Few filmmakers have the assured legacy and respect of the animation industry quite like Studio Ghibli stalwart Hayao Miyazaki. A writer-director capable of conjuring imaginative and breathtaking worlds of fantasy balanced with achingly human drama, the notorious workaholic and seasoned grump has routinely set the bar for cinematic animation against himself throughout his storied career as co-founder of Ghibli. Now, after a decade-long retirement following his surprisingly grounded biopic The Wind Rises, the legendary “Never-Ending Man” has returned with what is now purported to be his swan song as a cinematic storyteller, The Boy and the Heron. Of course, this “final film” already has doubts cast over its finality in his oeuvre, no sooner than after its North American premiere where it was heavily speculated he is not finished quite yet. A move perfectly resonate with the director’s historic stubbornness. For most directors, the effortlessly charming and heartrending The Boy and the Heron would stand as the culmination of a career marked by elevating the animed medium. For Miyazaki, it’s just another film.
Set against the height of the Pacific War, the titular boy, Mahito (Soma Santoki), is the son of an affluent (and neglectful) factory owner producing munitions for the war effort. After what is presumed to be an air raid claims the life of his mother, his father remarries to her younger sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), and the family moves into a mysterious estate nestled into the countryside. Miyazaki tenderly patterns much of the backstory of Mahito after his own childhood experiences – from his own father’s career as a munitions producer and his family’s exodus from the city to escape the war to his oft-mentioned intense affection for his mother, which has been woven throughout the maternal figures that appear in his filmography. The Boy and the Heron proves to be one of the director’s more personal and emotionally resonate films through this transparent inspiration from his own biography: a vulnerable, revealing act of life-writing, the likes of which we’ve not seen in his previous films and also out of character for the notoriously stoic craftsman.
Much like how his previous efforts My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away incorporated the fantastical drawn from the mythos of Shintoism and Japanese spiritual belief, The Boy and the Heron pivots hard into unrestrained fantastical imagination and transports its audience into a gorgeously rendered fantasy land nevertheless fraught with peril. The impetus for such a pivot is a shape-shifting Heron (Masaki Suda) who taunts the emotionally unstable Mahito over his late mother and sends him on a quest to rescue her from a decrepit tower nestled on the grounds of the estate. As with his other films, this classic fairytale set-up is expertly used to ease the audience into a protracted sense of childlike wonder that stands out from the sobering historical context. When Mahito enters into this transdimensional portal in the tower and crosses over to a parallel world of playful spirits, malevolent creatures and magical wizards, the lavish visuals, lush colors and evocative score from frequent collaborator Joe Hisiashi fill every inch of the screen with carefully crafted splendor. While known for his detail-oriented and expressive animation, none of Miyazaki’s previous films were as thorough and efficient in transporting its audience to a world of unbridled imagination quite like the designs of The Boy and the Heron.
The journey of Mahito through these dreamscapes is thrilling to watch unfold – each step granting an enraptured audiences glimpses of a beguiling world of man-eating parakeets, reality-shifting meteorites, and an endlessly stretching sea where the dead float freely.Typical of the director’s approach to fantasy, this land Mahito treks through offers no respite or escapism from the harshness of the world he is leaving behind, but instead an imaginative mirror of it, rife with allegorical meaning. The film uses Mahito’s emotional journey to come to terms with multiple changes beyond his control – having both his family structure and home permanently altered by the ongoing fallout of the war effort – to preach the clear, concise and immediately felt moral of grief, the inevitably of transition, and the ongoing challenge to contribute to a world constantly attempting to tear itself apart. It’s an effortless fairytale storytelling through a masterful script that can spark a childlike wonder while never losing sight of the film’s ever relevant message.
In a way, Miyazaki’s supposed final film could be described as the master filmmaker effectively playing the hits of his storied career. Parallels can be drawn back between The Boy and The Heron and multiple entries in Miyazaki’s oeuvre in terms of characters, theme, storytelling structure and design. Representing a sort of apotheosis of his formal and narrative style as a filmmaker, the latest placement in the director’s overall catalog will always depend on preference, but it would be difficult to argue that this is not the “most Miyazaki” of that catalog. Visually splendid and emotionally powerful, it will come to stand as a paradoxical shame that this sprawling fantastical masterpiece is not the director’s swan song, as few could hope to go out on a higher note than what The Boy and the Heron represents.