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The Boy and The Heron

This article will contain spoilers!!

After years of announcing and rescinding his retirement, Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki returned to write and direct a new movie, The Boy and The Heron. The last film he worked on for the studio was ten years ago, so this was a much-anticipated release for Ghibli fans. To make matters more exciting, the English voice cast was another star-studded list, including Robert Pattinson, Gemma Chan, and Florence Pugh. Mark Hamill and Christian Bale, both of whom were featured as voice actors in earlier Ghibli movies (Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, respectively), were also featured. 

I was incredibly excited to see the film, though I admit I went in with high expectations due to the studio’s and Miyazaki’s other work, as well as the positive reviews I’m glad to report that I loved this film, as it is a beautiful depiction of grief, family, and legacy. 

The film has been said to be Miyazaki’s most personal story yet, and the feeling comes through. As seen in other Ghibli films, the aftermath of war is a big part of the movie, which is very much due to Miyazaki’s upbringing in Japan following World War II and his anti-war views. The film opens amid the war and the bombing of the main character’s, Mahito’s, hometown, which leads to the death of Mahito’s mother in a somewhat jarring opening scene.

The rest of the film centers around Mahito’s grief over his mother’s passing and struggle to move on, especially since his father has remarried his mother’s sister, Natsuko, who is pregnant (which is a whole mess in itself). Like other Ghibli/Miyazaki movies, magic is introduced through an ominous tower near the new house and a stalking heron. The vocal performance by Robert Pattinson playing the heron in English was a pleasant surprise. While many actors accustomed to voice acting just talk in their normal voices, Pattinson made it a performance, sounding utterly unrecognizable from his usual self. 

When Natsuko goes missing, Mahito finds her on a journey through an alternate magical universe filled with Ghibli-typical creatures, including several other terrifying birds. On his journey, Mahito is determined to find Natsuko despite not liking her much, perhaps out of a sense of duty to his family or his mother’s memory. He meets Himi–who we learn as the audience to be a younger version of his mother–who sets out to help him find Natsuko, especially since she is her sister, too. Even though Mahito doesn’t know yet that Himi is his mother, the two have a clear connection and quickly trust one another. Despite realizing close to the end of the film when they’re separated once more, his journey with Himi seems cathartic and helps him move his way to accept her death. Ultimately, Mahito can take Natsuko as a mother figure because of this closure with Himi. 

Legacy is another theme introduced in the film with the introduction of Himi and Natsuko’s Granduncle, a wizard and ruler of this world. He explains that he keeps the world balanced, but someone else must succeed him. When he offers the role to Mahito, he refuses, not wanting to be stuck in control of an unbalanced, issue-ridden universe. This seems to be a commentary on the role often forced on the younger generation to fix the problems of the older generations and how kids shouldn’t have to clean up the messes of their elders. The dynamic has also been likened to Miyazaki and his relationship with his grandson, son, or younger self. The potential for this to be about his relationship with his son, Goro, is particularly striking since the two are notoriously tumultuous. Goro Miyazaki has also worked on films for Studio Ghibli, though not to the level of success of his father. People have pointed out that The Boy and the Heron feels like an apology or a reassurance that his son doesn’t need to live up to the massive legacy he’s leaving behind with Studio Ghibli.

All in all, I thought this was yet another stunning work by Miyazaki and the studio, filled with all of the studio’s charm and creativity. The art style was as beautiful as ever, and it continues to stand out in animation. I noticed several nods to his earlier movies, such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. The soundtrack was another fantastic production by Joe Hisaishi, who has composed the music for Miyazaki’s films since the studio came to be. There’s something about Hayao Miyazaki’s films that invoke such deep emotions and a love of life that is hard to describe, and it’s incredible to experience that in the theater. If you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage it, though it might be a bit confusing to watch at first; Miyazaki’s movies are ones you have to sit with a bit to understand. Even if you’re unsure about the plot or the messaging, the film is steeped in love and care, and the feelings will come through. And if you have seen it… see it again. I know I will.

Written by Alec Conwell

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