Download:: NYFF Review: The Boy and the Heron
The Wind Rises would have made a fine send-off for Hayao Miyazaki. The tender 2013 biopic of fighter plane engineer Jiro Horikoshi took a more adult approach than history’s greatest animator had before while still touching classic Studio Ghibli themes like our moral responsibility to the world/nature and an aversion to war. If ranking Miyazaki’s filmography, it lands comfortably in the middle, which, considering his penchant for turning out classic after classic after classic, is hardly a dismissal by any definition. But here we are a decade later and the master has come out of retirement with a film that, if it is his last as was previously suggested (but not really anymore), feels at once truer to the sensibilities he’s known best for and like his most personal work to date.
The Boy and the Heron feels effortless from its first frame. The story combines autobiographical elements from Miyazaki’s childhood with a fantastical story that structurally and thematically borrows from Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke while boasting a visual originality that delights, thrills, and stuns. It’s a film only Miyazaki himself could make, and often a stroke of genius.
We meet Mahito (Soma Santoki) just as his mother is about to die in a Tokyo hospital fire during World War II. The animation is immediately a step up from all the director’s previous work, with Mahito’s emotional sprint to the burning hospital evoking the signature blur effect of Wong Kar Wai’s more motion-heavy sequences. Some time after her death, Mahito’s father (Takuya Kimura) marries Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), the younger sister of Mahito’s mother, and they move into her secluded estate in the country. The film spends a lot of time here before the story leaps into fantasy, exploring Mahito’s rejection of Natsuko, who is now eight-months pregnant with Mahitos’s future half-sibling. Carefully rendered facial animations and emotionally precise writing once again pull off Miyazaki’s greatest magic trick: realistically placing the audience in the headspace of a specific point in our childhood.
As these dynamics are established, a mysterious grey heron seemingly with human teeth (Masaki Suda) taunts Mahito by telling him his mother is alive somewhere…else. The heron then lures Mahito and his new stepmother into an alternate world where the living and the dead co-exist across time and space. As with the real world, however, there are those with power and those who wish to claim it. This place is ruled by Natsuko’s great uncle (Shōhei Hino), who we’re told disappeared long ago after “reading too many books made him insane.” He holds this upside-down world together, sending new life to our world while housing the living dead displaced through time. Grasping for control of that spiritual and metaphysical balance is a society of violent humanoid parakeets and their king, who capture Natsuko and plan to eat her and her unborn child.
Miyazaki has always been one to weave together a complex tapestry of characters and ideas, but The Boy and the Heron holds itself together beautifully as it introduces everyone and everything. There are creatures that resemble the circle of life itself, badass female characters, and a conscious effort to help us understand every point of view the people and factions central to the conflict harbor. And it’s all done with elegance and whimsy through the wide-eyed world view of Mahito.
The film plays so smooth and refined that it starts to feel like Miyazaki is merely playing the hits, as anyone who’s seen Spirited Away will recognize the many similarities the two share. But for just about every doubt that surfaces, a detail, surprise, or emotion is around the corner that sucks you back into the film. Mahito’s conflict rings true as he grapples with both the beginning and end of life as we know it. The Boy and the Heron is ultimately about the cycle of existence and where we find ourselves within it, be us creators or bystanders. Miyazaki has made a handful of coming-of-age films before, but never one where the lead character felt so dangerous to themselves and to others. There’s a lot at stake if Mahito can’t find his own truth outside of grief and suffering.
On top of all that, Miyazaki manages to sneak in meta commentary on the nature of telling one’s own story (oddly, not unlike Steven Spielberg did last year with The Fabelmans). Mahito, his fictionalized surrogate, is faced with the tapestry that is his family history as he races toward an uncertain destiny in a world where perhaps his birth mother didn’t die. The appeal of rewriting his own life story may just be too enticing a deal.
The third act does end up rushing along the story in a way that takes away a bit from the resolution, but most of the themes still land with the power and grace audiences have come to expect from Miyazaki. The Boy and the Heron is as exciting as it is poignant, as funny as it is harrowing, and as intimately self-reflective as it is grandiose and awe-inspiring. This is one of the all-time great filmmakers not just making a comeback but showing us a deeper side of himself by remixing elements from his best work to create something familiar yet uniquely close to the heart. With any luck, further retirement efforts on his part will be like birds migrating south for the winter, their return promised when life begins anew.