The hardest thing to do in your life is say goodbye to the people you love. It is something that you rarely think about when you are young, as time seems endless and the possibility of your destiny on this earth seems bountiful. But as you get older, you start to feel the clock ticking more and more, knowing that when your time is up, your family, friends, work, and passions will be defined by the legacy you’ve built that will live on longer than yourself. This is both assuring and terrifying to someone like myself, as I know that my story is still being written. For one of the greatest artists to ever live, director Hayao Miyazaki, legacy was front and center in creating his latest cinematic vision, The Boy and the Heron. Miyazaki returns after a ten-year absence to come out of retirement to make a film for his grandchildren to watch and remember him by. In doing this, he’s created his most subtle work to date, and another strong entry into an impeccable film that ranks as one of the best.
In 1943, during the Pacific War, is where we meet Mahito Maki, a 12-year-old boy sleeping in his bed in the middle of the night at his home. He is awakened by the sounds of screaming coming from outside of his room and his father, Shoichi, panicking about the fire taking place at the hospital his wife and Mahito’s mother, Hisako, works at. When he hears that she might be in danger, we see Mahito swiftly racing to save his mother, knowing full well that she is gone. The elegant animation is mixed beautifully with the tragedy we see our young protagonist go through at this moment, losing the one person in this world he loves the most. Flash to a little while after the fire, where his father has decided to remarry his late wife’s younger sister Natsuko, and move away from their home to her countryside estate.
For Mahito, he’s silent, numb to the bone from the events of the fire, still grieving the loss of his mother. As life starts to move on, and his father and Natsuko try to make a new life for themselves, he can’t shake the hole in his heart that is missing. Miyazaki is a master at showcasing the melancholy within an adolescent’s heart and soul like he did in Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away when those young protagonists were growing up so quickly, becoming adults before our eyes. Aided by Joe Hisaishi’s sublime score, Mahito’s emotional journey feels new for his creator, as Miyazaki is looking to explore how Mahito can use this tragedy to shape this young boy and mold him into the person his mother always wanted him to be.
As he goes to school, Mahito is just not fitting in, and this only makes him more frustrated about his situation, which leads him to take his emotions out on himself and harm himself by hitting his head with a rock, forcing himself to bleed. This is the first image of bloody violence we have seen from the director since Princess Mononoke, but instead of a war being at the center of this conflict, it is the internal pain of Mahito that drives this act of aggression. As he stays at home and recovers from his injury, he discovers two things that will change his life. The first is a copy of the novel How Do You Live?, which is not only a classic Japanese novel about the spiritual growth of a young boy who lives with his uncle but also a gift Mahito’s mother wanted to give him to use as a text to grow and mature with as she did when she grew up. He’s moved by the notion of this last gift from his mother, but it is short-lived as he encounters his second discovery, which is a mysterious grey heron that has been flowing him around since his arrival at his new home. Insider the heron lies an old man inhabiting the heron’s body, who speaks to the young Mahito, taunting him, telling him that he knows that his mother is still alive. The heron tells him to go to the tower near their house, and once he enters this place his great uncle built, he will be reunited with his mother. While hearing this chance to get to see his mother one more time is enticing to him, he has some doubts that this journey will lead to the results he wants and shoos away the heron. But when he sees an ill Natsuko enter the tower without knowing it can lead to another world, Mahito and the heron enter to get back his new step-mom, and also find closure for the loss of his mother.
Once we enter, we experience the usual world building that director Miyazaki is known for, with vast colorful lands inhabited by unique creatures like giant, terrifying parakeets that only the greatest animation director of all time could do. In this alternative word, we find that this universe is on the verge of a power collapse as Mahito’s Great-Uncle is still ruling over everything and wants to hand it off to someone within his bloodline. But with his mother dead, and his new mother missing, Mahito is the only one that his uncle sees who can bring balance to the world and take over because he has “no malice” in his heart. Kiriko (a younger version of one of the seven maids at the estate Mahito lives at), a seafarer, and Himi, a young magical spirit, make up the protectors of this universe alongside Mahito’s uncle against the darkness that could consume it. The Boy and the Heron’s second half morphs into a soulful, delicate examination of the legacy of an unconventional, yet connected family.
It is so clear that Miyazaki is using this world and its characters as a vessel to examine the history and future of his own family. In his most personal film to date, the writer-director tells us through Mahito’s journey that no matter how much pain you go through, how lost you might feel, or no matter how dire the circumstances in life may be, we should know that the people we love have been here before. Their loss is something that can make us stronger because, after all, death is a part of life. Once we embrace it, we can grow, reach our potential, and then be able to heal as our lost loved ones would want us to. It’s ideas like this that set The Boy and the Heron firmly in the great company of the other fantastic pieces of cinema that the master storyteller has crafted. It may or may not be his last feature film, but that notion is secondary to the fact that he has given us this film to chew on and examine for years to come, as well as use it as a tool to heal our collective souls.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. GKIDS will release The Boy and the Heron in U.S. theaters.