Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most fabled animators in cinema history, founder of Studio Ghibli and creator of some amazing and delightful animated feature films, notably including Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and one of my favorites, The Wind Rises. Rather than move into computer-based animation, the studio is lauded for continuing to produce animation with traditional hand-drawn techniques. Ten years after his ostensible retirement from filmmaking, Miyazaki is back with the weird and existential The Boy and the Heron (Kimitachi wa dô ikiru ka). And it’s… interesting.
As with many of Miyazaki’s works, The Boy and the Heron takes place in Japan during World War II. It focuses on Mahito (voice of Soma Santoki), a young boy whose mother has passed away during an intense opening sequence. When his father Soichi (voice of Takuya Kimura) is assigned to run an aircraft parts factory in a rural community, Mahito and his father move out of the city, meeting his new stepmother Natsuko (voice of Yoshino Kimura) as part of the transition.
After losing his mother, Mahito moves to the country with his father and new stepmother, Natsuko, and encounters a mysterious gray heron. When Natsuko suddenly goes missing, Mahito, guided by the heron, must find her by venturing into a dream-like realm where the living and the dead exist side by side. Being the new kid in a small town is predictably rough, and doubly so when his father decides that dropping Mahito off in a new car will impress the other boys. It doesn’t, but the bullying is fairly benign. Nonetheless, Mahito ends up bedridden, healing from an injury, when he begins to encounter a strange and mysterious grey heron. That talks (voice of Masaki Suda).
Natsuko is a charming stepmother, very solicitous towards Mahito and he’s quickly appreciative of her presence in his life, though he still greatly misses his mother. When he begins to explore their sprawling estate, against the advice of a posse of hoving grannies, he finds (with some enticement by the heron) that there’s an abandoned tower that might just offer a way for him to visit with his mother. When Natsuko vanishes, he quickly follows that trail, to find that the heron is a tour guide to a strange and surreal underworld where things are never what they seem.
At this point, the film switches to a fantastical vision of what might be the afterlife (infused with lots of traditional Japanese mythology) or something entirely different. There are super cute little creatures that yearn to fly up into the sky, flocks of pelicans who seek to keep the population of this netherworld in check, and mysterious denizens galore. Through it all, Mahito must wrestle with his feelings toward his deceased mother and his new stepmother Natsuko. A dutiful son, he’s also mindful of his father’s love for Natsuko, helping spur him on when things get peculiar.
Like a zen parable, the importance of most of Hayao Miyazaki’s film is the journey, not the destination. With a story like this, the outcome is predictable, but how the tale unwinds and the many experiences Mahito has along the way are fascinating and engaging. Sometimes they’re also more than a bit puzzling, and some of the imagery is weird and trippy. This would be quite a film to watch if you were under the influence of a mind-altering substance, that’s for sure!
The animation is lively and surprisingly cinematic. It’s a reminder of the joy of this sadly diminishing art form, and while there’s a lot animators can do with computers, the feel and emotiveness of hand-drawn animation is still darn hard to beat. A few images, like when the heron flies out of a beaming sun breaking through the clouds over a distant castle, are artwork pieces unto themselves, just beautiful works.
At times, however, the weirdness gets in the way of the narrative in a way that was much more infrequent in his earlier, more narrative works (like The Wind Rises). It’s generally kid-friendly but the youngest viewers might find some of the scenes disturbing or nightmare-inducing, so cautious parents of wee ones might want to preview the film first to ascertain if it’s good for everyone in the family. If you enjoy fanciful animation that explores some profound topics in an intriguing (and occasionally baffling) manner, then you might just love Miyazaki’s latest film, The Boy and the Heron.