Anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has “retired” twice — first with Princess Mononoke, then with The Wind Rises. The Boy and the Heron is (supposedly) his final “final” film, and debuted earlier this year in Japan to acclaim under a shroud of secrecy. Finally making its way to international audiences, it’s a fizzling end to the master’s career, even if it is as visually splendid as one would hope.
The Boy and the Heron follows a young boy who, following a tragedy, moves to the countryside with his father, where he encounters a mysterious gray heron, who takes him on an enchanting adventure to another world. It’s a set-up that feels familiar to the rest of Ghibli’s repertoire, and unfortunately, never ascends beyond that feeling.
The first hour of the movie goes by rather slowly, as we are introduced to the characters and dip our toes into the water of the world that Miyazaki is creating for us. There are glimpses of the fantasy that is to come, but for the most part, it’s a more grounded story about the cost of war. Speaking in Ghibli terms, it’s more reminiscent of Grave of the Fireflies than Miyazaki’s cheerier work.
The Boy and the Heron looks great but is narratively underwhelming
It is in the second hour of the film that Miyazaki goes all-in on the whimsical world building that fans associate with him. Yet, it still feels somewhat underwhelming. The ideas on display here don’t have the same level of imagination as some of his finer work, and it feels like we’re having to rush through to wrap everything up too quickly.
On one hand, The Boy and the Heron is probably Miyazaki’s most dense and cryptic movie yet. It’s a very dense narrative that will likely take most viewers multiple viewings to dissect in its entirety. At the same time, it feels overly familiar. You can see shades of Spirited Away and even bits of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind here. But the film doesn’t feel like it is in conversation with those works, but a derivative of them, like someone was copying Miyazaki’s style — disappointing, considering that it is made by the man himself.
The one aspect of the movie that is undeniably grand and magical is the animation, and Miyazaki remains second to none in this department. It’s not just gorgeous to look at, but among the most creative and rich you will see in terms of both character design and settings. The Boy and the Heron even screened a few times at the festival with a true IMAX DMR print, which is unquestionably the way to see this gorgeous artistry on display.
This is clearly one of the most personal films that Miyazaki has made. The movie takes its original title — How Do You Live? — and a vague inspiration from Miyazaki’s childhood favorite book. There are also similarities between the character’s experience and Miyazaki’s own childhood. However, these hardly shine through when the rest of the film sticks so closely to the traditional formula.
The movie deals with themes that are familiar to the work of Ghibli and Miyazaki. It’s anti-war, of course, and it explores the grief after the loss of one’s parents. Ultimately, these themes still pack quite an emotional punch, as the film’s beats will still have many viewers feeling teary-eyed by the time the credits roll. Still, the movie never escapes the feeling that it’s just going through the motions.
Visually, The Boy and the Heron is absolutely magnificent and everything you could possibly hope for from the latest Miyazaki film. Narratively speaking, it’s a bit underwhelming and nowhere near as immersive or magical as the filmmaker’s previous outings. Maybe it would have been best for his last announcement of retirement after The Wind Rises to have stuck. The Boy and the Heron is by no means a bad movie, but it’s probably the weakest in Miyazaki’s filmography.
The Boy and the Heron screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.