A Majestic, Unusual Gift to the World : ‘The Boy and the Heron’ Review

We know that The Boy and the Heron is the new critically-acclaimed fantasy adventure from the legendary Studio Ghibli, creators of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro. Like I said in my film teaser reaction, this film seemed to have glimpses of several older Ghibli films: fire and destruction which may be a nod to war or some great tragedy, unique characters whom we can speculate could be spirits or otherworldly beings, a child entering a unique doorway or gate which looks to lead to a place much different than their own reality with its own set of rules an individual perhaps offering a deal to the main character –and I wasn’t wrong. While watching in a theater, I felt that I saw sparks of some of my favorite Ghibli films and yet…The Boy and the Heron marks a new chapter in the studio’s work. It is something new, an entirely new animal, if you will.

A NOT Spoiler Free Review follows below

The Boy and the Heron follows a young boy named Mahito yearning for his mother. He eventually ventures into a world shared by the living and the dead. This is a place where death and life constantly dance with each other and a person passing in Mahito’s world means that he might find them, or a version of them, in this other world that he has descended to. With that in mind, I’m not overreacting when I say that a lot of The Boy and the Heron is unsettling: there are scenes upon scenes of Mahito, the protagonist of the film, nearly washed away by waves, nearly eaten or piled upon by creatures and animals, or almost falling to his death. One particular scene that left me squeamish (and alarmed) is when the boy is directed to cut open a huge fish creature caught for dinner and as he struggles, the guts of the creature spill out in an explosive fashion–enveloping the boy until he passes out.

The Work Behind the Film

Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film in 10 years is a hand-drawn, original story written and directed by the Academy Award®️-winning director. I was curious about not just the animation, which is always, always a balm for my weary soul, but its collaborations. I adored an early scene in the film when Mahito is touring his new home and a graceful heron bird flies in close to the boy culminating in a smooth animated sequence that made me appreciate Miyazaki’s approach to continue in what he and the studio do best. They work in the style, aesthetic, and work ethic of what may be seen as formulaic but has worked for decades.

When watching this film in a theater this week I was reminded of a viral clip from a video that pops up on social media from time to time. I think of the clip of the director seeing and being disgusted by the odd computer-generated animation of some grotesque thing he’s been shown on screen. (I’ve included the video clip below.) In short, he hates it and states that it is an affront to life. Word on the street is that this isn’t even a particular recent event and yet Miyazaki’s sentiments echo loudly. We are in an era of too much AI-generated media and art that many of their supporters and champions express delight in the fast creation time of it all. Cue the “Miyazaki is a dinosaur or out of touch” comments, and yet I point to the old age: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” (The ending credits revealed additional animation from a few Japanese studios including ufotable and production I.G.)

Visually, the film is a masterpiece. Even if moviegoers such as myself and critics don’t catch all the plot points and story beats that the filmmaker, Miyazaki, sought to put into his screenplay for the film and I’m fine with that. I am also reminded of the startling opening scenes of The Boy and the Heron from Mahito’s point of view navigating the streets of a burning city, of a Japan at wartime look and deliberating blurry, hurried. While I explicitly understood them to be scenes of death and great trauma, I understood and felt their impact on the young boy and how fiery images came back later in the film. In short, throughout the film they connected him to his mother as he lost her that night and when another character who deals with fire appears, I quickly was able to connect not just the two but the way fire is used to illustrate life and death, tying together both worlds with Mahito as its moving center. I’d be remiss not to mention that The Boy and the Heron is the first Ghibli film in IMAX theaters ever, which feels momentous in its own right.

The Film’s Core

There’s a lot of The Boy and the Heron that I don’t necessarily feel that I “got” or understand with my first viewing. Which brings to mind much of the “Miyazaki created this film for himself” or for his grandson as a sort of gift or legacy, discourse that’s been floating around in fan reaction and film reviews.  My best interpretation of Miyazaki’s latest (that he wrote the screenplay, produced, and directed) is that The Boy and the Heron is an animated film that focuses on boyhood, the obligations of your bloodline and doing your best to seek out and reunite with family.

