Design by Spenta Wadia
Design by Spenta Wadia

The Boy and the Heron: Miyazaki’s Farewell to Magic and Fantasy

Hayao Miyazaki has said The Boy and the Heron is his last film. We cast a retrospective gaze at the concerns that have informed the legendary storyteller’s anime career.

Among the many floating creatures in Hayao Miyazaki’s latest and perhaps last film The Boy And The Heron (2023) is an old man — great uncle to our protagonist, a young boy named Mahito. One day, without warning, this old man disappears from the realm of the real, leaving behind only an open book. 

From the mind of an 83-year-old, this image of the left-behind book with its pages fluttering makes Miyazaki’s filmography feels final in ways that his three previous attempts at retirement — in 1997, 2001, and in 2013 — did not. He is bidding farewell with a film which, like that book, feels incomplete, but whose openness invites you to complete it — on your own, in your head; to be read later. This film, like most of his others, never feels closed, even as it is concluded; there is always this sense of more he leaves you with; a fertile, satisfying unresolvedness. 

For example, in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), a young Sophie is cursed into old age and even as she becomes more confident in this older body, even as the film’s curtains are drawn and her youth is returned, her hair remains gray. Similarly, the diseased marks on Prince Ashitaka’s arms in Princess Mononoke (1997) are never fully cured, even as the death that these marks fated is averted. The military tanks return from war at the end of Howl’s Moving Castle, only to be deployed in some other war, some other place. We are not at the end of the story, but a story. The most immediate crisis has been averted, but the film is aware and makes us aware that crises will endure. For such is life, folding a personal triumph into a systemic tragedy. This is the complicated comfort of Miyazaki’s films.

Is Miyazaki, then, the mad, disheveled great uncle who leaves behind the material and emotional demands of this world — Miyazaki was famously an absentee father, drowning in sketches and storyboards — to create this meticulous, magical, but ultimately fragile forest of the fantastical?

Does the film render with clarity his futile, complicated yearning for a successor, only to see his creation crumble? The golden gate in the underworld island even has inscribed on it the bleak aphorism, “Those who seek my knowledge shall die”.

That he could not find an able successor to his craft in his own son Goro, whose career in animation did not take off, is well documented. In the Japanese broadcast company NHK’s four-part documentary on his work, Miyazaki articulated his objections to Goro making his foray into anime, walking out an hour into that film’s preview screening to smoke. “You shouldn’t make a picture based on your emotions,” he said with a sigh.  

The Boy And The Heron’s emotional resonance now rings loud, subtext and context coming to the forefront. This is us reading into the film, exercising a cerebral pleasure that we yank out of what lies beneath. But what about those  uninterested in or incapable of that ruthless archeological excavation? What I’m trying to ask politely is, what about the kids — how are they supposed to see Miyazaki’s film, if the film is made for them at all? 

Miyazaki For Adults

The Boy And The Heron begins with a moment of terror: 12-year-old Mahito, in the opening years of World War II, loses his mother in a fire after bombs are lobbed over the hospital where she was. The disorientation, the melting flesh, and the heated chaos alongside the fearful sense of a terrible nightmare taking shape in front of one’s own eyes are expressed in the tossed, frenetic, and impressionistic streaks of animation. This is fear given form. 

Above: Ponyo; Below: The Boy And The Heron
Above: Ponyo; Below: The Boy And The Heron

Born in 1941, bombings were among Miyazaki’s first memories, because of air raids that flattened his hometown as a child. Knowing this lends the scene and The Boy and The Heron a strangely nostalgic reach. Alongside this is the more personal grief of Miyazaki’s mother having spent extended stretches of time in hospital wards, immobilized by spinal tuberculosis. The fact that Miyazaki’s father, like Mahito’s, helped manufacture planes used in World War II helps focus on the overlap between Miyazaki and Mahito. Suddenly, there is this unwieldy sense of Miyazaki leaking across his characters, streaked across his artistry. 

Considered the most cherished and celebrated auteur for “children’s entertainment”, Miyazaki is one of the founders of the celebrated Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Often described as “life-affirming”, the medium of these films (animation) and the age of their protagonists — predominantly young kids, generally girls or “shojo”, girls of an in-between age — might make the case for Miyazaki’s cinema seeming tailored perfectly for the curious, roving kid; an antidote to a sugary Disney diet. 

Miyazaki’s films often have children who push into unknown worlds, trying to chisel their way around new norms and demands, only to master it, complete a task or tasks, and return. A return that does not render the child more heroic in the eyes of those around them, but a more internalized heroism — that they have overcome something. Fantasy then becomes a place not to escape reality, but to train yourself; to be better at performing reality. 

