Never one to retire gracefully – and he’s got previous – Hayao Miyazaki’s latest swan song is a delectably well prickled endeavour, as rich in plot as visual flair. It’s a fantastical tale, for all the grounding themes of grief, loss and loneliness. An expansive world illuminates Miyazaki’s dazzling vistas, untethered perimeters and boundless imagination expanding across the screen. The film’s international title – The Boy and the Heron – is rather less prosaic than the Japanese original, which borrows from the 1937 novel How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino. It does, however, belie a stronger narrative drive here than in many of Miyazaki’s past, more cerebral, triumphs.

Much as The Boy and the Heron furrows familiar territory for Miyazaki, the film marks something of a left turn for the role of the autobiographical in his approach. This is as personal a film as the animator has ever made. Certainly, there is a great deal here drawn straight from Miyazaki’s own story. A painstaking honesty bleeds from character relationships, which benefit from a raw and lived in ear for humanity. It’s a story of stolen moments and the dream of a place where a lonely boy might go for one final conversation with the mother he lost all too soon. There is a very specific emotion that can only come from within. From lived experience.

It is no coincidence that the film opens in a war-torn 1941, the year of Miyazaki’s birth. Bombs reign over Tokyo and young Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki, Luca Padovan in the English dub) can but watch from afar as his mother is stolen from him in the devastation. It’s a cruel but beguiling sequence, gorgeous in its abstraction of angry red hues and loose impressionist lines. Mahito’s father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale) evacuates him to the rural estate of his mother’s childhood, marrying her younger sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan) in the process. Miyazaki captures the shift exquisitely. While Mahito’s countryside seclusion offers precision and familiarity in its recourse to the Ghibli house style, it’s unsettling in the juxtaposition.

Nearby, a run down tower awaits. It’s fairytale in design but Lewis Carroll in execution. Mahito is led there by a duplicitous grey heron (Masaki Suda/Robert Pattinson), externally elegant but very typically gnarled within. A tumble down the heron-hole transports Mahito to an upside down kingdom of quirks; a world populated by adorable floating embryos, cannibal parakeets and cultish pelicans. Down below, Mahito finds guidance from the brusque sailor Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki/Florence Pugh) and dainty Lady Himi (Aimyon/Karen Fukuhara), a sprite capable of erupting into sparking flame at will. At the centre of all sits Granduncle (Shōhei Hino/Mark Hamill), the wisened architect of all and a clear tribute to Miyazaki’s late partner in film Isao Takahata.

There really is a lot to take on here. The Boy and the Heron is, by no means, a hoping on point for the Ghibli uninitiated. And yet, for all its narrative complexity, the film’s artistic merit is abundant. Each hand-drawn frame presents a cornucopia of sumptuous artistic communication. All is scored by a peerless Joe Hisaish, whose gorgeous orchestral suites swell when required and submit when the animation alone must to the talking. As ever were, its scenes of flight that send the heart to its quickest flutter, the natural world exposed through wonderment and the counterbalance of underlying danger. Such is a thrill and Miyazaki feels it, breathes it, translates it. One day he will finally retire. We must consider ourselves fortunate that it was not today.

If the film is, perhaps, a shade less elegiacally dazzling than the likes of Spirited Away and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, it proves no less potently enchanting in execution. As tensions strain in each corner of our own world, there are lessons to be learned from Miyazaki’s kingdom of the symbolic.


The Boy and the Heron has credentials as one more coming of age fantasy but explores too the unanswered question on contemporary lips as to how we are to live, to find wonder, in a world mired by conflict and determined to tumble beneath us.

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