Legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki announced that he would retire after the release of the movie “The Wind Rises”, which was nominated for the Academy Award for best animation in 2013. It’s a common refrain for Miyazaki, who said he would retire after “Princess Mononoke” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.” But as his first film in a decade, the charming “The Boy and the Heron,” shows, he hasn’t stuck to retirement just yet.
1937’s “How Do You Live?” It is based on the book. “The Boy and the Heron” by Genzaburo Yoshino, which was given to Miyazaki by his mother when he was young, is an extremely personal project of the animation director. Like his other works, it is a fantastical and wildly imaginative film that merges the spiritual and human worlds with a story grounded in deeply relatable emotions, woven with an enduring sense of hope for the future despite the harshness of daily reality.
Set in a rural village outside Tokyo in the last days of World War II, “The Boy and the Heron” tells the story of Mahito, a young boy suffering from the loss of his mother who died in a fire. He and his father move away from the city to a village where his father runs a factory producing military aircraft and where Mahito meets his new stepmother, Natsuko, his mother’s sister. Mahito gets to know his strange new home, where seven grandmothers cluck and worry about him, and a pregnant Natsuko and an annoying gray heron won’t leave him alone.
The magical heron, with its frighteningly large human teeth and bulbous nose protruding from its beak, promises to take Mahito to his mother. But it isn’t until the sick Natsuko enters the forest that Mahito dares enter the mysterious, ruined tower on the grounds with the guide heron man and one of the grandmothers. Inside, they encounter an overgrown Great Uncle and become embroiled in a strange underworld, a parallel universe of sorts.
Determined to find and save Natsuko, Mahito encounters all kinds of exciting characters and creatures in the underworld; these include Kiriko, a brave and strong fisherwoman who carries a giant catch to feed the Warawara, bulbous white spirits who eat and soar into the sky. They are born as people on the other side. He befriends Himi, a firefighter, and encounters an army of hungry, human-sized lovebirds. No matter how strange and wild this alternate world is, everyone he meets seems to have a connection to the people and animals in their own lives, and through his adventures Mahito learns not only about himself, but also about those around him and those he has. loss.
Rendered with hand-drawn animation by Miyazaki and the artists at Studio Ghibli, there is a timeless quality to the unique beauty and style of “The Boy and the Heron.” This is a process that matches the humanity of their work, derived from careful observation. The attention to detail and small gestures in the background adds to the sense of connection we feel with the characters and their journeys. Despite the jaw-droppingly beautiful and stunningly surreal worlds and characters that Miyazaki creates, we never become invested in Mahito’s motivation to save both of his mothers, and we get to watch him grow and change along the way.
But at the core of this hero’s journey is also a deep existential question asked by Great Uncle, guardian of the magical tower where he keeps the universe in balance. He is looking for a successor and asks Mahito a question that resonates with both the historical setting and our current existence: Who will be the successor to our world? Who can ensure that the world remains beautiful and not a disgusting place?
In post-war Japan, during Miyazaki’s childhood, the world felt unstable and still feels unstable today. What can we pass on to future generations? Can we trust them to maintain the balance of the universe? These big questions drive the meaning and purpose of “The Boy and the Heron,” another of Miyazaki’s masterpieces that helps us see the beauty of life around us and consider the future of the universe more deeply. Thank goodness retirement doesn’t sit well with him.
“The Boy and the Heron” — 4 stars (out of 4)
Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPA Rating: PG-13 (some violent content/gore and smoking)
Where to watch: In theaters December 8