It has been a decade since the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, last released a film (The Wind Rises) and announced his retirement. At the age of 82 he makes a welcome return with The Boy and the Heron, his wild and surprising interpretation of Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel, How Do You Live? It is also semi-autobiographical and deals with themes of love, friendship and grief in deeply surreal and moving ways.
We first meet young protagonist Mahito in his darkest moment, as he discovers his mother’s workplace is on fire following an air-bombing during World War II. He cannot rescue her and he is devastated. Following her death his father moves them away from Tokyo to the countryside where Mahito meets his new mother Natsuko (who is also his own mother’s younger sister). Mahito is also greeted by a mysterious heron who leads the young boy on a curious and often frightening journey through confusion and loss.
The first part of the film introduces a familiar-looking palette associated with Miyazaki’s striking compositions; compact old women with buns atop their giant heads excitedly hurrying around a majestically painted home and nature encroaching on to intriguing architecture – the detailed animation pops with depth, light and a sumptuous classical art quality. As the second half of the film gets darker, the score by Joe Hisaishi skilfully blends giddy terror and melancholy. It brilliantly matches Mahito’s mood as he embraces the chaos of a strange world where giant parakeets rule the land and cute, squishy creatures called warawara eat fish guts for dinner and float in the sky. Magical!
At every turn in the film, beauty is attached to ugliness, reason is upended with peril and people’s motivations are continually changing. The Heron itself is a gloriously designed beast; at times graceful and at others, as it shapeshifts, a gross mutation of man and bird. If this truly is Miyazaki’s swan song then it’s one hell of a goodbye – an exquisitely crafted animation packed full of imagination, humour, tenderness and all pieced together by the erudite hand of a filmmaker reflecting on life and death in all its heart-breaking and messy wonder.
The Boy And The Heron was seen and reviewed at the London Film Festival. It will be released on 26 December 2023