I was thinking about my mother
I was thinking about what’s mine
I was living my life like a Hollywood
But I was dying, dying on the vine
–– John Cale
It was a couple years ago that I can remember seeing images from, or maybe just a poster for, Earwig and the Witch, a latter-period Studio Ghibli work directed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki’s own son, Goro (himself an accomplished director). I had a distinctly negative reaction to these images, their gaudy computer-generated aesthetic evoking the hideous look of other modern anime “auteur” Shinji Aramaki. While something of a latecomer to the weeb life who can’t speak with complete and utter authority on trends, movements, styles of the form, I could make a healthy guess that the master Hayao felt some discontent with this direction. Thus we have him rolling up his sleeves and coming out of retirement a decade after his supposed career-capper The Wind Rises.
Whereas that 2013 film saw Miyazaki––a man with distinct sensitivity to children’s perspectives––deciding to close on the very adult tale of a man bearing blood on his hands from World War II, he returns to the well, somewhat, in The Boy and the Heron (I much prefer its Japanese title How Do You Live?). Beginning in the middle of a Toyko fire during the war, young man Mahito’s life is thrown into quick disarray. Quickly check Miyazaki’s Wikipedia page to find a quotation about him noting that one of his first memories was the “bombed-out cities” of his home country during that period––though Mahito faces a tragedy Hayao didn’t, his mother perishing in the flames. Soon relocating to the countryside with his strict father Shoichi––who is long past Mahito’s mother, having remarried her younger sister Natsuko––the boy faces growing pains beyond belief. His face smacked with a rock and shooting a burst of blood was enough of a shocking image from an anime film to make the press-screening audience gasp.
But we will, of course, venture into the fantastical with the titular heron of the North American release (a character who I imagine will be voiced by Danny DeVito or, God forbid, Josh Gad in the English dub). Being taunted by this vocal, full-toothed bird who makes reference to Mahito’s deceased mother, the film gradually shifts into the magical. Mahito dreams of the fallen matriarch calling him out in flames––linking how cinema is itself the “dream machine” that can resurrect the dead, an obvious yet highly effective image, and also one cogent of a young boy’s perspective.
At the point where reality and fantasy have collapsed, Mahito finds himself in a world defined by flight, another key image of Miyazaki’s oeuvre. With a number of pelicans and a whole parakeet society ruled by an iron-willed fascistic king (who has something that looks like the Tesla logo on his chest), the film delivers on spectacular animation that could probably delight even the youngest of children. But I can remember when I first saw Spirited Away, almost against my will, as a middle-schooler, and how slowly but surely the melancholy tone and patient storytelling gradually won over my morose-kid sensibilities. As one of the world’s most enduringly popular filmmakers, it can be easy to forget how quiet Miyazaki’s cinema actually is. And what defines The Boy and the Heron is its wistful feeling of looking back. Its form––being atypical to the current direction of animation in his home country is, as a gesture, nostalgic in and of itself––and more importantly content both suggest an elderly man returning to his oldest wounds. The air of “last dance” hangs over every venture into another dimension. Its final image, shockingly quaint, perhaps ranks up there with Dreyer’s Gertrud.
The Boy and the Heron screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and will receive a theatrical release beginning on November 22.