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Rejecting Legacy in 'The Boy and the Heron'

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

'Hayao Miyazaki's last movie' is a tough label to put on a film; it carries with it the weight of the famous director's long and storied career. The Boy and the Heron is, theoretically, Miyazaki's last film. However, The Wind Rises (2013), was also supposed to be that movie, so it's particularly interesting to see Miyazaki's return 10 years later with a new 'last movie' that in some ways purports to put the period on the long and beautiful sentence that contains his life's work. It's interesting to put these two movies in sequence, as both address the far-reaching consequences of World War II on Japanese life, but from completely opposite ends. They are also primarily focused on how we cannot control the legacies of the things we build. The world, and what we create in it, will keep going after we're gone. That may be horrifying, but it's also beautiful.

Image: Studio Ghibli/GKIDS

It doesn't take a deep dive into his films to notice that Hayao Miyazaki is a man with a deeply cynical outlook on the world, and what adults have done to it. Such themes are the foundational text of Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Castle in the Sky, and a background theme in most of his other works. And yet, with The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki argues that in the face of a world that contains such pain and horror, the bravest thing that we can do is choose to keep living in it.

I'm a longtime Miyazaki (and Studio Ghibli) fan. My Dad rented Kiki's Delivery Service from Blockbuster when I was a toddler, and I made my family watch it at least twelve times (source: my older brother). Since then, I've seen all but one of his movies, which allows me to make my next statement from a well-informed position. Miyazaki typically has two storytelling modes that he oscillates between: meditations on the follies of humanity vis-a-vis war and environmental catastrophe (Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, The Wind Rises), or explorations of how children see the world and grow within it (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Ponyo). He rarely does both.

In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki mixes living in the shadow of grief with how children navigate the world to create a movie that is fantastically beautiful, delightfully funny, and deeply sad. His protagonist, the boy Mahito, is dealing with grief and loss that leaves him feeling disconnected from the world, even as he tries to keep fulfilling his role as a good son. Eventually he is drawn into a fantastical world, in which he goes on a transformative journey that eventually returns him to his home, where he is forever changed. That last sentence is a boilerplate Ghibli movie plot in a lot of ways! It's the nuances of why Mahito embarks on his journey, and the people he meets along his way, that transform The Boy and the Heron from an adventure epic into a simpler and more fundamental statement on what it means to live.

It's telling that the Japanese title for this movie is How Do You Live?, the same name as a famous 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino that also tells the story of a young boy trying to understand the world around him (I highly recommend the novel, by the way). While the two aren't directly related, they tackle very similar themes and share interesting narrative throughlines, in ways that I cannot share without spoiling the movie. And you should really, really go see this movie unspoiled, to experience the weirdness and beauty and melancholy for yourself. Much like Yoshino's novel, Miyazaki refuses to tell the viewer what it means to be a good person; the characters of The Boy and the Heron are flawed, and frustrating, and very human. They're scared of the future, they love their family except for when they hate their family, and they come to understand that they have to live with the choices they make.

It's really hard to write about Miyazaki movies, because I think the viewer benefits from seeing them unburdened from any expectations. The Boy and the Heron is the visual marvel you'd expect, full of beautiful vistas, detailed, lived-in rooms, and really, really delicious-looking food. The sound design and score are unusually minimalist for a Miyazaki movie in ways that highlight how the story dances between the childlike and the adult. Sometimes the story and animation reference previous works in ways that someone like me might notice, but it feels more like Miyazaki returning to and highlighting specific images and themes that he wants to give new life, like another ring of a bell. This is not a movie about fanservice or celebrating past successes. The Boy and the Heron is preoccupied with a question that transcends these topics:

What will you do with the time you have?

The answer, Miyazaki finds, is just as bittersweet as the question itself.

So: you should go see The Boy and Heron. And don't worry about dub vs. sub, either. The dubbed voice cast is great, as they usually are for Miyazaki's films. You will have a transformative, all-encompassing time either way. This is a movie I will carry with me for a long, long time.

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