While it’s recently been disputed that Hayao Miyazaki’s mysterious twelfth movie, The Boy and the Heron, would be his final film, it certainly feels like a final film. The director’s 2013 film, The Wind Rises, was an elegant exploration of Miyazaki’s interests, which also managed to feel like a pseudo-biography for the director himself. At the time, it seemed like a culmination of Miyazaki’s work, but a decade later, The Boy and the Heron—if this is his swan song—is more of his attempt to do whatever the hell he wants. He is a director at the top of his craft experimenting and going all-in on the weirdness that has permeated his work for decades, yet has never quite shined in this way. The Boy and the Heron likely won’t be Miyazaki’s last feature-length film, but it does feel like a director who has nothing left to prove and is deciding to let his original style take the wheel.

The eponymous boy of this story is Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki), who loses his mother during the Pacific War in a fire. A year later, he and his father leave Tokyo for the countryside, where Mahito’s father remarries his wife’s younger sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). Mahito is still grieving over his mother’s death when he gets picked on by a group of kids from school and then decides to injure himself by hitting his head with a rock. As he gets over his injury at his new home, he discovers a heron (Masaki Suda), who can talk, and tells Mahinto his mother is still alive with a mysterious tower on the property. When Mahito sees the sick Natsuko enter the tower, he follows her in and discovers a strange new world, which includes a magical young woman Himi (Aimyon), who helps Mahito, an army of gigantic parakeets who want to eat humans, and Natsuko’s great uncle (Shōhei Hino), who is the ruler of this odd world.

‘The Boy and the Heron’ Is Miyazaki at His Most Unusual

Image via Toho

Miyazaki’s films have always been odd, but The Boy and the Heron sees him taking the limitations off just how unusual he can be. While these strange touches have often been relegated to supporting characters or cute little creatures, The Boy and the Heron takes his idiosyncratic style and makes it the primary focus. This is a film where a man can turn back and forth into a heron, and where the main antagonist is known as The Parakeet King. In creating this alternate world, Miyazaki has allowed his creative juices to flow in a way that reminds of the spa in Spirited Away.

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Yet, naturally, Miyazaki makes this unique view of the world work because he grounds this story in a very real grief and pain that becomes the heart of the film. The opening scene, in which we see the fire that will take Mahito’s mother, is one of the most tragic and beautifully animated sequences in Studio Ghibli’s history. The animation almost looks like it’s struggling to catch up with Mahito, as lines and colors blur amongst the flames. The opening sequence looks unlike anything we’ve seen from Ghibli before, and once again, proves that Miyazaki still has the capacity to surprise his audience with new techniques and ideas. By the end, he finds a beautiful way to blend the emotional story and the very strange other world he’s created in a manner that is effective and lovely.

But as a potential swan song for Miyazaki, we also see the director almost referencing all his past work—whether intentionally or unintentionally—in a way that certainly seems like a culmination of his stories. The Boy and the Heron—in the normal world—most reminds of The Wind Rises, as both films take place during war, and with Mahito’s father clearly working on the production of planes. The fantastical tower that encases an entire world can’t help but remind of Miyazaki’s 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle, and the little creatures he finds throughout this alternate reality feel reminiscent of the forest spirits of Princess Mononoke, or the dust mites of Spirited Away. For a film that largely explores looking into the past, it makes perfect sense that Miyazaki would look into his own and play around with his past as well.

Fantasy Logic Governs ‘The Boy and the Heron’

A still from The Boy and the Heron.
Image via Toho

Wonderful as this fantasy world can be, it can also be a bit overwhelming, as things just sort of happen because, hey, fantasy rules. Again, this is something that Miyazaki has fallen into in the past as well, but in a world completely created by his own rules, the audience can at times get a bit lost in the reality of what this world is. The Boy and the Heron ends up making all this come together in a cohesive whole, but it still doesn’t mean that this can’t be a bit much to keep up with here and there.

After over half a century as one of the most consistently exciting and continuously inventive filmmakers working today, Hayao Miyazaki continues to surprise with The Boy and the Heron. At times, it can be an overwhelming example of a director having the freedom to do whatever he wants, but in the end, Miyazaki finds a way to turn his latest into a moving tale, with stunning animation, memorable characters, and one of the most ambitious worlds he’s ever created. The Boy and the Heron might not be Miyazaki’s best and maybe The Wind Rises would’ve been a more fitting end. If this really does end up being his final film, it’s impossible to not appreciate what Miyazaki is doing here, and revel in him letting his ambition and curiosity take over. In a career full of continuous surprises, The Boy and Heron’s biggest surprise might be just how magical and unique his work still feels after all these years. It cements Miyazaki as a talent who will go down as one of the greatest directors ever, regardless of when he decides to call it quits.

Rating: B+

The Big Picture

  • The Boy and the Heron showcases Hayao Miyazaki at his most unusual, with the director taking the limitations off just how weird he can be.
  • Miyazaki grounds the film in real grief and pain, creating a beautiful blend of emotion and the strange alternate world he has created.
  • While the fantasy world can be overwhelming at times, Miyazaki’s ambition and curiosity shine through, making this film another surprise in an illustrious career.

The Boy and the Heron premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and comes to theaters on December 8.

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