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‘The Boy and The Heron’ (review)

To say that Hayao Miyazaki is a brilliant filmmaker and probably the greatest animated film director of all time is a foregone conclusion.

It is also something that Miyazaki himself would cringe at hearing.

Regardless, I am going to say it.

Miyazaki’s 12th, and possibly his last film, is a triumph of triumphs amongst his oeuvre of nigh perfect feature films.

Beginning with his Lupin the Third film, The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979 and now 44 years later, The Boy and the Heron has taken his 60 years of animation experience and harnessed it into this fantastical and stunning work of art.

The Boy and the Heron tells the story of Mahito.

After suffering a great and tragic loss, Mahito and his very stoic and firm father journey to the Japanese countryside to take up residence at the Gray Heron Mansion, a sprawling wooded estate near the factory that his father is manager of.

Mahito immediately begins to feel isolation, being so far from town and alienation from the other students because of his situation. This causes Mahito to harm himself and shut himself off even more from everyone and everything including the elderly maids who watch over Mahito and the house.

He is visited by a strange gray heron that roams the estate.

This is no chance meeting.

Through a series of encounters with the Heron; possibly real, possibly dreams, it is revealed to him that nothing is as it seems. Truths may be muddied and the lies meant to protect Mahito may actually harm both him and his family.

When a disappearance occurs on the property, Mahito and the Heron explore the abandoned library tower on the property. There, they discover that time and space warp, dreams and reality blend into one another. They are transported to another world where life and death exist on the same plane.

What follows is an adventure beyond Mahito’s wildest dreams. Exotic creatures, mysterious people, and a plot to upend the balance of existence itself are all revealed to him. It is up to Mahito and a cast of extraordinary characters to set things right and return to his own world before he is trapped there forever.

The Boy and the Heron begins peaceful enough. Like most of his previous films Miyazaki shows us a world that is seemingly mundane an meant to draw you in. It is our world, where his story is to take place, however just under the surface it may be much more than it seems.

Without warning the world explodes into chaos; Mahito runs through the streets of Tokyo during a fire. The animation was so visceral and impactful that I swear I could feel the heat of the flames. It was such a stunning visual experience and I was so caught up in the intensity that I realized after a bit that I had stopped breathing.

I first became aware of Miyazaki as a kid when I was in high school watching My Neighbor Totoro on VHS. I was struck by how absolutely charming and full of wonder it was. I fell in love with his work right then and there. That is quite a feat for a self proclaimed goth kid at the time. I sought out other works by him, which given the time, there were not a lot to choose from. I found Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and eventually a bootleg of the Castle of Cagliostro.

Over the years I have devoured any and all work by Miyazaki, watched documentaries and read what I could about this relatively private man who created these wondrous and richly lush worlds of delight.

When Princess Mononoke was released in 1997 I saw it on opening night. I was blown away once again by the beautiful animation and the incredible watercolor backgrounds. The story really affected me as well. It was both heartbreaking and hopeful. A theme that would permeate all of Miyazaki’s work to this day.

The Boy and the Heron is no exception. In fact I feel like this film is the culmination of over a decade’s worth of heartbreak and heartfelt joy at not only a career of industry influencing work but a lifetime of doing something that one both loves and is disappointed in.

I feel that this film is his most personally existential work to date. Of course, all of his films have been dealing with existence and our place in the world. Never before has one of his films taken it to a personal level as this. While each of his films may have little bits and pieces of his life up to the time of their creation scattered and woven into the fabric of their storytelling, The Boy and The Heron’s story pulls directly from personal events in Miyazaki’s life. Which parts may be absolutely transparent at times however knowing how elusive he is with his private life there may be others that are more opaque than we may think.

As mentioned in the Japanese press release “The Boy and the Heron” is a fantasy film with an element of semi-autobiography. Its Japanese title, “Kimitachi wa Do Ikiruka” (published in Japan by Shinchosha), literally meaning “How do you live?”, is borrowed from an eponymous novel by Genzaburo Yoshino that filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was given in his youth by his mother.

What’s more, certain events from Miyazaki’s childhood are depicted in this new animated feature for the first time ever.” I don’t know how to explain it, but without even knowing that bit of information, while watching this film, I had a sense, more so than any other of his movies, that we were actually being allowed a sliver of a view at the man himself and some of what has made him who he is today.

This is also, I would say, his most experimental piece of art he has ever made. I’m sure he would hate to hear this, but it is true. The animation style is wholly Miyazaki. The story and the storytelling devices used are much more daring and outside his particular “safe zone” of crafting. One can feel the almost intrinsic influence of one of his more famous proteges, Hideaki Anno, within the very heart of the story itself. Much like, I could feel the major influences of Miyazaki within and without the final Evangelion redo film 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon A Time. Miyazaki’s indelible influence on Anno is apparent all about that movie, especially the ending. The two have been in each other’s lives as mentor and student, student and mentor for decades.

If you haven’t gathered from this review, I can not recommend you see this film, any more highly than I already have. It is said almost ad nauseam with Haiyao Miyazaki’s films at this point but this movie is an incredible triumph of a film and a sublime masterpiece. It is as beautiful visually as the story is awe inspiring. I can not wait to see it again and eventually own it for myself. This is an incredible achievement for a man who in his lifetime has had an overabundance of phenomenal achievements. Treat yourself to a world of wonder and beauty and go see The Boy and the Heron this holiday season.

Finally, there is always talk of this possibly being his final film. Much like with Ponyo and with The Wind Rises, we have heard before from Miyazaki that he might retire, so much so that he actually addresses it and his age in the press release we received for this film, saying:
“There’s nothing more pathetic than telling the world you’ll retire because of your age, then making yet another comeback. Is it truly possible to accept how pathetic that is, and do it anyway? Doesn’t an elderly person deluding themself that they’re still capable, despite their geriatric forgetfulness, prove that they’re past their best? You bet it does.”

He then goes on to say: “It’s all very well to drag in others and cause a heap of trouble yet still finish a film. But it’s also entirely possible that you could become bedridden or die come crunch time. The instigator himself might be fully prepared for that, but for those who end up burdened with an incomplete film, it would be unbearable. Feature-length films take at least three years to complete. I could do one in a year when I was in my 40s, but now I’m 75, it’s a lot to get done in three years, and I’m tempted to say “Let me work on it till I’m 80.””

So who knows maybe his retirement is imminent? Maybe not? As final films go this one is one hell of a swan song to retire after.

 

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Toshio Suzuki
Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Japanese Voice Cast: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon,
Yoshino Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki, Takuya Kimura
English Voice Cast: Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Gemma Chan, Willem Dafoe,
Karen Fukuhara, Mark Hamill, Robert Pattinson, Florence Pugh

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