The Boy and the Heron, released by Hayao Miyazaki at the age of 82, is a psychedelic and profound film that shows he remains a master of animation. By Anthony Carew.

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron

Animation of an elderly sorcerer with grey hair.
The sorcerer in The Boy and the Heron, which took seven years to complete.
Credit: Studio Ghibli / Sony Pictures

When Hayao Miyazaki released The Wind Rises in 2013, he held a press conference at the Venice Film Festival to announce it would be his final feature. The legendary animator, then 72, had cemented his reputation as a master with films such as 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001), and had floated the idea of retiring since the epic Princess Mononoke in 1997.

But there was a finality to this declaration. Miyazaki planned to move into an “overseer” role at Studio Ghibli, the production house he co-founded in 1985. No one could begrudge Miyazaki hanging up his pen: he had given the world so much, shaping generations of young minds with his fantastical animated visions and impeccable storytelling.

In the years that followed, rumours spread about an upcoming Miyazaki feature that was shrouded in secrecy. It was going to be a full-length version of the 2018 short film Boro the Caterpillar, which was made to be screened at the Studio Ghibli museum and theme park. It was going to be an adaptation of the 1937 Genzaburō Yoshino novel How Do You Live? It was going to be released to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics.

None of those rumours proved to be true, though the connection to How Do You Live? is the most tangible for Miyazaki’s 12th and – the now 82-year-old is saying once more – final film. Released as The Boy and the Heron internationally, in Japan it wears the title How Do You Live?, even though it’s not an adaptation of the novel. It came out in Japan with an unprecedented anti-promotional effort: with no trailer or advertising campaign, it was instead simply released into the world, the cinematic equivalent of a musician surprise-dropping an album.

Though the international release has been more traditional, much of the secrecy around The Boy and the Heron has remained intact. This means you can walk into a cinema unburdened by pre-release expectations and slip into a new animated world that is familiarly, warmly Miyazaki.

This is a wild, ambitious, psychedelic work. A boiled-down premise might run like this: in 1943, 12-year-old Mahito is visited by tragedy when his mother dies in a Tokyo firebombing. With World War II raging, he and his father move to a rural town to live with a new stepmother, Natsuko. When Natsuko disappears, Mahito – lured by a grey heron that can transform into a man – sets out to rescue her by journeying into an alternate world beneath our own.

It’s a familiar hero quest braided with a coming-of-age narrative, a voyage across mythical landscapes that is a journey of self-discovery. The magical underworld transcends earthly notions of life and death, and raises questions about the meaning of one’s actions. We follow a boy as he learns what it means to think about more than the self, to ask the question “How do you live?” and to answer it earnestly, in thought and action.

There is a lot more story – and a lot of story, generally – in The Boy and the Heron, and much to learn about the laws and lore that govern its reality. But what’s most vivid is the visual language. Ghibli films are grand exemplars of a dying art: hand-drawn animation. The Boy and the Heron took seven years and the work of 60 animators to complete, and as a viewer it feels entirely worth it. The expressiveness in every drawn line is a relief in an age of eyesore 3D computer animation. It’s Miyazaki’s most inspired other-worldly vision since Spirited Away.

In the beginning we see the firebombing as a traumatic event, which returns as an impressionist nightmare, horrors relived when sleeping. Mahito struggles to survive in a real world destabilised by war and relocation, but he finds clarity and purpose by travelling into, and making sense of, an even more unstable world. Some of this instability – destructive introduced species, cataclysmic meteorological events, the world falling apart – feels informed by the current climate crisis, even if the emotions Mahito is working through are drawn directly from Miyazaki’s own experiences of boyhood wartime displacement.

Most of all, The Boy and the Heron is informed, in its imagery and world-building, by dreams, from surrealist visions to the sense the terrain is shifting beneath your feet. As Mahito and the heron man journey “deep inside” this realm – encountering allies, aggrieved parties and ancestral spirits – they move away from recognisable reality, into the realm of fable.

Miyazaki draws on the natural world, creating memorable imagery of animals multiplied or rendered as outsized (swarms of toads, choruses of fish, giant anthropomorphised parakeets built like butch gym bros, squadrons of pelicans so dense they resemble a blizzard) and natural phenomena amplified (furious winds, vast tracts of waving grassland, mineral-rich rocks that ripple with rainbows and hum with electricity). The animation blurs the lines between more concrete imagery and its environment, with spectral men whose bodies are made of black liquid, floor tiles that turn into whirlpools, or a tower that – as in Alex Garland’s Annihilation – is a living alien organism.

Many of these fantastical flourishes turn out to be the work of the tower master, a wizened sorcerer who is Mahito’s much-gossiped-about great-great-uncle. Struggling with his failure at creating a dreamworld of pure harmony and the unforeseen results arising from his world-building, the tower master solicits Mahito to be his successor.

It’s not hard to see a real-world resonance: Miyazaki, the perfectionist auteur at the centre of a kingdom of dreams and madness, once hoped to bequeath the Ghibli crown to his son, Gorō. Unfortunately, Gorō made the two least-loved of all Ghibli movies (Tales from Earthsea and Earwig and the Witch) and has been publicly critical of his father’s role in his life.

This gives The Boy and the Heron a sense of emotional profundity that matches its spectacle, as an aged master ponders the meaning of his life’s work. In turn, there are thematic resonances with, and sometimes explicit references to, Ghibli’s back catalogue, Japanese history and Miyazaki’s own biography. But while the film chronicles the end of an era, and of a realm of magic and illusion, ultimately – in both the text and the extratextual reading – it feels like a work of hope.

The Boy and the Heron’s coming-of-age tale effectively repudiates those who retreat too far into imaginary worlds, withdrawing from the horrors of reality rather than facing them. Instead, it honours accepting the life one has, and argues that, even after death and destruction, we can build a new and better society. Rather than coming across as a moral lesson, it feels like a gift to a young audience. Miyazaki’s belief in the power of change remains undimmed and his creative fire still blazes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Wild at heart".

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