How Studio Ghibli’s latest film captures Miyazaki’s lasting legacy
Ten years ago, Hayao Miyazaki, award-winning filmmaker and Studio Ghibli head director, said his goodbyes with his last feature film, “The Wind Rises.” What could he possibly have left to say after a decades-long career of creating anime classics? Miyazaki is back and brings Studio Ghibli to new heights (and lows) with “The Boy and the Heron,” a chaotic, confusing, yet charming puzzle of a film.
Like most Ghibli movies, Miyazaki finds the chaos in the calm with heavy doses of anti-war sentiment in his latest film. Set in Japan amidst World War II, “The Boy and the Heron” follows Mahito (Soma Santoki), a city boy whose mother dies in a horrifying hospital fire. His father sends him to the countryside to live with his soon-to-be stepmother and aunt, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), where he struggles to fit in at his new school while battling his grief. After a talking heron (Masaki Suda) living near the river tells Mahito that his mother is still alive, Natsuko mysteriously vanishes into an abandoned tower, leading to an otherworldly journey where Mahito searches for Natsuko and his mother.
Of course, like any Ghibli work, the art of “The Boy and the Heron” is phenomenal. Unlike the Miyazaki classics of the late 1900s, each scene is dynamic, with animation extending beyond poster-painted backgrounds. Because so much of the film’s emphasis is on silence, the sweeping grandiose displays of music typical of Joe Hisaishi is lacking; however, the snippets we do get from the score are delicately poetic and equally moving.
While the art of the latest installment of the “Ghibli-verse” reaches new heights, “The Boy and the Heron” is an attempt at capturing the magic of “Spirited Away” and the maturity of “The Wind Rises” with the storytelling of none. Mahito checks all of the boxes of a typical Ghibli protagonist: a melancholic child in discovery of the world around him (think Chihiro from “Spirited Away” and Anna from “When Marnie was There.”) Instead of painting a character that transforms from a quiet observer to a universal hero, the audience isn’t as motivated to root for Mahito as they do with other protagonists of Ghibli films.
The first act of the movie is incredible – Miyazaki does what he does best with brilliant character introductions and worldbuilding. Still, the slow pace and silence of the first half of the movie primes the audience into a tear-jerking second act, which then surprises the audience as it quickly unravels into a discombobulated frenzy.
As impossible as “too much surrealism” sounds, the narrative completely loses its poignancy in surrealist dream logic. The final act becomes convoluted with an underdeveloped tower narrative, excessive (yet awkwardly not enough) worldbuilding, and forced character arcs. The storytelling feels clumsy instead of intentional, with slapstick bird poop and misplaced world transitions – almost as if several drafts of Miyazaki’s final great ideas were stitched together with minimal editing.
Even the “point” of “The Boy and the Heron” has become a point of contention with hundreds of critics and audience members alike, which arguably adds to its abstract artistry. Mahito coming to terms with his own grief and isolation explores existentialism without falling into nihilism; he doesn’t just battle with the grief of his lost mother, but also with reality. With the few pieces of dialogue near the end of the film, themes of legacy and destiny come into play, mirroring the future of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s career. In a way, the movie is a metaphor for Miyazaki’s life, yet, to a casual viewer with little background on Miyazaki’s experiences, the parallels between Mahito and Miyazaki’s childhoods are lost in translation.
As a Studio Ghibli film, “The Boy and the Heron” is good, but not the masterpiece many have called it. Although visually impeccable, Miyazaki definitely sacrificed coherency of the plot to make a feature that is truly personal to himself. Behind all of the speculation, the only one who can truly unravel the madness of “The Boy and the Heron” is Miyazaki himself. Despite rumors, this film is not his last. His legacy will only continue to build, long after his final goodbyes.
“The Boy and the Heron” is rated PG-13 for some violent content/bloody images and smoking. It was released in the United States on Dec. 8, 2023, and is now playing in theaters everywhere, including Regal Majestic Stadium 20 & IMAX, AMC Wheaton Mall 9 and AMC Montgomery 16.
Sophia Li. Hey, it's Sophia, SCO's blog editor and fact checker! I love eating hot pot and any other spicy foods. More »