The Boy and the Heron
Updated: Jan 26
Miyazaki's latest, and possibly last, is another original and transporting instant-classic
Hayao Miyazaki is not only one of the greatest animated filmmakers of all time, he’s one of the greatest filmmakers period. The Japanese great has brought us original worlds and adventures to the screen with a mature and daring contrast to the squeaky clean stories from Disney. Although believed to have been retired after The Wind Rises (2014), Miyazaki has delivered another film at age 83.
The Boy and the Heron (2023) is the story of Mahito (Luca Padovan) a young boy living in WWII Tokyo, who, after a tragedy, moves to the countryside with his father (Christian Bale). There Mahito is left to his own devices, living with his aunt (Gemma Chan) and a gaggle of old ladies. However, Mahito also comes across a particular aggressive Grey Heron (Robert Pattinson) who begins to speak to him and lures him into a magical world.
Miyazaki has always been incredibly adept at crafting new and exciting worlds from scratch. With The Boy and the Heron, the Japanese auteur begs patience for his opening act, as he establishes his characters and introduces the mature themes of grief, lost childhood, and trauma. This can cause the first act to feel slow, yet viewers should relish at Miyazaki’s beautiful, gentle animation. The second act opens with a bang and introduces the bizarre and shocking imagery that Miyazaki’s enveloping original worlds typically bring. Through it all, Miyazaki is never afraid to deal with thorny questions; at one point he shows the slaughter of innocent beings and moments later asks us to sympathize with the aggressors. Later Miyazaki brings a more existential question onto the table, regarding the role of morality, and whether any of us can lay a claim to being wholly good. It is a fascinating introspection that could be read in a multitude of ways, from Miyazaki’s own artistic journey, to coming-of-age growth, to Japan’s role in WWII.
Miyazaki’s direction helps slow the pace of the film so each character, sequence, and beat can breathe. In the hands of a more jittery director, The Boy and the Heron would have dashed or simply cut the more surrealist scenes that don’t explicitly move the narrative forward. However, I found these sequences to be crucial in enlivening the film’s world as well as bring greater depth to the characters. This patience and use of silence in his sound design is notable for its contrast with high-octane and cacophonous animation of most Western films, which seek to overwhelm rather than transmit.
The animation style remains beautifully hand drawn as with all of Miyazaki’s films. The care and attention to detail from the slicing of a loaf of bread to wind flitting over leaves of grass is astonishing in its minute consideration. You can also sense the Japanese director relishing at animating particular sequences, from body transformations to playing with elements interacting. Miyazaki also brings his signature designs to certain characters, such as old women and men who will remind many viewers of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) or Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind (1984), making the world have a nostalgic and familiar feel to his fans.
Most dubbed versions of any film are of laughably poor quality, but Miyazaki’s films have always retained a sense of quality, curation, and timing that it makes the dubbed versions be considered equally alongside the original. I watched the English dub and enjoyed the talented voice cast that ranged from Bale as the somewhat brusque father to the warm Chan as Mahito’s aunt. Padovan himself as the protagonist is capable enough, transmitting his hurt and anger while not making his character come across as a whiny. The biggest surprise, which made me double-take was Pattinson. The British star is completely unrecognizable yet brings about a personality and flourish that make his character seem like an old friend’s voice. For the sake of surprise, I won’t ruin who he voices for those wishing to experience the same astonishment.
In the end, The Boy and the Heron delivers on all the expectations of a Miyazaki film, as high as those are. The Japanese master delivers another classic for his collection, from his fantastical world to his patient storytelling, and beautiful animation. The film’s finale could sadly be interpreted as a farewell letter, marking this film as his final gift for us.