‘The Boy and the Heron’ is an enchanting, hand-drawn, original story and Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film in a decade.
It takes a special kind of imagination to create fantastical worlds, populated by strange and unique creatures that captivate audiences in spite of their unfamiliarity. In fact, it’s because of this ingenuity that avid followers become enveloped in these artists’ projects and pine for new works to whisk them away into universes they couldn’t possibly fathom themselves. The end of a creator’s career is hailed for their accomplishments and mourned for all the visions that will never reach fruition. Thus, the return of Hayao Miyazaki after a 10-year absence is a cause for celebration and The Boy and the Heron doesn’t disappoint.
In the midst of World War II, Mahito loses his mother, resulting in recurring nightmares in which he fails to rescue her from a fire. A year later, they leave Tokyo for the countryside where his father’s new wife resides in a house filled with grannies that attend to everyone’s needs. When Mahito arrives, he’s greeted by the heron that frequents the property, which takes a special interest in the boy. Exploring the grounds, he uncovers its secrets, including a parallel world formed by his great granduncle. It’s filled with similar personalities and unusual beasts, though it turns out his visit serves a greater purpose.
Miyazaki’s catalogue of films is comprised of award-winning features and fan favourites (though it can be difficult to pick just one). He is an expert world-builder, melding familiar places and events with make-believe creatures that enchant audiences with their whimsy. The “warawara” are reminiscent of the adorable Adipose from Doctor Who, but with Miyazaki’s touch they become innocent little blobs bounding about — with an incredible raison d’être. Additionally, recognizable birds are morphed into peculiar versions of themselves with the ability to speak to and accost Mahito. Even paper takes on malicious intent in one instance.
The dream-like stories feel escapist, but they also generally contain a moral lesson for the young protagonist at the narrative’s centre. Here, Mahito is still grieving his mother and having trouble accepting this new life imposed on him by his father. Being transported to another universe gives him the opportunity to work through his issues, as well as be the hero of the story as he makes the courageous choice at every impasse.
The attention to detail in Miyazaki’s pictures is not the same as it is in some other films. The background scenery is characterized by smudgy visuals as trees and paintings blend together, creating impressions that still evoke a sense of beauty. Similarly, necessary structural elements like walls and buildings are indistinct since they are inconsequential to the narrative. However, the people and creatures in the foreground are painstakingly drawn to ensure they stand out in the scene and from each other — even when they’re the same species — furthering an aesthetic style that’s marked all of Miyazaki’s films.
While it’s difficult to know what will truly be the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s last picture, for now fans can be grateful and rejoice in the fact that he’s still defying the odds (and his own declarations) to continue to deliver amazing films.