The Wind Rises may have been the culmination of Hayao Miyazaki’s obsession with flight, but The Boy and the Heron acts as a final swan song, as the Japanese master storyteller returns to the world of fantasy. Overflowing with imaginative world building, it is an ambitious, sprawling tale, filled with incredible animation, beautiful music, and the sense of wonder that is the essence of a Miyazaki film.
Co-founder of the legendary Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki is widely regarded as one of the best animated storytellers of all time. Having directed beloved classics such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, he may have the most consistent filmography of any living director. With fans around the globe, the love for his films and for Studio Ghibli continues to grow at an international level.
In 2013, Miyazaki announced his retirement from filmmaking, stating that The Wind Rises was to be his final film. As a sentimental tale of love, longing, and the power of flight, it was a fitting career cap for Miyazaki. Now, as a surprise return from retirement and his first film in a decade, The Boy and the Heron has generated tremendous excitement and eager anticipation in Ghibli fans around the world.
Despite an astonishing lack of promotion, which included a single image and no trailers, The Boy and the Heron broke Studio Ghibli’s box office record in Japan, earning ¥1.83 billion JPY (approximately $13.2 million USD) in its opening weekend. These earnings will only increase when the film is released globally on December 8, 2023.
The Boy and the Heron tells the story of a young boy, Mahito. Growing up in Tokyo during WWII, he moves to the countryside after the fire-bombing of Tokyo to live with his stepmother. While his father is busy at the airplane factory, Mahito is left on his own to explore, until he encounters a strange heron and is swept away on a whirlwind adventure.
The premise is conventional, bordering on fantasy cliché. Some aspects are even reminiscent of other Ghibli films: a child moving to a new home in the country and encountering something magical is a trope used in My Neighbor Totoro, When Marnie Was There, and Spirited Away. However, while the initial setup may feel familiar, the film quickly takes a turn towards the purely original. In fact, there are aspects of the plot that may feel convoluted or borderline incomprehensible at times. Miyazaki is not interested in providing easy answers; he is interested in taking viewers on an adventure through worlds they have never seen. If you are willing to embrace it and go along for the ride, you will not be disappointed.
As potentially his final film, The Boy and the Heron features many parallels to Miyazaki’s life. Like the character Mahito, Miyazaki was born in 1941, his father worked in an airplane factory, and his family relocated to the countryside after the Tokyo bombing in WWII. Furthermore, during his early years, Miyazaki experienced the tragic loss of his mother, which is one of the central emotional themes of The Boy and the Heron. Along with the semi-autobiographical character of Mahito, the film also sees Miyazaki reflecting more directly on his legacy as a storyteller and filmmaker, with the introduction of an elderly man who has created worlds of fantasy and imagination, but is now nearing the end of his life.
The result is a poignant and touching farewell from one of the greatest visual storytellers of our era. At its best, The Boy and the Heron showcases what Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli team can arguably do better than anyone else: creating gloriously imaginative worlds, painterly backgrounds, and rich characters who are imbued with personality and life. The film covers a wide range of emotions, but never loses its sense of humor or heart as Miyazaki takes us on a final journey, thrust into one last kingdom of dreams and madness.
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The Boy and the Heron (Japanese: 君たちはどう生きるか) — Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Running time 124 min. First released July 14, 2023 (Japan). Starring Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki, Takuya Kimura.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist’s dedicated coverage of the 2023 Vancouver International Film Festival.