There are great filmmakers in the world. There are even great filmmakers who are able to single-handedly define a whole genre. Then there is Hayao Miyazaki.
No filmmaker in cinematic history has been able to stamp their name across a whole category of film as Miyazaki has with animation. Making his cinematic debut in 1979, he has made some of the finest animated films, including “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “The Wind Rises” — this reviewer’s all-time favorite film. He’s an animator that deserves to be in the conversation about not just the greatest filmmakers who have ever lived, but also the greatest artists who have ever lived.
His newest film, “The Boy and the Heron,” is a fitting self-tribute to his entire artistic career. It is neither his most polished work nor his most emotionally impactful, but it just might be his most ambitious — an impressive feat for an 82-year-old director with 12 features under his belt.
“The Boy and the Heron” is a spectacle on every level of its craft. Its animation is as rich and awe-inspiring as anything. The score, from longtime Miyazaki collaborator and musical icon Joe Hisaishi, is more stripped back than might be expected, but it hits at the perfect moments with its ethereal compositions. The narrative, while not fully formed come the final act, is deeply imaginative and completely original. The film has the energy and life of something made by a bright young filmmaker yearning to get their name out there but with the insight of a master of the craft looking back on their entire body of work.
The story matches this temporal dissonance as it follows Mahito, a boy whose mother dies in the firebombing of Tokyo and whose father remarries his aunt and moves out to her country estate. At the estate is a striking tower built by Mahito’s mysterious great uncle. When a talking heron leads him into the tower promising information about his mother’s actual whereabouts, Mahito journeys through multiple fantastical worlds full of mythical beings, anthropomorphic parakeets and a great deal of magic. Along the way he meets travel partners with connections to his life back home who guide him through these mystical lands.
The contrast between Mahito, a scared, naive boy yet to accept his new life, and his guides, brave and knowledgeable women with a deeper understanding of the unknown, drives the narrative of the film. As Mahito learns from these two characters, he becomes more at peace with his life back home and develops a newfound sense of responsibility for himself.
While the film is pure fantasy, it’s not hard to find the core realism underlying each scene. For one, the film grapples intensely with the trauma World War II placed on ordinary Japanese citizens and their resulting collective grief. Its discussions of loss, love and forgiveness touch on a human level that exists well beyond the walls of the mysterious tower. And although the narrative lacks clarity at times, it reaches new heights through its imaginative worlds and musings on philosophical concepts.
Miyazaki is able to combine the deeper existential themes of past works such as “The Wind Rises” with the fantastical adventuring of “Castle in the Sky” and “Ponyo.” Even if he would never admit it himself, “The Boy and the Heron” is a perfect retrospective on Hayao Miyazaki’s career, an awe-inspiring piece of cinema that is a more than acceptable salute to a great artist.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.