4 Stars

After the release of the brilliant The Wind Rises in 2013, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki announced that he was retiring from work on feature-length films. After a 30-plus year career filled with visionary works of imagination, it was understandable that the then 72 year old Miyazaki would be ready to slow down. But still, those who appreciate great animation were saddened by the announcement. However, in 2016, it came to light that Miyazaki was working on a new film. Delays related to budget, COVID, and Miyazaki’s perfectionism made for a long production. But with The Boy and the Heron (How Do You Live? in Japan), Miyazaki has added another masterwork to his filmography. Set in World War II-era Japan and expounding on themes such as nature and the importance of family that run through much of his other work, The Boy and the Heron feels like a very personal film for Miyazaki.

The film opens in Tokyo during the war. Mahito (Soma Santoki/Luca Padovan) is woken in the night by his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale) telling Mahito that the hospital where his mother is is on fire. She does not survive. In the aftermath, Shoichi marries Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan), who is his wife’s younger sister. Shoichi then takes Mahito from the city to the country estate where Natsuko lives. Natsuko, who is pregnant, is very welcoming to Mahito, but he is understandably reserved, almost standoffish with her. Upon arriving at the estate, Mahito meets the staff at the estate, consisting of a couple of groundskeepers and seven elderly maids. They’re happy to meet the boy, but are more excited for the sugar and canned meat that Shoichi has sent along. Early in his time at the estate, Mahito develops an adversarial relationship with a grey heron which seems to taunt him. While following the heron, Mahito finds a tower, mostly sealed off by a rockfall which the maids warn him is a strange, off-limits place.

When he goes to school, he is immediately picked on by the local children. Mahito hits himself in the head with a rock, seriously wounding himself, as a way to avoid going back to school. During his recovery, Mahito finds a book that his mother left “To Grown-Up Mahito”, which moves and saddens him. While he’s reading, he hears the maids shouting that Natsuko has disappeared. Mahito had seen her walking a forest path earlier that day, so he and one of the maids, Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki/Florence Pugh) set off to find her. The path leads back to the strange tower. When the pair enter, they are tricked and attacked by the heron. After Mahito shoots the bird with an arrow made with the bird’s own feathers, it’s revealed that there is an odd man inside the Grey Heron (Masaki Suda/Robert Pattinson). When Mahito makes his intention to find Natsuko clear, a mysterious old man (Shohei Hino/Mark Hamill) levels above orders the Heron to be Mahito’s guide. The Heron then sinks itself, Mahito, and Kiriko through the floor of the tower and into a strange new world.

The Boy and the Heron (2023) | MUBI Courtesy Toho Co.

Here, Mahito is alone outside a golden gate. He is attacked by a group of pelicans who push him through the gate, only to be rescued by a younger version of Kiriko. She takes him back to the wrecked ship where she lives. This is also where she feeds and protects the Warawara, a group of cute blobby creatures. In a late night ceremony, Mahito sees the Warawara rise into the sky, where Kiriko tells him they will be born as new humans in his world. During this ceremony, the pelicans attack again, eating the Warawara, only to be driven off by Lady Himi (Aimyon/Karen Fukuhara), known as the fire maiden. Soon reunited with the Heron, Mahito sets off to this world’s version of the tower to rescue Natsuko. The result is a strange adventure filled with anthropomorphized bloodthirsty parakeets, doors through time, unexpected friendships, realizations of family connections, and the importance of setting your own path.

First and foremost, The Boy and the Heron is a beautifully animated work of art. There are scenes where Miyazaki is reaching moments of experimental (the fire and Mahito’s mother, which recurs throughout the film) and surreal (the melting mother) animation unlike work he has done before. While there is some minimal computer animation used, the majority of the work is in the traditional hand-drawn style, and is all the better for it. The design and detail of the animation is astounding, from the bird/disguised man duality of the Grey Heron, to the individual quirks of the elderly maids, to the grand and pompous Parakeet King (Jun Kunimura/Dave Bautista). Every moment of the film is gorgeous to look at.

Crunchyroll to Release Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and The Heron in Australia  and New Zealand - Crunchyroll News Courtesy Toho Co.

And while the story is fantastical, like much of Miyazaki’s work, the themes it explores show it to be a very personal vision. One that especially sticks out is the natural world and the changes wrought upon it by man. The scene where the pelicans eat the Warawara and are then burned by Lady Himi is followed by one of the most beautiful and poignant moments of the film. When Mahito goes outside again that night, he finds the dying Noble Pelican (Kaoru Kobayashi/Willem Dafoe). Mahito initially threatens the Pelican, but is thrown off guard when the bird asks Mahito to end his suffering. He tells Mahito that the pelicans were brought to this world by the master of the tower, but that there is little food available for them there. When they tried to fly away and escape, they were magically brought back to the same island. That is why they eat the Warawara – they have no choice. When the Pelican tells Mahito that their young are forgetting how to fly, it is devastating. When the pelicans, who seem so antagonistic at the start of Mahito’s adventure, return at the end, it’s a moment that moved me to tears both times that I’ve seen the film.

The other primary themes involve working through loss and grief, and finding peace in family connections. While Mahito will never forget his mother, Natsuko’s kindness brings him another maternal figure who will love and support him, as well as bringing him a little brother. Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki stated during the production process that Miyazaki was making the film as something to leave behind for his grandson as Miyazaki prepares to move “onto the next world soon”. This theme of legacy also shines through the film. Mahito is asked by his granduncle, the master of the tower, to continue his work of building a world, even attempting to give him the tools to reconstruct it “without malice”. Mahito instead chooses his own path, deciding to live in the real world, flawed as it is.

Here Is the English Cast For The Boy and the Heron - Siliconera Courtesy Toho Co.

On the technical side of the film, Miyazaki continued to work with long-time collaborators. Cinematographer Atsushi Okui and editor Takeshi Seyama have both been with the director for decades and continue to help him realize his masterful vision. Joe Hisaish, who has written beautiful and memorable music for all of Miyazaki’s films save The Castle of Cagliostro, turns in another fascinating score here. By turns dark and soaring, it complements the film perfectly. Having seen the film in both the original Japanese language (with subtitles) and with the English dub, my preference for the film is the subtitled version. I historically have enjoyed some of the dubs for the Miyazaki films, and this one isn’t bad. Pattinson especially goes for it and loses himself in the character of the Grey Heron. For me, the story here just works better with the original language performances.

A new Miyazaki film this good and this powerful is a work to be treasured. Studio Ghibli and GKIDS have gone all out for the release, putting this gorgeous film on IMAX and other large format screens. If you can see it that way, I highly recommend it.

The Boy and the Heron is in theaters beginning Friday, December 8