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Hayao Miyazaki Is Thinking About the End

Hayao Miyazaki Is Thinking About the End

The Boy and the Heron, which could be the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s final film, is more of a bold reinvention than a somber farewell.

A still from “The Boy and the Heron”
Studio Ghibli

The first sound in Hayao Miyazaki’s new movie, The Boy and the Heron, is an air-raid siren, heard over a screen of black that quickly explodes into tumult and destruction. It’s 1943, and a firebombing has set a Tokyo hospital ablaze, killing the mother of 12-year-old Mahito Maki, the movie’s protagonist. Miyazaki depicts the incident with nightmarish bluntness: Mahito running toward the building, then being held back as flames consume the entire screen, overwhelming any chance of saving his mother.

The death is a moment of shocking reality from a filmmaker and an animator who, for decades, has blurred real life with fantasy, building a reputation as one of cinema’s foremost masters of dreamlike imagery. The scene also has a jarringly autobiographical edge: Although Miyazaki’s mother did not perish in World War II, his early childhood was defined by the conflict, and he had to evacuate his home at the age of 3 when it was bombed by the United States. The Boy and the Heron is Miyazaki’s first film in 10 years, and given his age—he’s 82—it could be his cinematic swan song (though he has proved extremely good at failing to retire). But what’s most stunning is how ambitious its storytelling feels. Even now, the Studio Ghibli co-founder is finding new ways into his narratives.

Most of the movie’s first half is solidly planted on the ground: After the death of his mother, Mahito moves to a sparsely habited countryside estate with his father, who has married his mother’s younger sister. There, he struggles to get used to his relationship with his “new mother,” Natsuko; is bullied at school; and is fussed over by a group of comically elderly maids (the one element in the film’s early acts that feels like classic Miyazaki). The melancholy tone of these scenes resembles the opening act of My Neighbor Totoro, probably Miyazaki’s best-known work, which also follows children exploring bucolic bits of nature while wrestling with the absence of a parent.

In The Boy and the Heron, Mahito does not meet delightful woodland sprites; instead, he crosses paths with a menacing gray heron who speaks to him in a guttural growl and challenges him to explore a crumbling tower on the estate’s grounds. Once there, the story shifts into something more typical for Miyazaki, as Mahito enters a fantasy world where, the heron asserts, he may be able to see his mother again. When he begins to navigate a dreamscape filled with talking birds, shifting landscapes, and mysterious, ghostly creatures, it’d be easy to think the film was about to settle into recognizable whimsy.

Not so much. The Boy and the Heron trades in all of the imagery Miyazaki excels at, but uses it to tell a darker tale of love and loss. While Mahito moves from realm to realm, he’s both helped and opposed by the heron, who turns out to be a gnomish creature of mischief wearing an elaborate costume. The dreamy logic of the film often feels out of control: Mahito is with a warrior pirate queen at one moment, then contending with a host of marshmallow-shaped bubble creatures who supposedly represent unborn human souls, then doing battle with a kingdom of giant parakeets. And he’s sometimes accompanied by a young magical woman named Himi, whose purpose seems intentionally opaque.

For a good chunk of the film, it’s hard to know if all of these disparate threads will come together. Miyazaki’s previous film, 2013’s fantastic The Wind Rises, was also one of his most mundane works, a loose biography of the inventor of Japan’s Zero warplanes, which formed the backbone of the country’s World War II air force. Perhaps, I thought, The Boy and the Heron would end up feeling like a counterpart—an inscrutable storm of strangeness to follow that sobering realism. But at the end, the puzzle pieces begin to come together. Himi’s identity becomes clearer, and Mahito’s true mission in this dimension is revealed: to meet its inventor, a wizened old man wrestling with the legacy of the place he’s created.

It’s easy to say that this “Granduncle,” with his tangled gray hair and thousand-yard stare, is Miyazaki himself—an old master reckoning with what he’s going to leave behind. (The inclusion mirrors Martin Scorsese’s self-insertion at the end of Killers of the Flower Moon, where he openly reflected on the purpose of telling true-crime stories for an audience’s entertainment.) I’ve been pondering other readings, but whether or not the director is drawing himself on-screen, it eventually becomes obvious what The Boy and the Heron is about: the ways we come to terms with loss, and how best to think about the memories that arrive after a great departure. What’s important is that the film is alive and awake with energy. This is no marble mausoleum of a movie—it’s more of a bold reinvention than a somber farewell.

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