Alongside this familiar framework, his films often also hold ideas that are uncomfortable, even for adults. It is not just the mortality of a mother being hospitalized in My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and the general presence of and anxiety around death throughout his movies — but also the anxiety about loss of beauty in Howl’s Moving Castle. Then, there are films like Ponyo (2008), Miyazaki’s reimagining of The Little Mermaid, whose depiction of rough seas led to the broadcast network Nippon TV banning the film for months after the Fukushima disaster — so terrifying were those painted, hand-sculpted, lapis lazuli waves in the film, as they blurred the line between enchantment and horror. Even god is such an unsteady presence in these films, given to evil as easily as protection as to surrender. Besides, as anyone who got lost in a mall as a kid would resonate, Spirited Away brings to life a recurring nightmare of any child — losing your parents, perhaps forever. 

Breaking Conventions

Miyazaki makes no effort to arrive at simplicity through this storytelling. For instance, how would a child’s mind process a leper, wound in white bandage like a mummified corpse, moaning, “Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed, but you still find reasons to keep living.” The scene is from Princess Mononoke and the leper is one among many saved by Lady Eboshi, who also saves women from brothels. (How do you explain sex workers to a child?) And while she makes them work in four-day shifts and the women are tired, they still prefer this to their past life. Lady Eboshi also decimates a forest, killing its wolves and spirits, and mining the earth for iron and profit. She saves as much as she destroys — if not less, certainly not more. How to morally posture yourself towards these characters that are designed seemingly to produce conclusions and not ambivalence?

At one point in The Boy And The Heron, ravenous pelicans begin eating the Warawaras, adorable, balloon-like unborn human souls. It is initially framed as an act of violation, of depriving these bumbling, sweet, mute creatures of life in the earthly realm. Then Miyazaki shows us a bruised pelican, burnt and longing for death, who says the pelicans eat the Warawara because they lack food, that the waters have been depleted. Hunting the Warawaras becomes an act of nourishment, not villainy. Nature’s brutality and its incompatibility with human values is laid bare so easily. 

Miyazaki’s films can't possibly be for children, then?

In an interview with Roger Ebert, who asked him about his 1999 decision to retire (Miyazaki came out of his ‘retirement’ with Spirited Away in 2001), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2002 and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003, he noted, “I wanted to retire, but life isn’t that easy. I wanted to make a movie especially for the daughters of my friends. I opened all the drawers in my head and they were all empty. So I realized I had to make a movie just for 10-year-olds, and Spirited Away is my answer.”

What of the strange, slipping structure Spirited Away and generally Miyazaki’s frictionless films, then, which meander, without really explaining, or clarifying these movements? Cause and effect is not neatly traced, and sometimes the ambiguity becomes like ambient sound, ever present; something to become comfortable with, not something to be done away with. The film trips and tumbles haphazardly, never apace. If you try to plot his movies, what you end up with are transcriptions of images. 

While most animation films begin with a screenplay, Miyazaki’s films begin with images around which he creates stories. Watching Howl’s Moving Castle, for example, is an exercise in being swept by a roaring imagination, with each door of the mobile castle on chicken legs opening each time to new worlds, and each world applying strange pressures on the characters for whom time and space become things to shimmy over with that vigorous sense of movement and grace, wind sculpting their hair, their frocks. 

Clarity, for Miyazaki, is suffocating. He once declared rather boldly, “I must say that I hate Disney’s works … The barrier to both the entry and exit of Disney films is too low and too wide. To me, they show nothing but contempt for the audience.”

Do his films raise the bar for kids, then? Or assume that the bar is higher than it is assumed to be, the opposite of being patronized?

Silence And Emptiness

Miyazaki’s films feel like attempts at rewriting a genre itself, rethinking the expectations that are formed when you enter into “children’s entertainment”. His cinema offers a compelling answer to the question, “Can desire be conditioned?” It is ‘life-affirming’ in not just what it is, but in its confidence that what it is, is enough, will be enough. As the New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot notes, he “take[s] seriously the notion of children as natural aesthetes”. 

Characters who don't speak: No Face, Dust Bunnies, Warawara, and the Turnip-Scarecrow.
Characters who don't speak: No Face, Dust Bunnies, Warawara, and the Turnip-Scarecrow.

There is a rippling pleasure in watching his films, seeing how characters are elaborated through what Ebert calls the “gratuitous motion” in his films — people sitting still, sighing, waving to someone in the corner of the frame, watching a window in a building as it blares Schubert on a cold night, looking out; not really instrumental gestures for the narrative. A character folding his bedspread in the morning is essential to Miyazaki’s conception of that world. He would grumble that his son was not paying such attention to his characters. When asked about this fixation Miyazaki responded, “We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally…If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.” 

Think of the characters who populate his filmography — characters who never speak in words, expressing their presence in merely sound, or sometimes just a sense of wind grazing their surface. No Face mumbling “eh eh eh”, the galloping lamp, and the scuttling soot sprites in Spirited Away. The rattling kodamas of Princess Mononoke. The dust bunnies of My Neighbour Totoro. Turnip-head, the scarecrow in Howl’s Moving Castle. The Warawaras and murderous pelicans of The Boy And The Heron. It is not so much about the “failure of language” as Sam Anderson argues, as much as it is the shapeless joy of meaningless sounds; or put another way, of meaning escaping language. To let the film speak, not the character talk, as Miyazaki noted.

