Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Soma Santoki/Robert Pattinson, Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale, Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan
Synopsis: A young boy named Mahito yearning for his mother ventures into a world shared by the living and the dead. There, death comes to an end, and life finds a new beginning. A semi-autobiographical fantasy from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki.
The Boy and the Heron is an animated masterpiece and one of the year’s best films. Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film opus works on many levels. It is a family film of profound humanity, exquisite artistry, and the simple joy of creativity. On the surface, the “Godfather of Manga” seems too high-brow for mass audience consumption, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Miyazaki is akin to Tolstoy in the way that he wrote for the masses and the working class. Miyazaki is practically cut from the same cloth, evoking the interconnectedness of life with stunning imagery and a youthful exuberance for children of all ages, young and old.
The Boy and the Heron starts with Miyazaki using the well-known director’s simplified designs, particularly for the characters. Here, the story is set in 1943, at the height of the Pacific War. In a devastatingly lyrical scene, 12-year-old Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki/Robert Pattinson) loses his mother during an air raid while she works as a nurse at a local hospital. Fast forward months later, Mahito’s father, Shoichi (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale), who owns a munitions factory, remarries his late wife’s sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan).
Obviously, it’s a confusing time for Mahito. His father produces the same type of explosives that killed his mother, and his aunt is a younger, spitting image of her. Now, he’s abandoned at his “new mother’s” estate for safety reasons while his father returns to work. Mahito has no friends or anyone his age to socialize with. Natsuko is pregnant, which makes matters even more complex, further playing into the child’s fears that he will eventually be replaced, just like his mother. Mahito begins to act out, treating his new mother as if she’s hot to the touch, coldly distancing himself from her as if he accepts her; the memory of his mother will be lost forever.
As the story progresses, Mahito is attacked by a mysterious gray heron. In an act that seems like a form of diversion and as a way to cope with his grief, Mahito takes it upon himself to end the feud between the gawky-looking bird and himself once and for all. However, in a twist of fate, the heron tells Mahito his mother is, in fact, alive. While chasing his new feathered nemesis, Mahito runs across a sealed-up tower in ruins near his aunt’s home. Now, arming himself only with a bow and arrow made up of the heron’s feathers, Mahito searches for hope or, perhaps, closure.
The Boy and the Heron is a rare work of art that can be accessible to everyone. Funny, charming, exciting, and suspenseful while leading to an incredibly moving conclusion, few films explore grief with this type of tenderness and care. However, that doesn’t mean the viewer can’t have some fun along the way. Where Mr. Miyazaki’s film excels is in getting lost in the supporting characters. You have a fearless chatter of man-eating parakeets that go from frightening to downright wondrous. The reveal of the heron’s true identity is splendid and adds comic relief throughout. Then you have the handful of “old maids,” who look like weathered and aged Precious Moments porcelain figurines that were lost to time forever. These are all exceptional and exciting moments packed with humor and a splash of grandeur.
The legendary filmmaker’s “simple” visuals are brought to the forefront. However, you’ll notice that everything in the background is an endless array of breathtaking paintings. It feels like an homage that evokes masterpieces from Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro. As scenes unfold, the backgrounds come alive with classic works, resembling a stroll through a breathtaking garden with cherry blossom trees. The environment inside the tower is akin to grand oil paintings, where you can observe the details of the tapestries on the wall. The stunning shading of the yellow room is downright Confucian, evokes Hokusai (or even Edward Hopper) where Mahito meets his Granduncle, hints not at joy or warmth but at the idea that young cocky energy and restless vitality should proceed with caution when facing overwhelming power.
Mr. Miyazaki and cinematographer Atsushi Okui use various color palettes to reflect the emotional state of the characters throughout the journey in the script. The Boy and the Heron‘s interconnectedness revolves around systems, not just Mahito but the family as a whole. In line with the director’s holistic approach to the family unit and how the group functions within their world, including the environment, The Boy and the Heron is a grand adventure full of compassion, mindfulness, loving-kindness, and self-awareness that emerges from dark times to the other side where the light awaits.
If this is Mr. Miyazaki’s grand farewell, he did so with an instant classic that’s one of the year’s best films.