Acclaimed anime director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro) has developed something of his own cinematic language throughout the decades of his career, and viewers who are fluent in it can most fully enjoy his newest and reportedly final film, The Boy and the Heron.
As always, the man is a master of storytelling, both with words and visuals. For those unfamiliar with his previous films, however—how they work and how they require a bit of Japanese cultural knowledge and willingness to roll with the punches—the ultimate shape of things might be confusing.
In Heron, Miyazaki culls at least partially from his own experiences to tell the story of Mahito, a young boy who moves to the countryside with his father during World War II after his mother dies in a fire. While there, Mahito crosses paths with a heron who could be more than he seems. Perhaps his mother isn’t dead, it turns out, but discovering the truth leads to a bizarre multi-versal journey that’s as drop-dead gorgeous as it is confounding.
This fish out of water narrative has been Miyazaki’s bread and butter since the beginning, and similarly to Spirited Away, his goal here seems to be in signaling to kids that they’re capable. Against the contrast of Disney’s long-standing “someday some dude will come and fix your problems,” themes, this concept is a delight.
The Boy and the Heron thus earns high marks for its ideas, but falters in its knack for thrusting its principal characters into new scenes with little or no explanation as to how they came to be there. If Miyazaki intended this to signify Mahito’s chaotic journey, that might work, but again, viewers who don’t know the director might not know what to make of that. No matter, though, as every last character is brilliantly weird and the magic comes in the wild ride. Throw in some of Miyazaki’s patented environmentalism—here in the form of talking birds both cute and dangerous—and you’ve got a familiar though poignant experience.
Emotive music from longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi seals the deal at every turn, and moments of borderline experimental animation elevate Heron into newer territory for Miyazaki’s already stacked Studio Ghibli roster. Pity, then, that he says he’s calling it quits. But then, he’s claimed he’d retire a few times before now. If this is the final send-off, though, it’s a good one. Take the kids.
+Gorgeous as always; doesn’t talk down to kids; fun and funny
-Fluency in Miyazaki practically required
The Boy and the Heron
Directed by Miyazaki
Violet Crown, PG-13, 124 min (dubbed and subbed screenings)