The Boy and the Heron (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

By: Adam Freed

In what is promised to be the final film in the legendary career of Japanese animation deity and Studio Ghibli cofounder, Hayao Miyazaki, the acclaimed director has crafted a monumental swansong.  Equal parts reflection and repentance for a life lost in the creative pursuit of epic animated fantasy, The Boy and the Heron originates as the semi autobiographical tale of Mahito, a boy stricken by grief at the loss of his mother in the midst of World War II.  After fleeing Tokyo, Mahito’s tale meanders in the direction of deeply fantastic and breathtakingly creative worlds, given life as a backdrop in search of a reasonable explanation behind the inevitability of heartache.

In his ultimate film, Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) courageously flaunts conventional plot dynamics in a celebration that is intended to honor the collective intellect of his dedicated fanbase.  There are no easy answers to be found within The Boy and the Heron, which is most likely where critics of the film’s meandering story may first take aim.  This nearsighted criticism however overlooks the film’s bountiful emotional profile, one that it is not intended for cognizance upon a sole viewing.  While Miyazaki’s prior works may be more warmly embraced initially, his final work is likely to grow in appreciation as time tends to unknot some of the film’s tighter details.  The film earns its PG-13 rating as the subject matter and heart wrenching duality are likely to confound younger audiences expecting more Americanized animated fare.  While there is no set age of appropriateness for The Boy and the Heron, the barrier to entry is at minimum that children are capable of recognizing that a duality of emotions are simultaneously possible.   

As fans of Studio Ghibli have come to expect, The Boy and the Heron is a demonstration of visual brilliance, a multifaceted and simultaneous mastery of texture, color and motion.  Naturalistic elements such as fire, wind, and water take turns bending the visual nature of the film with equal impact.  As is the case with prior Mayazaki works, single frames present a layered approach, often leaving the most visually stimulating pieces to be discovered in the background.  Not to be lost in comparison to the film’s optics is the sublime sound design.  Each individual movement, natural or otherworldly is given a depth of its own by the painstakingly detailed work of the film’s team of foley artists.  Adding to its aural prowess, is the minimalist score, which when stripped away leaves audiences yearning for an emotional cue that, once delivered, maximizes its impact despite being used judiciously.  Discerning where the allusory instruction to a life well lived stops and the heartbreaking regret of an artistic mastermind begins is a fool's errand.  There are no clearly painted lines of distinction to be found in Hayao Miyazaki’s final work beyond those in recognition of its genius.

Target Score: 9/10   Japanese director and icon Hayao Miyazaki has delivered his swansong.  The Boy and the Heron is narratively challenging and emotionally provocative.  Like a handful of his greatest works, the measure of its impact is impossible to quantify in the present.  Despite the inviting nature of the film’s animation, this is not a fantasy intended for young audiences.