The Boy and the Heron delves into what mourning and grieving a parent may look like in the eyes of a child–and yet that aspect of the narrative doesn’t fully feel explored to my satisfaction. I watched a mostly stoic boy who kept a soldier’s pace, yearning and looking for his birth mother and also being roped into looking for the woman who would replace her. (It’s later revealed to be his aunt, his mother’s younger sister. In the original work, his new mother is a closer relation which will shock or surprise you).

The Unsettling Score

What is a Studio Ghibli film without a musical score from Miyazaki’s long-time collaborator Joe Hisaishi? I feel Hisaishi’s work here plays up the unsettling parts of the film too well. I remember most a playful but jaunty tune playing when Mahito, after a threatening encounter with a heron, is in the courtyard outdoors. Viewers find that the boy is sharpening his knife with help of an elderly man (who was happily bribed with cigarettes) and then turns to crafting his own bow and arrow out of bamboo and other supplies he’s found around the place.

It served as an unnerving scene of a boy in preparation of making a killing blow, one that he shouldn’t be contemplating at his age. And yet…if we think of the narrative of The Boy and the Heron of a boy feeling left out, bullied and ostracized to a point in Japan’s history of suffering defeat from war and suffering, it slowly starts to gel together to make sense. Reading an interview with the famed composer and longtime Miyazaki collaborator, I think I may have been onto something when in short he mentioned that he “wants you to feel the movie, not search for meaning”.

Yet by the end of the film when Mahito is holding the hand of the mother he went to retrieve with countless birds on screen–once victims turned perpetrators by their circumstances–and prisoners of another realm escaping, I was in tears. Seeing the boy later upstairs preparing to leave his bedroom and seeing a glimpse of his family downstairs waiting for him, made me wipe my eyes. I explicitly recognize that this young boy was given powers and control on a fantastical land, perhaps well beyond one’s level of comprehension–powers beyond time and space and rejected it for the people he loved and reconciling and reuniting with them. I feel like there may be some narrative threads of maturity and the multifaceted ways that adolescence changes us that I may have lost in the sauce somewhere.

The theme song for the film “Spinning Globe” was penned and performed by global J-pop superstar Kenshi Yonezu, and it is a beautiful song that I actually loved. Unfortunately, I felt a missed opportunity in having it play only when the ending credits started rolling. I felt it was wasted to play only in the credits while I sat in the dimmed theater mostly alone with my thoughts versus a more pivotal scene in the film. I’m hoping most fans and critics did not see it as forgettable but a wonderful addition to such a film.

Having watched the original Japanese language, subtitled version of the film, I perhaps loved Kiriko’s voice actress, Ko Shibasaki, the most. Her character, a woman who is both a fisher and fishmonger, reveals illuminating details about the world Mahito has ventured into. Ko Shibasaki handled surprise, pride, and excitement well as she was the adult she guided the boy the most in The Boy and the Heron’s second half versus where he is hunted, stalked, and tricked. I loved that there were three different versions of her in the film–all doing their best to guide and protect him. She was a grounding and perhaps underrated character in the film for me when the story got murky. I am so excited to hear that the English dub version of the film, (a star-studded affair) has been received well by agencies. I’m game to rewatch the film dubbed as I keep hearing praise from around the internet.

Overall, The Boy and the Heron is a film that I want to revisit and rewatch. It is clear that it is from the house of Ghibli, and yet it is uniquely its own creation. I believe that it should be watched by fans of animation and Ghibli purists, alike. While not taking the number one spot from my all-time favorite films from the studio (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, if you were curious), this film wraps together a story about family, literally navigating the avenues of life and death and the pitfalls and triumphs of childhood in a majestic fashion for the eyes. I acknowledge and still appreciate Miyazaki’s approach to storytelling, even if this story didn’t reach me and make me feel the way his other films have. Even if The Boy and the Heron was created explicitly for himself, or as a gift for a family member like his grandson, or for Japanese people as a whole–we, the world still benefit from this labor of love he and Studio Ghibli have brought us.

The Boy and the Heron is still playing in select theaters during its North America run. Find out more about the film, its cast, and creative team here. Find out more information about purchasing tickets here from distributor GKIDS.

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  • Carrie McClain is writer, editor and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie, and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Nowadays you can usually find her avoiding Truck-kun and forgetting her magical girl transformation device. She/Her

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