Rant and Rave: Wading through worlds with “The Boy and the Heron”

Japan’s godfather of animation returns with a peculiar story of a young knightly boy, a mother longing for acceptance, and a taunting Grey Heron.

Studio Ghibli is reputably known for films that tug at the heartstrings; more than mere animations, their body of work serves as windows to the soul. These timeless creations encompass decades of life, love, and longing in a matter of minutes. Their stories, while embellished with fantasy and magic, evoke humanity in its purest form. 

For what is allegedly Hayao Miyazaki’s last film with Studio Ghibli, it seems only fitting that he returns to his patented themes of grief and acceptance, intertwining them beautifully with mystical Japanese folklore. The Boy and the Heron follows a young boy named Mahito Maki who, after losing his mother in a fire, moves with his father to a house in the Tokyo countryside. There, he meets a plethora of interesting beings that change his reality as he knows it: his new stepmother, a peculiar tower, and a nosy gray heron. 

Weaving together a tapestry

In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki takes his audience back to the familiar setting of Japan during the Second World War. The film starts in medias res: the grief-stricken Mahito Maki is forced to face the realities of war while he confronts major familial change. But this is no ordinary tale of grief, loss, and change. As Mahito learns to cope with his sorrow, he explores a strange new world together with the Heron on a quest to rescue his stepmother.

Studio Ghibli films are known for their flawless worldbuilding, marked by rich symbolism and imagery. True to its brand, The Boy and the Heron is no different. Like Ghibli classic Spirited Away, the film explores the mystic and magical. It introduces fantastical elements and creatures, and plays it off as normal everyday things. Even the protagonist, Mahito, the audience’s medium for exploring the world seems familiar with the world around him, needing little in the way of exposition to explain the strange world around him.

As the audience feasts their eyes on the unfamiliar elements, the film tends to forego exposition. Instead, it allows viewers to create their own context and develop their personal understanding of the narrative—a style that is rarely witnessed in movies today. Miyazaki is not simply throwing ideas on the wall to see what sticks. Every detail has a larger significance in the overall plot. 

Birds play an active role in the film’s imagery, used to communicate some of its deeper themes. Each bird represents an aspect of the war that the characters are experiencing. For example, the film capitalizes on the traditional Japanese association of death and funerals for The Heron, as it continually reminds Mahito of losing his mother in a bomb attack. The pelicans, on the other hand, which are seen feasting on the defenseless Warawara, depict the tragedy of war. They mirror how people are forced to make terrible decisions for their own survival. Lastly, the parakeets resemble the hyper-militaristic and fascist ethos of Imperial Japan, a reminder of how a society as such can often lead to its own demise.

Through these abstract and at times bewildering elements, The Boy and the Heron distinguishes itself from films that tackle similar themes and transcends its meaning to create something special.

A masterclass in characterization

While the themes of death and grief are quite common in popular media, Miyazaki approaches it differently. While a young boy such as Mahito is expected to lack the emotional capacity to confront loss, Miyazaki rejects this presumption through a character that is rather mature and accepting of his circumstances. Mahito may show a desire to shut the world out, but he does not become paralyzed by his grief. 

This reaction to grief and death also connotes a loss of innocence amid the horrors of war. Often, Mahito takes on responsibility, even choosing to save his stepmother willingly, knowing full well of the dangers that stand before him. His experiences, feelings, and traits blend seamlessly together to present a thorough and intricately layered character at the helm of the movie, which makes the story even more compelling. 

The excellent characterization is not amiss in the other figures of the film. Natsuko makes leaps and bounds despite her sporadic appearances throughout the movie. While she grieves for Mahito’s mother, her sister, she also deals with the challenges of pregnancy. Incredibly, Miyazaki uses Natsuko’s persona, not only to display and encapsulate the complexities of being a stepmother but also the struggles and uncertainties of parenthood and particularly, motherhood.  The film succeeds in telling Natsuko’s story without making her spread too thin or half-baked. Her growth especially elicits sympathy and resonates with the audience deeply.

Beneath an endless sky

Studio Ghibli delivers something truly exceptional with The Boy and the Heron, from its intricate and compelling characters all the way down to the dream-like, classic cartoon art style that the studio is known for. The slower, traditional animation suits the organic movements of the characters engaged in mundane activities such as dressing themselves or preparing a sandwich. The consistency in Studio Ghibli’s designs effectively creates timeless masterpieces that transport the soul from past ages to the present, regardless of when one chooses to watch them. 

Nearly seven years in the making, the film has tenderness woven into its every element.  Every close-up shot of the characters’ faces and their interactions with the world around them is crafted deliberately. From the lived-in maximalist abodes of the characters to the colorful pulsing ridges in caves, every detail is given full and purposeful attention. 

And while it may not be Miyazaki’s most heart-wrenching tale, it soothes a jaded spirit and offers a moment of repose from the pressures of reality. Mahito falls into the underworld and takes us with him. He exemplifies the ambivalence of growing up in turbulent times and finding kindness amid malice and violence. His story displays accepting grief in plain sight. In that sense, The Boy and the Heron’s message may seem a touch too simplistic, but it directly reflects how people tend to overcomplicate things that need only a moment of simple reflection. Sometimes, the question is not of how one will manage to carry literal worlds within their palms—that discovering how to live and exist as oneself is just as significant. 

Last film or not, The Boy and the Heron cements itself as one of Miyazaki’s most profound works, and yet another work under Studio Ghibli that will soon be a time-honored classic. It proves that artistry is undying and tenacious, and so is the human spirit. For in the most dire of times is hope born and in the certainty of time passing can we find peace.

Rating: 4.0/4.0
Clarisse Bernal

By Clarisse Bernal

Michael Anthony Gabriel Go

By Michael Anthony Gabriel Go

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