The Boy and the Heron: Miyazaki Hayao’s enchanting fable is bursting with ideas

Miyazaki’s mystical new film – which will no longer be his ‘last’ – is a thrilling, frenetic experience that gradually opens itself up to something massive, even apocalyptic.

The Boy and the Heron (2023)
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Don’t call it a comeback — or a swan song, as it turns out. No sooner did The Boy and the Heron premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival than a Studio Ghibli executive assured the sold-out audience that its maker was, quite literally, going back to the drawing board; that clicking sound you heard was a thousand on-deadline critics deleting their ledes about Miyazaki Hayao’s twelfth feature as a director (and first in ten years) also being his last.

The apparent non-retirement of one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers is, of course, cause for celebration, and so for the most part is the quality of his latest, non-valedictory fable, which takes its title from a 1937 novel by Japanese author Genzaburo Yoshino. The original How Do You Live? was aimed at school children as a kind of humanist philosophical tract, and makes a crucial cameo here; while Miyazaki’s screenplay retains nothing of its source material’s original narrative – and in fact piles on a swaying heap of mystic-slash-mythic complications to rival anything in Spirited Away (2001) or Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – its gentle didacticism is very much of a piece. Distilled down to its essence The Boy and the Heron is a story about the necessity of recognising and accepting one’s responsibilities – about the interior journey from innocence to experience, which gets thrillingly externalised through a series of surreal and epically scaled landscapes that are only familiar by the standard and iconography of Miyazaki’s own body of work.

At first, it seems that self-reflexivity is the name of the game: the opening passages, describing the relocation of ten-year old Mahito from Tokyo in the wake of the hospital bombing that claimed his mother’s life in 1943 to a new home in the countryside. It evokes both the emotional narrative and painterly visual style of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), right down to a wizened caregiver figure who’s a dead ringer for a character in the earlier film. But where Totoro was ultimately a minimalist sort of fantasy with little narrative incident and extremely modest stakes, The Boy and the Heron’s similarly gentle sense of enchantment gradually opens up into something massive, and even apocalyptic. It’s a shift that begins around the time that the titular seabird, at first rendered realistically by the animators, reveals itself as an impostor, as well as an extra-dimensional emissary from a realm where Mahito and his tragic family history loom large. 

As much as it may seem like a cop-out to avoid talking about the plot of The Boy and the Heron, its non-synopsisability is part of the pleasure; one reason we identify with Mahito as he navigates the world beyond his own is because we’re just as confused as he is about what’s going on. Of course, the best fairy tales often project the quality of being made up as they’re going along, exquisite-corpse style. The cause-and-effect relationship between the various episodes and characters matters less than their individual and collective vividity, whether it’s an extended seafaring adventure culminating in the gruesome slaughter of a massive fish, human-sized parakeets, or an encounter with an ancient wizard whose collection of toy blocks represents nothing less than the teetering equilibrium of the universe itself.

To return to the idea of The Boy and the Heron as, at least in part, a summative work, these latter passages can easily be read as a gesture of melancholy reflection on behalf of an ageing artist. Or, more specifically, as Miyazaki’s riff on The Tempest, with the sorcerer manifesting as his own Prospero-like self-portrait, and contemplating, with fetching directness, such stuff as dreams are made on – and also the idea that in dreams begin responsibilities. 

It may be that the film is finally a bit too busy and frenetic for these heavy themes to fully or finely crystallise. But it’s also miserly to begrudge an octogenarian who’s still bursting with ideas and energy for not wanting to kill too many of his darlings. Instead, and as only he can, he makes them live.