‘The Boy and the Heron’ Review: Miyazaki’s Complex Work of Art Confronting Mortality

The Boy and the Heron is the latest animated film from Studio Ghibli and writer and director Hayao Miyazaki. 

Mahito is a 12-year-old who is dealing with the death of his mother. His father remarries Mahito’s aunt, and they return to her childhood home. There, Mahito has to learn to adjust to a new environment, school, people, and adventure. A gray heron stalks an abandoned tower near his home. This heron tells Mahito that his mother is alive and follows him in search of her. To keep from spoiling the film, I will say that Mahito goes on an unexpected journey. The Boy and the Heron unfolds into a mature, complex work of art. He is soon led to another world with mysterious new people and soon uncovers a big secret that will change how he looks at his life.

It’s a masterful work of animation and profound storytelling. The Boy and the Heron is my first Studio Ghibli film, and I was blown away by the absolutely surreal magic and adventure that overtook the film.

Still frame from The Boy and the Heron. Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/GKIDS.

Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron screenplay is inspired by his childhood and life

The screenplay, written by Hayao Miyazaki, is heavily inspired by his childhood and explores themes of coming of age and dealing with a world mired with loss and strife. The Boy and the Heron release was noted for its intentional absence of any promotion. Ghibli chose not to release any trailers, images, plot, or casting details of the film before its Japanese premiere except a single poster. Except for a few low-profile interviews from some of the team behind the film, Miyazaki wanted audiences to go into the film blind. I think this really helped promote the movie. 

I went into the theater knowing it was a Studio Ghibli film, and those are notably impressive. Studio Ghibli is a renowned Japanese animation studio founded in 1985 by animated film directors Isao Takahata and The Boy and the Heron’s Hayao Miyazaki. The studio has produced 22 feature-length films, each contributing to its spectacular legacy in the world of animation since its inception. The studio’s films are known for their rich storytelling, captivating and empathetic worldview, and inspiring adventures, which have stolen the hearts of audiences around the globe. The studio’s works are mostly hand-drawn using watercolor and acrylic paints, with traditional animation methods where every frame is drawn and colored by hand. 

So I was confident I would have a good time watching the film. Ever since I watched this movie, I’ve wanted to watch it again. Studio Ghibli films are unique because you never know what you will get when you first watch them. After you watch them the first time, you have to rewatch them to see what motifs or elements you missed on your first watch.

Still frame from The Boy and the Heron. Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/GKIDS.

The Boy and the Heron is a complex film

Before I saw the movie, I saw some negative reviews about the title. It just seemed like they didn’t understand The Boy and the Heron, and that’s not enough to deter me from watching this film. Just because you don’t understand a somewhat darker, more complex, and more personal narrative than many of his works, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. And personally, I find it annoying when people write off a movie and say that it’s bad because they don’t get it. I love that this film is darker and seemingly more mature than Miyazaki’s other films. Watching this movie reminded me of how I felt after my grandmother died. Because even though people leave you and you want nothing more than to keep them in your life, it can’t be that way. It’s now how life works. 

The kind of movies I enjoy the most are movies you don’t completely understand on the first watch, but they still move you. The Boy and Heron is a beautiful animated feature that not only speaks about loss, but it also talks about Miyazaki himself. Yes, this film pulls inspiration from his childhood, but it also speaks to his position at Studio Ghibli. His films have created a successful and universally adored, but he has talked about being a control freak regarding his art. He never made Studio Ghibli into something that could function without him and carry his legacy. 

Still frame from The Boy and the Heron. Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/GKIDS.
Still frame from The Boy and the Heron. Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/GKIDS.

Miyazaki is the wizard in The Boy and the Heron

I knew about Miyazaki saying he would retire and rescinding that statement shortly after. It’s become a running joke, but I realized that Miyazaki is the wizard after watching the movie. The wizard has the job of keeping the world that Mahito is from in perfect balance with the stones. He wishes to pass this job along to Mahito, but he’s a young boy. Mahito can’t be stuck in this dimension forever, having to keep the world balanced. Miyazaki has no predecessor. No one he can pass his legacy unto. So, in order to keep his legacy of six decades of making films that showcase his talent, subtlety, and imagination, he must continue. He can’t let go. He’s one of the most influential and beloved figures in the world of animation, and he has worked so hard to build this legacy that he can’t let it go. 

After watching a few of his other films, I realized that all of Miyazaki’s creations confront mortality in some way or another. The Boy and the Heron prompts us to consider the aftermath of losing someone deeply cherished. How does one find hope in the face of life’s hardships? How do we move forward without succumbing to pessimism? This movie is a powerful experience that will leave you breathless. I wholeheartedly encourage you to delve into Miyazaki’s profound narrative and enchanting world.

The Boy and the Heron is now streaming.

Have you watched the film yet? What did you think? How about other Ghibli films? Connect with us on X @MoviesWeTexted.

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