The first wonderful thing about “The Boy and the Heron” is its existence. For years, there was no greater secret in show business than Hayao Miyazaki’s final film. It was delayed over three years from its initial release window; according to producer and president of Studio Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki, it is the most expensive film in Japanese history. Prior to its release in Japan this summer, a single poster was the only officially released information about the film. The master animator’s new film is beautiful and ruminative, exceeding audience and critic expectations.
Like all Miyazaki’s work, it’s strange in the most captivating sense. The story follows Mahito, a boy in 1940s Japan, who is whisked away into a fantastical world by a mysterious gray heron to save his mother. Along the way he meets murderous parakeets, fire spirits, and prenatal human souls. But like “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” before it, the world the film depicts is so outlandish that plot details are not paramount.
The experience of watching “The Boy and the Heron” is letting the storybook-like animation and Joe Hisaishi’s vivid score sweep you up yourself.
Studio Ghibli’s animation is as unique as ever. The film sports the modern iteration of the studio’s style, the traditional 2D art blending anime and western cartoons, now animated digitally instead of on paper cells. It’s stunning on a technical level, and more fluid than ever before. This fluidity is key for more abstract and expressive sequences, with many of them involving fire. It’s here where the artistic vision is uncompromised, where the slithering trails of fire are hypnotic.
The film’s much more poignant Japanese title, “How Do You Live?” is indicative of the heavy themes it explores. Miyazaki is now 82, the film marketed as his last not because of his retirement, but because of his mortality. Suzuki, has described the film as something Miyazaki is “leaving behind” for his grandson as he prepares to “mov(e) on to the next world”. And life, death, and legacy are clearly on his mind. This manifests quite explicitly at times, but it’s not preachy — you’ll find no one-line moral spoken into the camera as credits roll. It is contemplative. The film depicts the creator of its wonderland struggling to find a successor, simultaneously wondering if it’s a burden he can ask anyone to bear. It finds no real answer.
Like all of his films “The Boy and the Heron” is first and foremost a thought-provoking enchantment. It is indeed Miyazaki saying goodbye, but it is also a magnificent fairytale. As his journey reaches its end, we do not get the sense that Mahito has learned how to live, as the title might imply. Rather, Mahito now appreciates living, as must we all.