Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron is a sweeping, startling orchestra of beauty, whimsy, and melancholic horror.
While The Wind Rises felt, ten years ago, like a gentle coda that left the audience with the sense of Miyazaki gently moving into retirement, The Boy and the Heron shares a drastically different tone that also explores death and the meaning of life. It seems that another retrospective of life was in order for Miyazaki, as he explores a story with more auto-biographical components.
The Boy and the Heron follow Mahito, a young boy who loses his mother in a tragic hospital fire during the Pacific War. A few years later, he moves to the countryside to live with his father and pregnant stepmother/aunt, Natsuko. He struggles with this change and the memory of his mother, holding feelings of grief that are often wordlessly represented.
The Boy and the Heron is a mix of the grotesque and beautiful. In search of Natsuko and his mother, Mahito wanders through a purgatorial landscape of imaginary and real creatures. Along the way, he uncovers family secrets and a stream-of-consciousness dreamscape unfolds.
The background art in the movie was fascinating, at once whimsical and sophisticated.
Joe Hisaishi’s music soared. It was evocative, thrilling, and rich with emotion. Perhaps his best score.
The animated acting was superb. Mahito, the main character, spends most of his time crouched on all fours, silently escaping notice from his father and stepmother, or trying to enter a narrow crevice in a mysterious tower. The amount of detail put in it needed an attention to reality that most animated movies don’t give. It is details like this, though, along with beautiful scenery, that helps take a quiet moment into something of rapt viewing.
After the movie, I talked with the others I watched it with. We agreed that it was a little long – or maybe the story felt a little longer than it should have. There was a rustling in the theater seats a little more than halfway through the movie. One of our party thought it was because it didn’t get us as invested in the emotional arc of the main characters.
Even so, right off the bat, the story jumped into the action and swept you along with scenes rich in engaging detail. But somewhere along the way it started to go off in turns that set up newer and newer arcs that had no emotional connection until you might wonder whether the movie would be another hour or end suddenly and abruptly.
I think, in the end, the thing that The Boy and the Heron left me with an unresolved aching from my desire to see a movie that explores death from the perspective of meeting a loving God at the end of a journey of life. It felt empty in that regard, but the way Miyazaki resolved Mahito’s journey to coming to terms with his mother’s death was still beautifully done. You can see how much Miyazaki loved his mother through this film and its female characters.
So will this be Miyazaki’s “heron song”? To the joy of all Ghibli fans, it doesn’t sound like it.
But perhaps a light-hearted Kiki’s Delivery Service is in order next.
Musings, thoughts, and story.