When it comes to anime, few names command as much reverence as Hayao Miyazaki. The master animator returns to the screen with The Boy and the Heron, a film that premiered at the TIFF 2023. The Boy and the Heron is a complex tapestry of themes, emotions, and visual splendour, encapsulating the essence of Miyazaki’s storied career while pushing the boundaries of animated storytelling.
The Boy and the Heron introduces us to Mahito, a 12-year-old boy grappling with the loss of his mother during World War II. The film wastes no time giving a sense of the human tragedy the characters face, presenting a stunning but heartbreaking scene that shows how the young loses his mother in a fire. The narrative initially paints a very founded story, showing how, after the loss of Mahito, his father moves the family to a rural estate and marries Mahito’s aunt.
The visuals give a sense of just how picturesque the new rural town is in comparison to the urban war-torn setting of Tokyo. It is brought to the screen in stunning detail in a way that only Studio Ghibli can do. But Miyazaki flips the script when you think you’re in for a coming-of-age story rooted in real-world struggles. The film quickly morphs into a fantastical journey guided by a heron that is more a trickster than an elegant bird, leading Mahito through a labyrinth of alternate realities and existential questions.
Miyazaki’s craftsmanship shines in the meticulous details of his animated world. From windswept islands to the nuanced expressions of its characters, the film is a visual feast and stands next to the studio’s best work. But not satisfied with just a simple story, Miyazaki delivers a complex narrative that is about more than beauty; the film also confronts us with the ugliness of existence—be it through the visceral depiction of violence or the unsettling presence of the heron. This duality serves as a tether, grounding Miyazaki’s flights of fancy in a relatable human experience.
The film’s narrative structure is as fluid as its many wild visual elements, often jumping erratically from one moment to another. While this can be confusing, it also represents Miyazaki’s audacity as a storyteller. He’s not afraid to challenge conventional cinematic grammar, to introduce and dismiss new concepts on a whim. This might frustrate those craving a more straightforward narrative, but it also makes for a film that demands engagement and reflection.
Even though the flow is a sight to behold, there are many aspects that, while interesting, defy explanation and could leave viewers confused at times. Characters are often shown with little to no introduction, and if you are not paying close attention, you may quickly find yourself at a loss as to why events are unfolding as they are. While it is a minor issue, younger audiences may have issues with the story, making The Boy and the Heron something that can’t just be thrown on in the background, or you may find yourself very lost.
“The Boy and the Heron is not simply another animated movie; rather, it is a profound examination of the intricacies of life as seen through the singular perspective of one of the greatest directors in history.”
The Boy and the Heron is a culmination of Miyazaki’s lifelong themes—pacifism, the complexity of human nature, and the tension between dreams and the violence of reality, all set against the backdrop of the horrors of WWII. It’s a film that doesn’t shy away from asking big questions. Why do we create art in a world on the brink of ruin? How do we find meaning in the face of overwhelming sadness and chaos? These questions hang in the air, unanswered, challenging the audience to grapple with them long after the lights of the theatre come on.
The film’s final moments offer a poignant message about life’s indelible meaning, shaped by daily choices and chance. It’s a philosophy imparted by a filmmaker who has lived through history’s most annihilating war and now finds himself at the twilight of his career. The film may seem like a collection of disparate ideas, but this collage approach makes it a fitting addition to Miyazaki’s impressive resume. Much like we have seen in his past works, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, The Boy and the Heron is much more than the surface story may suggest and is a film that is sure to be explored in university classrooms for years to come.
The Boy and the Heron is not simply another animated movie; rather, it is a profound examination of the intricacies of life as seen through the singular perspective of one of the greatest directors in history. We are left with the means to construct our own towers of meaning by this film, which both examines and praises the human situation. Miyazaki provides us with both a mirror and a window—a glimpse into our souls and an unlimited array of possibilities—in a world that is on the verge of collapse. It’s a demanding and gratifying cinematic experience that makes a significant contribution to the legacy of a real master.