The Boy And The Heron, like many Miyazaki films, has stretches of silence. The scene of Mahito walking into school, being made to sit alongside a boy who looks at him suspiciously, being beaten up, is a soft musical montage. Easy, explicable, coherent, articulate drama is not what Miyazaki is after. Mahito takes a stone and smashes his own head in an act of self-harm. Why does he do that? The film offers little by way of clarity, offering only a hint and that too, only later — something about his inner menace. 

Even when his characters are articulate, they express themselves often in roundabout ways, their profundity dangling in a state of almostness. When Chihiro in Spirited Away is told, “Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can’t remember it,” how to make sense of the contradiction that is inherent in the statement, one that both hints at and recedes from clarity? When Mahito is told that he must forget what happened, in order to move on with his life, how to frame this cultivated amnesia? 

Miyazaki’s posture against such worries is one of optimism, “Easy to understand films are boring. Logical storylines sacrifice creativity. I’m all about breaking conventions. Kids get it. They do not operate on logic.”

Before embarking on his penultimate film, The Wind Rises, about Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese aircraft engineer who designed a Japanese fighter plane Mitsubishi Zero, Miyazaki crafted a manga on the same — this was meant for adults, not children. While struggling to reconceptualize the comic as a film, he sighed, “This one isn’t just for children. It’s hard.” 

It did not help that while attempting to storyboard the 1923 earthquake that Horikoshi lived through, Miyazaki experienced the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Eastern Japan. Months later, speaking to his team who did not believe they needed to live through this devastation again, through their artistry, Miyazaki said, “Will we make a fantasy again? About a girl’s life? I don’t think that’ll do. The Wind Rises is about the wind of a new era blowing hard. About trying to live in that. Our film must be an answer to changes in this era.”

In the film, Miyazaki wove Jiro’s complicated legacy of the maker of fighter jets that were used in kamikaze operations with a love story between Jiro and the tuberculosis-ridden Nahoko. Every success of the flying expedition coincided with a failure in her health; conversations about the Nazi takeover cut in by news that she had fallen ill; the success of the test flight interrupted by a premonition that she had indeed died. Dreamscapes, for the first time, began to feel like escapes, not just for the character, but for Miyazaki too. 

A Film Adrift

The original Japanese title of The Boy And The Heron translates as How Do You Live? This was taken from Genzaburō Yoshino’s book about a 15-year old boy navigating the death of his father. When he fails to stand up to bullies who are pulping his friends, he is pulled into the pits of pathos. Why can he not act when he knows what to do? 

When asked about what the answer to the original Japanese title is, Miyazaki said, “I am making this movie because I do not have the answer.” And, perhaps, it is that question, like a baton, his cinema is passing along. A question that even a child must hold, if not ask themselves so existentially. 

If The Boy And The Heron feels like a culmination of Miyazaki’s preoccupations — emerging from central events in Japanese history, from the Meiji Restoration to World War II to the recession of the Nineties that led to Japan’s “Lost Decade”; sending children off into fearsome yet fantastical portals; an ever-present grief from loss; the alienation of new worlds softened by confident, demanding adults (usually female) and squelching, small beings (usually silent)  — the Miyazaki filmography also feels adrift. There is a strong melancholy, and this is especially true of The Boy And The Heron, that drives main protagonists, an aimless but all-consuming grief. If The Wind Rises is the character arriving at grief, The Boy And The Heron is about reshaping the hole this grief has bored into Mahito, neither filling it, nor distracting it. 

And here, we come back to the central question — how can a film for children be fuelled forward by sadness? 

In The Boy and the Heron, Mahito’s mother leaves for him a book, which is inscribed, “For a grownup Mahito”. This was also a book Miyazaki ate into as a kid, in the 1940s. And according to his producer Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki made this film for his grandson. It all culminates into a feeling that this film is both an ode and an offering — to his past, to the future. 

In the end, Mahito, having ferreted his way back from the fantastical — a world which is now decimated — discovers a newfound love for his stepmother. The last image we see is not of him, but his room, now cleared out. The  family has now moved back to Tokyo. The war is over. Life moves on, wretched and gifted as it is. 

In the catalogue for the Ghibli Museum, Miyazaki wrote that his works show “how complex the world is and how beautiful the world should be.” That and-ness — not but-ness, not even-though-ness — is somehow the difficulty of watching Miyazaki’s movies. To know that though the mother is alive at the end of My Neighbour Totoro, she won’t always be alive; that wars will continue being waged in the world of Howl’s Moving Castle; that the grief of losing one’s mother won’t ever fade in Mahito’s heart. 

It is that which resonates in the empty, emptied room at the end of The Boy and the Heron, sunlight pouring in. It is this anti-cathartic quality of Miyazaki’s life affirmation that stands the legacy of a man who refused to make sequels, who from his first to his last film insisted on hand painting his animation, even if it took a year and three months to complete a four second shot of an earthquake. Even so. Especially so. 

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