In a year where we have been fortunate enough to get new films from some of the most legendary masters of cinema, there have been a number of projects that I have been eagerly anticipating. Perhaps the biggest one for much of the year has to be Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron, marking the legendary animator's first film since 2013's The Wind Rises. Since that film, it was thought that Miyazaki was retired, but when it was announced that he was returning for another film, fans of his work rejoiced. Originally titled, How Do You Live?, the film's details were largely kept under wraps, and with the grim possibility that this might be his last film, speculation surrounded this film from the get-go. Would it be a quieter, more introspective film, or a full-fledged dive into one of his fanastical worlds? The answer is: Both. With The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki has made a film that touches on grief, escapism, and sees him looking back at his life and career, all while delivering a thrilling adventure with fascinating characters. If this is really going to be Miyazaki's last film, he has managed to put everything he has into it, and that alone makes The Boy and the Heron one of his finest works.
In the midst of the Pacific war, a young boy named Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki, Luca Padovan in the English dub) settles into his new life in the Japanese countryside while grieving the loss of his mother. A Grey Heron (voiced by Masaki Suda, Robert Pattinson in the English dub) begins to bother him, constantly flying around his house and mentioning his mother to him. Mahito decides to fight back, but when the Heron lures him into a mysterious tower and says that his mother is still alive, he goes on a quest to find her, venturing into a fantastical world filled with strange creatures.
Given that this is Miyazaki, it comes as no surprise that the animation is beautiful. He is a true master of his craft, and the work that him and his fellow animators bring to the table is painstakingly crafted. There are so many beautiful images all throughout the film, and the character design is superb. I particularly like how the Grey Heron is designed, but I won't get too much into this here for the sake of not spoiling the film. Some of the creatures we encounter, such as the giant parakeets and the ghostlike Warawara also caught my eye, and help draw the viewer into the fantasy world Mahito is traveling through. The overall look of the film is perfectly in line with Miyazaki's distinct style, and downright astounding from start to finish.
What amazes me just as much as the visual components of the world Miyazaki brings to life in this film is what he brings to the script. Through the adventure that Mahito goes on, we explore his grief and complex emotions regarding his mother's death. The film itself could be viewed as an allegory for how we process grief or other trauma, as Mahito is trying to find some type of peace in his life. The world he ventures into is an escape from the real world, and when he is given an opportunity to stay there, he honestly contemplates it. It mirrors the grief process of many, where some look for something to fill the hole left behind by the loss of someone special. As someone who is going through his own grieving process, this hit very close to home, as many of the complicated feelings that Mahito is feeling are the same that I've felt over the past year or so. So much of Mahito's journey in the film relates to how he handles his grief, and he faces a choice of trying to escape the reality of the situation or confronting it head-on. His inner conflict, and the place the film arrives at resonated with me on such a tremendous level, and speaks to the grieving process so strongly.
Another reading of the film has to do with Miyazaki's legacy. He is no stranger to exploring his own personal issues in his work, and this film sees him once again returning to this well. This is mostly explored through the character of Mahito's Granduncle, an architect who disappeared and created the fantasy world much of the film takes place in. The Granduncle is obsessed with maintaining a specific balance in the world, not too much unlike how Miyazaki approaches his films. He is very detail-oriented, and tends to put all of his energy into his work. This film seemingly sees him questioning whether he should have spent more time with his loved ones, as there is a sadness to the Granduncle character that suggests this. The film also features the character wanting to have an heir take over maintaining the fantasy world, which feels like Miyazaki engaging with who will carry his legacy when he is gone. It is rather profound, and is the type of observation that can only come from a director in his twilight years.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the score, which is composed by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. There is a wistful nature to some of the music, which comes out in the piano forward melodies of the score. The repeated motif with the Gray Heron is incredibly striking, as is the increased presence of string arrangements as the film goes on. It is such a perfect complement to the film, and enhances everything we are seeing on screen. Hisaishi is a bit of an undersung composer in America, but this score makes the case for him in a major way, and is undoubtedly one of my favorite scores of the year.
At the time of writing, I have only seen the subtitled version of the film in Japanese, so I can't speak to how the English dub of the film is. However, I can say a lot about the Japanese voice actors, all of whom do an incredible job. Soma Santoki does great work as Mahito, as you can feel the array of emotions he is experiencing so strongly in his voice performance. I also loved Aimyon's performance as Lady Himi, a girl that Mahito meets in the fantasy world. She has a fascinating energy that matches the character perfectly, and her work greatly impressed me. Perhaps the strongest performance, however, comes from Masaki Suda, who voices the Grey Heron. Suda gives the Heron a gravelly, mischievous tone that perfectly encapsulates the character, and he puts his all into the performance. It is the type of voice performance that sticks with you, and Suda's voice work is a big part of the character's strength and had me intrigued every time he showed up on screen.
The Boy and the Heron is an undeniable treat for fans of Miyazaki, but I found myself engaged with it on a much deeper level than I was expecting. Its themes of grief and creation are so strong and connected with me so fully that it elevated the experience for me. Even beyond that, this film is still a masterpiece in terms of its animation and overall craft, and is one of the most gorgeous films I have seen all year. It also is one of Miyazaki's most gorgeous films, and I would put it up there with some of his best work. It is a film that I can't get my mind off of, and is one that I can't wait to watch again and again. I went into this film expecting to love it, but I wasn't expecting it to connect with me the way that it ultimately did. The Boy and the Heron is an absolute knock-out, and if this really is Miyazaki's last film, this is quite a way to cap off his legendary career.