9.5/10 for me. However, I would still say that it ranks on the lower end of Miyazaki’s films. This is not to say that it isn’t phenomenal. I just prefer his other films more (my favorite being Spirited Away, where I originally began my journey into Miyazaki’s filmography).
If I have one critique, it would be that there isn’t as much direction to The Boy and the Heron as there is to other Miyazaki films. It almost feels as if it should have been a little longer, fleshing out some of its concepts a bit more. I can see a newcomer to Studio Ghibli being slightly disoriented by The Boy and the Heron, and for this reason, it felt like more of a love letter to Studio Ghibli veterans who have already seen some of the Studio’s other works.
Overall, The Boy and the Heron is yet another masterpiece from the legendary animator, Hayao Miyazaki. Its art is crisper and more colorful than museum art. Its storytelling is poignant and heartfelt. Hisashi’s score pulls the audience through the film with tantalizing grace.
If this is truly Miyazaki’s last film, it is everything fans could hope for and more.
Beautiful artwork and animation
Fantastical worlds and creative concepts
A heartfelt, dark, and deep storyline
Characters with charm and vivacity
Could’ve been a bit longer to flesh out some of its themes
This article was written by Daniel T. Dodaro, the author of Death, the Gardener.
All stories begin and end with a question. It is up to each and every one of us to discover what that question is.