‘The Boy and the Heron’ movie review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Wonderland comes calling

With ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ Hayao Miyazaki taps once again into one of his favourite recurring themes, and pulls out all the stops to truly immerse us into his vision, indulgent and crowded at times though it may be

Updated - May 10, 2024 08:42 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2024 06:14 pm IST

A still from ‘The Boy and the Heron’

A still from ‘The Boy and the Heron’

In 2013, fans of Hayao Miyazaki really thought they’d seen the last of the Japanese filmmaking legend with the semi-autobiographical The Wind Rises, in what was a gentle, personal and emotional goodbye. It was perfect. 

But a decade on, it’s almost as if the 83-year-old Miyazaki has been coaxed out of retirement to show everyone that, despite all the advancements in modern-day animation and the rise of several new heirs to his legacy (many of them from the hallowed halls of Studio Ghibli itself), the magic of his distinct visual style and prose remains unmatched.

With The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki taps once again into one of his favourite recurring themes: that of a child dealing with grief in the backdrop of war who gets sucked into a mysterious fantasy world. Diving headlong into the drama Alice in Wonderland-style, the director pulls out all the stops to truly immerse us into his vision, indulgent at times though it may be.

We begin by meeting young Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki) in early 1940s Japan during wartime. His mother is killed in a hospital fire after a bombing raid on Tokyo, and his father — who heads a factory that manufactures fighter planes — ends up marrying his late wife’s younger sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). Mahito, who is still haunted by the loss of his mother in recurrent nightmares, has to relocate from Tokyo to a country estate run by Natsuko and her staff of squabbling old grannies, where he’s left to fend off his inner demons alone.

The Boy and the Heron (Japanese)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Voice cast (Japanese): Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki, Takuya Kimura
Run-time: 124 minutes
Storyline: A young boy struggling with the grief of his mother’s death, gets lured into a new parallel world by a talking heron

This is where the first of Miyazaki’s autobiographical touches kick in; the animator’s own father worked in a fighter plane factory, his family left Tokyo for the countryside when he was very young, and some of his earliest memories as a child involved burning infernos and the fear of war.

As Mahito’s inner turmoil and guilt at being unable to save his mother continues to confound his subconscious, he comes across a giant talking heron (voiced by Masaki Suda) who keeps trying to lure him into a forbidden derelict tower on the grounds of the estate. The heron first tells him that his mother isn’t dead after all; then to make matters worse, his stepmother/aunt Natsuko (who is now pregnant) disappears, and following this anthropomorphic bird into a parallel universe through the tower seems to be the key to finding her.

A still from ‘The Boy and the Heron’

A still from ‘The Boy and the Heron’

From thereon, the protagonist is drawn into a magical timeline populated by everything from fire maidens and man-eating parakeets to unborn human souls called the Warawara (right up there with Ghibli’s most enchanting creations) and ancient wizards. Miyazaki fans will be delighted by the familiarity of many such figures, as Mahito combats one surreal circumstance after another, still unable to differentiate between his dreams and real life; neither are we.

Aided by a superb voice cast (the English-language version features Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson Christian Bale, Gemma Chan and many others) and gorgeous orchestral score by long-time collaborator Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki eventually unleashes the full force of his imagination in this limitless world, but the narrative excites and exasperates in equal measure. You hardly have time to admire the ingenuity behind a character and their surroundings before being whisked away into a different realm or plot point; lavish though this may be, the striking clarity behind his previous outings like My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away is amiss. 

But is this exactly what Miyazaki wanted us to experience? The film’s original title How Do You Live? is taken from a 1937 Japanese novel by Genzaburō Yoshino (a favourite of the filmmaker), and at several points, it almost seems like he is posing that very question to the audience — and himself.

So, how do you live? How do you make your peace with the past and confront a grief that nobody else can quite understand? The Boy and the Heron provides no easy or clear-cut answers to this, and Miyazaki leaves us pondering well after the film has finished, as Mahito finds new meaning to love, family and loss in more ways than one.

Maybe we will too.

The Boy and The Heron is currently running in theatres

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