The Boy and The Heron is the latest work of art from Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki
Having come straight into seeing this film from Andrew Haigh’s emotionally devastating All of Us Strangers I was begging for this to be a happy Ghibli. So, when we open on air raid sirens blaring over a burning Tokyo, alarm bells started ringing. But fear not, The Boy and The Heron is nowhere near as sad as the also World War 2 set Grave of The Fireflies, yet it’s not exactly a fluffy Ghibli kids movie either.
The story follows 12-year-old Mahito who moves from Tokyo to a sprawling country estate with his father and step mother to escape the war. The estate is the stuff of kids dreams, with endless grounds to explore, a mysterious and off-limits crumbling tower, secret passageways and fascinating rumours of a family curse. Yet for all that the new home should be exciting, Mahito is haunted by the scars of what he has seen in the city and cannot escape memories of a terrible fire.
Where Ghibli films frequently feature adorable animal sidekicks, the animals appearing in The Boy and The Heron are rather more sinister. Mahito is tormented by a grey heron that lives outside his window, a creature that flashes human teeth and appears to have the ability to talk. Though Mahito tries to kill the heron, it lures him out by claiming it can lead him to find a lost relative. Entering the house beneath the crumbling tower Mahito embarks on an Orpheus like quest, journeying through multiple different parallel worlds and finding friends and foes along the way.
The background art is all classic Ghibli as we take in agrarian Japan. There’s rolling green hills, windswept trees and endless wildflower meadows. Star strewn skies are awash with puffy clouds, and in each different world Mahito encounters hundreds of brightly coloured birds. While I’ve always been in awe of Studio Ghibli background art, The Boy and the Heron may feature the best landscapes and most inventive transitions we’ve ever seen, including beautifully painted galaxies that are truly mesmerising.
While there are some familiar themes we’ve seen time and time again in Miyazaki films – an admiration for the beauty of flight, a concern with caretaking the natural world – The Boy and The Heron is perhaps the veteran director’s most existential film, seemingly questioning ideas of death and what comes after. While some characters make Sci Fi references, claiming the magic of the place is powered by an asteroid and referring to the worlds as parallel universes, there is a clearly telegraphed allegory for the afterlife and the journey of the soul.
Where The Boy and The Heron sometimes feels like a compilation of ‘best bits’ of previous Ghibli films with its magical worlds, mysterious spirit creatures and cute animals, it also feels extremely personal to Miyazaki. Much of the plot explores ideas surrounding legacy and moving on, so if it is the director’s final film (he’s retired and unretired several times now) then it feels like a fitting swan song.
The final act perhaps sees too many twists and turns for The Boy and The Heron to quite stick the existentially resonant landing – there’s an excellent ‘Seventh Seal’ type scene I’d have loved to leave it at – it still builds to an overwhelmingly emotional conclusion. There’s a lot to unpack here with complex themes to mull over, yet widescale audiences will still find plenty to enjoy. Amongst Studio Ghibli’s most beautiful pieces of art, this is a masterwork from Miyazaki.
The Boy and The Heron is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festial. It will be released in UK cinemas on 26th December 2023