By Ashleigh Clark
This review includes light spoilers for “The Boy and the Heron.” You have been warned.
It was no surprise when I walked into the theater for “The Boy and the Heron” that I would find Hayao Miyazaki’s newest work to be a surreal experience. His latest film intertwines music, animation and storytelling into one beautiful narrative, a feat he accomplishes masterfully in all his works. Miyazaki’s new film provides an adventure with stunning animation that walks audiences through a story of overcoming grief and accepting what we cannot control.
The film follows Mahito Maki, a boy living in World War II Japan. He moves to the countryside following the death of his mother in a hospital fire. When his father remarries Natsuko, Mahito’s aunt, Natsuko tries to build ties with the young boy but Mahito’s grief and resentment prevent him from accepting her as his new mother. While he struggles to deal with accepting his new family, a gray heron torments him through the window of his bedroom.
When the pregnant Natusko goes missing, Mahito sets out with a bow and arrow to find her. This leads him to a mysterious tower located on the property, through which he falls into the spirit world. From here, he sets out on a journey through confusing dimensions on his way to Natsuko. He is aided on this quest by different unique and eccentric characters who strikingly resemble people from his life, and is beset by a menagerie of birds at every turn.
“The Boy and the Heron” draws on “Spirited Away,” a previous Studio Ghibli film, as inspiration for both the plot and tone of the movie. Both Mahito and “Spirited Away’s” protagonist, Chihiro, deal with different types of grief. Mahito deals with the grief of losing his mom while Chihiro must adapt to moving away from her friends. Both characters enter magical otherworlds in search of their respective parental figures. In their new, strange worlds, both characters are aided by familiar figures from their past. They are tested at the climax of their films and escape to the real world safely. By the end of their respective stories, both Mahito and Chihiro have grown to accept their new lives and move past their grief.
The similarities between “The Boy and the Heron” and “Spirited Away” help feed into the nostalgia of this latest film. The newest Ghibli feels like an instant classic because it draws on the charm of previous beloved stories. It uses subtle plot points to convey the echo of familiarity while telling a new tale with a spin on well-loved themes. The result is that “The Boy and the Heron” is already becoming a modern classic before our eyes, and it deserves that reception well.
Part of the emotional impact of the film comes from Joe Hisaishi’s score. It punctuates the film at the perfect moments to add depth to every scene (and yes, I am listening to the score while I write this review). The score relies heavily on the piano for most of the songs, which is a fantastically versatile instrument that fits every emotional turn. Hisaishi’s musical identity shines in this score and remains distinct from his other movies.
The animation also deserves a mention. “The Boy and the Heron” gets a significant upgrade in its animation quality from previous Studio Ghibli films. Mahito’s visions of his mother are a stunning flex of animation might. Moreso, Miyazaki’s bird-centric magical world anthropomorphizes birds in the most adorable and creepy ways that I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I will be able to look at herons the same way again.
Despite all of the film’s strengths, I do have one criticism of “The Boy and the Heron.” Unfortunately, the film tries to fit in a lot into its run time, occasionally having an overabundance of good ideas all at once. This makes the story a little bloated and a bit hard to follow at times. However, it does not distract too much from the main story. By the film’s end, the major loose ends have been tied up even if it’s a bit more complicated of a process to do so.
Overall, Miyazaki entrances viewers with this new film, which serves as both a beautiful piece of animated art and an emotional adventure. His way with storytelling, which often leaves the viewer confused until the final moments of the film, kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. “The Boy and the Heron” ticked every box on my list, and I’m happy to give this film 4.5 stars out of 5.
The Boy and the Heron is now playing in theaters.
Ashleigh Clark is a junior Political Science major. She loves hiking and playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild