‘The Boy and the Heron’ movie review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Wonderland comes calling

An image from ‘The Boy and the Heron’

Back in 2013, aficionados of Hayao Miyazaki felt a touch of finality with the release of the deeply personal film The Wind Rises, which appeared to be a touching farewell from the acclaimed filmmaker. It seemed like the perfect conclusion.

However, after ten years, 83-year-old Miyazaki has seemingly emerged from seclusion to demonstrate that the enchanting allure of his artistry and storytelling prowess stands the test of time, even in an era teeming with technological advances in animation and the emergence of potential successors from within the ranks of his own esteemed Studio Ghibli.

In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki revisits a theme close to his heart: a child grappling with the devastation of war, who stumbles into a captivating fantasy realm. He plunges us into his intricately crafted world that occasionally indulges its audience with spectacular flourish.

The story introduces us to Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki), a young boy living through the turbulent 1940s in Japan. After losing his mother to a tragic fire following an aerial attack, and having his father remarry his aunt Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), Mahito relocates to the countryside manor managed by Natsuko amid a crew of bickering elderly maids, where he must confront his sorrow in solitude.

The Boy and the Heron (Japanese)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Voice cast (Japanese): Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki, Takuya Kimura

Run-time: 124 minutes

Storyline: A boy troubled by his mother’s passing is beckoned into an extraordinary realm by a mystical heron

These narrative elements reflect Miyazaki’s own life, with parallels such as his own childhood displacement to the countryside and his father’s profession in aircraft manufacturing, set against the backdrop of wartime chaos.

Mahito’s unsettling dreams and feelings of helplessness regarding his mother’s death set the stage for his encounter with a large, communicative heron (voiced by Masaki Suda), who persistently beckons him to enter a foreboding structure that promises a passage to another world. This other realm may hold the clue to finding his vanished stepmother/aunt, turning the tale into a fantastical quest.

A still from ‘The Boy and the Heron’

A still from ‘The Boy and the Heron’

Miyazaki takes the audience on a journey through a surreal world populated by creatures ranging from flame spirits and carnivorous parrots to ethereal beings known as Warawara, reminiscent of Ghibli’s most mesmerizing entities. As Mahito navigates numerous bizarre scenarios, the line between reality and fantasy blurs for him and us alike.

A cast of exceptional voice talents and a stunning symphonic score by Joe Hisaishi support Miyazaki as he unleashes his boundless imagination. Even so, the film’s pace can sometimes feel overwhelming, rapidly moving from one inventive scene to the next, causing a desire for the narrative clarity revered in classics such as My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away.

Perhaps this is Miyazaki’s intention, prompting us to contemplate life’s fundamental inquiries. The movie’s philosophical underpinnings borrow from the 1937 Japanese novel “How Do You Live?”, positing introspective challenges to the viewers and to Miyazaki himself.

In essence, The Boy and the Heron leaves us pondering over life’s dilemmas, such as reconciling with the past and processing grief that is uniquely personal. The film refrains from offering straightforward solutions, instead leaving its audience to discover the multifaceted meanings of love, family, and loss alongside Mahito.

Perhaps in doing so, we might uncover insights into our existences as well.

The Boy and The Heron is now being showcased in cinemas.

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