Miscellaneous Whimsey – The Boy and the Heron

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Are these little boogers really that cute? Must be Miyazaki

I watched The Boy and HeronThe other day, I went out with a few friends. I went in with no expectations and came out knowing even less. The film is a lot, full of imagery and symbolism interwoven within the tropes of a through-the-looking-glass fairy tale, where things are free to happen without, or even in defiance of, explanation. I would say it’s the most difficult to process of Miyazaki Hayao’s ouvre but since he went out of his way to come out of retirement yet again to give us another masterpiece the least I can do is unghost temporarily to write up my meagre commentary, specifically on why I think Miyazaki truly intends The Boy and HeronIt was his last song.

(Bird pun intended but I couldn’t think of a better one).

I must warn you that this post is not a summary, but will flow with free. The spoilersIt’s more of a recap for those who have seen it. For those who don’t care about any of that, though, follow along as you please.

As a spiritual descendant of The Wind Rises and another of Miyazaki’s arguably autobiographical films (more on this later), The Boy and Heron is of course set in World War II, the event that no just reshaped Japan forever but also formed Miyazaki’s earliest childhood memories. Mahito is the brash son of a wealthy manufacturer. In the opening act of the film, Mahito ‘s mother literally dies in a fire, traumatising the young child. With the danger and horror of the war so evident, Mahito’s father subsequently relocates himself and Mahito away from Tokyo to a countryside estate where Mahito meets Natsuko, his mother’s younger sister to whom his father had remarried. In this context, the titular heron appears. This is not just a waterfowl. It lures Mahito to a tower on the outskirts of the estate; the old maids whisper that it was built by Mahito’s great granduncle at an immense cost in blood and treasure, right before he summarily disappeared. “Your mother is alive,” the heron says, and beckons Mahito to enter the tower to seek answers from its master.

It is because I want to keep the summary brief. The Boy and Heron is a deliberate fever dream of a story and to commit it to print would make me sound like I’ve stroked out. But that’s when I’m limited to text. As a film. The Boy and HeronMiyazaki sells the absurdity and authenticity through his visual impact. Beauty is truth. To paraphrase John Keats. The Boy and His HeronIt is unerringly true. Studio Ghibli is a studio that excels at animation. I was as captivated by the details in the hospital fire as I was the flight of the birds. And of course, Miyazaki’s trademark love of the Japanese countryside bleed into every frame (even when the setting goes down the proverbial rabbit hole). It is when The Boy and HeronThe beauty of the film is what makes it so surreal. When the warawara rise into the night sky to be reborn, all thoughts of the mechanics of such a process are washed away by the beauty of the visual and Hisaishi’s soulful score. Animation has always had this advantage; a scene only needs to be compelling and not realistic. The Boy and HeronCompulsion can be so strong that it can tempt you to ignore reality and go with the flow.

But if The Boy and HeronWhat does it say? It’s obvious that there is a lot. I doubt that I could dissect it all in a short period of time, even if i wanted to. Most obviously there’s an allegory about leaving a broken world to the next generation. Pelicans literally feed on the future to survive. They are judged by the world and burned, but they also deserve our sympathy. They are powerless to change anything. Perhaps depressingly, tied to this are themes involving the trauma of loss, the pain of grief, the fear of inadequacy, and perhaps the need to abandon one’s childhood dreams. But is there any hope for us in Miyazaki? Is it really the darkest time in history? Miyazaki reminds that the War ended.

I see it as a general issue. The Boy and HeronA film that is more personal for Miyazaki. Like with The Wind RisesI think he made it for himself. The master of the tower in metaphor is Miyazaki. In his tower, Miyazaki created a world full of imagination and wonder, despite all its flaws. In it, kids could find their way and make friends. They could also resolve their problems. The homages are as obvious as they can be Spirited AwayAs well as Princess Mononoke. It brought together generations who would otherwise have nothing in common culturally, other than a desire to reconnect with their inner child.

But Miyazaki has aged. Born in 1941, at the time of writing he’s into his 80s, which is an advanced age even outside an industry like animation where both eyesight and dexterity are an asset. If you’ve been keeping up with Miyazaki’s public statements he does come across at times as a grumpy old man, full of choice words for the kids (or rather, a younger generation of adults) on his lawn. I think Miyazaki knows this and consciously tries to avoid it in his films. He doesn’t lecture but instead inspires. The foundation of the Otherworld in The Boy and Heron are literal blocks, children’s toys. To create and improve a world like this, ojii knows he can’t sustain the innocence and optimism required. Mahito also knew that he lacked it. Who can succeed Miyazaki, then? There have been many crowned the heir evident, but none has really filled those shoes. Miyazaki never even really considered his works ‘anime’; if true, they are a product unique to him. After his death, there won’t be any more.

Perhaps The Boy and Heron is Miyazaki convincing himself that’s okay. His passing is also a natural course. Some children will forget and some will remember but they all share the same future. It is worse to try and force these things. The otherworld does not disappear because of malice, but rather by zealous attempts to save it. We all have to move forward. I for one have made my peace. I hope the great author has done so as well. So long, Miyazaki-sensei. This time, I hope you finally get to enjoy your retirement.

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