The Boy and the Heron: Miyazaki’s Springtime Still

Art by Allyzabela Fernandez/THE FLAME

Rich in references from the novel How Do You Live? (1937) by Genzaburo Yoshino, The Boy and the Heron was a miserable dejection and a journey to acceptance. Hayao Miyazaki draws inspiration as it follows a boy stuck in the big city of Tokyo, seeking guidance in life. 

Similarly, in the film, Mahito mirrors the World War II experiences of Miyazaki, who needs to flee Tokyo while his father works in a fighter plane factory. The altered realities of Mahito, shaped by war, set the film’s introduction, from the Tokyo hospital explosion to failing to part ways from the dead and paralleling Miyazaki.

Spectators who enter the cinema will experience the feeling of childhood anguish and how to properly grieve its lingering pain. It was a gathering where new enthusiasts and lifelong Studio Ghibli fans witnessed a new production, marking a surreal journey that echoed the artistry of director Miyazaki. 

At 83, Miyazaki secured his first Golden Globe award, making The Boy and the Heron a historic triumph. The film also claimed to be the first non-English animated feature to bag this prestigious award.

Miyazaki, taking a break after his 2013 film The Wind Rises, initially sparked speculation that The Boy and the Heron might be his final work. With the film taking a decade to fruition, speculations resurfaced on whether it might indeed be Miyazaki’s farewell film.

For new viewers of Studio Ghibli, appreciating The Boy and the Heron may pose a challenge. The film took a unique turn as Miyazaki stepped into the role of the protagonist. The decision came about because the creator felt a need to tell his story in his own words, especially narrating his first-hand experiences during the war and journeying to retirement. 

Toshio Suzuki, the animation studio’s president, categorized The Boy and the Heron as Miyazaki’s personal film. The film’s protagonist, Mahito Maki, is adjacent to Miyazaki; this added a layer of uniqueness that may make it less accessible as a standalone masterpiece than Ghibli’s other renowned creations.

The Boy and the Heron’s positioning as a personal film prompted a call for a more profound understanding, inviting audiences to appreciate the layers woven into this cinematic piece by knowing more about the history of Studio Ghibli. To fully grasp the narrative and connect with the protagonist’s choices, viewers may need to delve into the intricacies of Miyazaki’s journey in creating art, contemplating the new path that will unfold when his oeuvre eventually retires.

Initially, the film explored an unexplainable feeling of the young protagonist, Mahito Maki, as it showed a flashback of his daunting experience during the war and the tragic Tokyo hospital explosion involving his biological mother. Miyazaki’s denial and doubts about not having an heir were evident. They were marked by his intentional anti-war animations, which were consistent, making Mahito, influenced by this internal conflict, an independent decision-maker to leave Tokyo all at once to meet his stepmother.

Expectations were grounded in the animation studio’s reputation for delivering magical narratives with rich characters and mesmerizing plotlines. A bird classified as a heron placed beauty on the big screen when Mahito arrived at the new residence. While the heron’s entrance was intriguing, it remained just that, a riveting bird. Despite leading Mahito to the underworld from the old tower, the film’s title implied a strong friendship and tandem between the boy and the heron. 

However, this connection lacked a more substantial justification, not indicating that the chemistry between the heron and Mahito is nonexistent. Instead, the expectation set by the English title fell slightly short, as there were no notable interactions between the two characters.

The film’s musical score, a hallmark of Ghibli productions, enhanced the magical experience. The use of classical piano and the beauty of the Japanese language in the soundtrack contributed to its timeless appeal. It has always been an immersive realism. The production perfected this animation style through decades of work; specifically in this film, it is felt within Mahito and his longing. Every Ghibli film has the unique ability to transport viewers to visually appealing worlds that, for younger audiences, embody a storybook come to life.

While The Boy and the Heron adhered to the studio’s pattern of introducing new worlds and characters, it took a different narrative approach by delving into Mahito’s quest for identity and for his biological mother. This distinct part of the story mirrored Miyazaki’s search for a successor to uphold the esteemed legacy of his iconic works. And perhaps, retelling this through Mahito alleviated his frustrations.

Miyazaki carefully explored the theme of harsh realities, emphasizing the delicate balance between beauty and bounty. The encounter with the mysterious Warawara species that meticulously transformed from squishy glowing balls to human form is a testament to Miyazaki’s creative prowess in world-building. 

The Warawara characters resembled a nostalgic experience, evoking a connection to Miyazaki’s past works, such as the signature elements of entering new worlds and meeting unique animals personified as humans or vice versa. 

Mahito’s understanding of the underworld became more profound as the warawara floated on the pitch-black sky, a moment of reflection on unborn souls finding a home in the underworld, floating to be born as humans. His encounter with Lady Himi, using her fire powers to save the Warawara from starving pelicans, left a profound mark on Mahito.

Lady Himi was a character who added clarity to the storyline. Her guidance became instrumental in Mahito’s self-discovery. It led to a full-circle moment that answered Mahito, figuring out why he was in the underworld. Mahito’s motivations became clear as he restored the balance in his life and lineage and eventually met his Great Uncle.

The film also introduced a thought-provoking quotation appending the mystery and having too much contemplation: “Those who seek my knowledge shall die.” This enigmatic statement was a metaphor for the unexplainable aspects of life and dreams. It resonated with Miyazaki’s underlying message, suggesting that the absence of a successor may not stem from an inherent inability to continue his imaginative and immersive empire of films but rather from the irreplaceable nature of his artistic legacy. With this, it transcended initial expectations of a boy-and-heron tandem. 

Instead, the film’s focus on Mahito’s self-discovery became a humbling and heroic experience. Despite the title suggesting a fairytale bond between Mahito and the heron, it showcased the depth of their trust and friendship as their character and within the narrative.

Though the audience may initially perceive the film’s last few moments as anticlimactic, Mahito’s ending perfectly concludes his decisions and stays authentic. The same goes for Miyazaki; he ends the film with a resolution that does not thoroughly answer all the worldly questions but gives a springtime despite the adversaries. In addition, Lady Himi’s revelation and the tower’s loss of color provided a satisfying realization for the audience. The Boy and the Heron is not just mere entertainment; it is a new era for Studio Ghibli. This film will surely resonate with audiences of all ages who are grieving, dwelling, and growing up. 

Miyazaki’s masterful storytelling, rooted in his novel inspiration and struggles in exploring family dynamics, love and career were also evident in the film. It allowed the audience to appreciate the artistry and the roots of his metaphysical worlds, becoming a drive to build a formidable empire of animation history, shaping it forever.

Overall, The Boy and the Heron encouraged the viewers to reflect on adulthood, ratify natural death, believe in a mother’s love and reminisce childhood memories, whether in twilight or springtime. F


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