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‘The Boy and the Heron’ review: A dazzling return to classic Studio Ghibli magic

Ryan Oquiza

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‘The Boy and the Heron’ review: A dazzling return to classic Studio Ghibli magic

FROGS. A still from 'The Boy and the Heron.' Studio Ghibli

Still from 'The Boy and the Heron'

Hayao Miyazaki’s unretirement is, in typical Ghibli fashion, a ceremony of visual feasts. It shares a kindred spirit with ‘Spirited Away,’ but somewhat falters in building the same emotional highs.

This is a spoiler-free review.

Earlier in the month, reviews from the journalists and critics who saw The Boy and the Heron for the first time talked lavishly about how the film is a metaphor for a master finally putting his coat on the rack and passing on the torch to a younger generation. But now that it has been confirmed that the film will likely not be his final one, that reading feels a bit muddied now. 

The 82-year-old pioneer of Japanese animation has mentioned numerous times his desire to retire, even as early as 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke. Ten years ago, he also announced the same thing leading up to 2013’s The Wind Rises, which was even paired with a fascinating documentary that tracked Miyazaki’s animation process during the film’s production period.

Absent from the news cycle that was Miyazaki’s retirement, The Boy and the Heron still obviously works as a tremendously staggering achievement in animation that contains the same trademarks that have made people fall in love with the director. The attention to every detail, the exactitude in the way fabrics crease, and the deliberate bodily movements depicted in almost slow-motion fashion to emphasize their significance are all unmistakably present and painstakingly animated.

The fantastical realm crafted by Miyazaki remains as enchanting and magical as the timeless classics he introduced years ago, be it the Spirit Realm or the Moving Castle. He also anchors the plot on a 12-year-old boy who undergoes an important moment of transition that gets manifested through his external environment. He encounters a series of trials and tribulations, each offering valuable life lessons, all while being accompanied by charming, animal-like sidekicks who provide companionship throughout their journey.

Magical surrealism serves as the linchpin of every frame, creating a sense of awe and wonder typically reserved for one or two moments in lesser films; this one has them every few minutes. Despite these positives, the film’s expansiveness also becomes its Achilles heel, as its story, and its slow build-up, amounts to a brief, “just fine,” if not wholly anticlimactic resolution. What it was having an abundance of in visual richness, it was unfortunately lacking in its emotional storytelling department.

The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Mahito, who ventures into a foreign town following his mother’s tragic demise in a devastating hospital fire. His father, the owner of an air munitions factory, enters into a marriage with his late wife’s younger sister, Natsuko. Mahito grapples with the hardships of adjusting to this unfamiliar setting, facing difficulties at school and resisting any bond with his new mother. The situation takes a surreal turn as a heron starts to torment Mahito, leading him into uncharted realms of fantastical wonder.

One thing to note is that the film takes its time to build all of these up. It is surprisingly a lot slower than Miyazaki’s previous films, really focusing on the alienation and grief that Mahito feels in the first hour. Compare it to the immediacy that Chihiro gets wrapped up in the bath house, or how quickly Kiki’s delivery service gets off the ground. This is not a weakness, but it does feel like a sticking sore thumb when compared to the last half of the film, which branches into full-on Spirited Away territory and introduces charming otherworldly characters that probably should’ve had bigger roles earlier on. 

What results is two really good films that feel detached from one another. One is a grounded coming-of-age tale about how a child copes with a tragic loss of life. The other is a whimsical dream world containing cute flesh-eating parakeets, a wizard architect, an intrepid seafairer, and a fiery elemental heroine. Tethering these individuals cogs is Miyazaki’s own personal experiences, who similarly lost his mother and went through the brutal childhood of a post-World War II Japan.

The film also takes cues from the 1937 classic Japanese novel How Do You Live? in that it has loose parallels to the story of a young boy learning about morality and the human condition through his uncle, Koperu. Likewise, Mahito embarks on a kindred odyssey of self-discovery as he explores the memories of his mother and forges unlikely bonds with alternate versions of people from the real world. 

The lesson, shared by both texts, is one of choice. Miyazaki’s adaptation can be boiled down to a momentous juncture where individuals must grapple with the idea of moving on from the chaos and dangers of life. At one point, Mahito makes a decision that embraces the human flaws that have come to define him, thereby unshackling himself from the burden of expectations.

It could be interpreted as a commentary on the harsh reality that children in earlier eras were pushed to grow up faster, compelled to resort to harm and the disintegration of their sense of self because of the grievous and tragic impact of industrialization and war on their generation. In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki’s fantastical elements serve as an antidote to that illness. 

The heron’s companionship, the tenderness of the old maids, and the enduring love of a mother all belong to the same category of kindness and idealism, bestowing meaning upon the small yet imaginative world of a young child. The problem is that this undoubtedly wonderful concept feels awkwardly scattered throughout the film. For instance, we lose sight of the bond with the mother in favor of another fantastical element introduced more than halfway through the film. Or, we get a very heartwarming reveal that gets upended by a rushed conclusion that undercuts its emotional impact. 

Moments of breathtaking imagination also need their time to breathe, and the film’s tight script does not allow much room for it. The Boy and the Heron didn’t evoke the same sense of longing or wistfulness that Chihiro’s departure from the spirit world or Ponyo’s transformation did. Instead, it left me contemplating a void in the film, as if it were missing a climax or narrative act, which seemed to underlie my detachment in forming a deeper connection with the characters. 

But again, this film is an antidote, a dose of warmth, wholesomeness, and an enduring celebration of the human spirit that feels so uncommon in art nowadays. Which is why Miyazaki’s latest film, whether it truly is the last or not, remains to be one of the monumental archives of kindness, a tribute to the spirit to dream, to hope, and to live. –

The Boy and The Heron will open in Philippine theaters on January 8, 2024. 

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.