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Animation Is Film Festival: The Boy and the Heron Review

October 21, 2023 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The Boy and the Heron - Still 2 Image Credit: Studio Ghibli
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Animation Is Film Festival: The Boy and the Heron Review  

Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
Written By: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 124 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violent content/bloody images and smoking.

Soma Santoki – Mahito Maki
Masaki Suda – The Gray Heron
Takuya Kimura – Shoichi Maki
Yoshino Kimura – Natsuko
Aimyon – Himi
Kô Shibasaki – Kiriko
Jun Kunimura – The Parakeet King
Shohei Hino – Great-Uncle

Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki has famously retired from directing multiple times over the last three decades. To offer a theory on why, when observing his work, his films are meticulous, insanely detailed, deeply personal, and emotional experiences. One who knows Miyazaki’s work can only imagine how much he puts into creating so many masterpieces. It must be a tremendously taxing experience that absorbs every fiber of his being and reflects deeply personal events. With that in mind, it makes sense why Miyazaki would think such an experience would be the last time, and why he would not want to put himself through such an ordeal again. Yet, just like any great artist, Miyazaki returns to his easel, taking pencil and paper in hand. That brings us to his latest masterpiece, The Boy and the Heron.

Miyazaki’s latest Studio Ghibli opus served as the opening night feature of this year’s Animation Is Film Festival in Los Angeles, brought to US shores courtesy of GKIDS. Even at 82 years old, Hayao Miyazaki is a master of his craft, and his latest tale is no exception. Miyazaki does not only create stories, he creates dreamlike, subconscious experiences. The Boy and the Heron captures an abstract, dreamlike unconscious experience unlike any other film Miyazaki has made before.

The Boy and the Heron is a coming-of-age tale following the young boy Mahito Maki (Santoki) struck by a terrible loss, faced with the death of his mother as her hospital goes ablaze during a wartime bombing. About a year later, Mahito and his emotionally distant father, Shoichi (Kimura), relocate to the countryside to move in with his new pregnant wife, Natsuko (Kimura). There is something eerily strange about their homestead.

The old patriarch of Natsuko’s family, her great-uncle, built a mysterious tower next to their home that now lies deserted. The great-uncle eventually went mad and disappeared, never seen or heard from again. Something draws Mahito to the tower, mainly a strange Gray Heron, who also has the ability to speak (Suda). After the pregnant Natsuko goes missing, Mahito follows the Gray Heron into an unnatural and fantastical world that borders the natural one, as he’s forced to find a greater understanding of his tragedy.

While The Boy and the Heron is a fantastical story with a whimsical sense of adventure and many of Miyazaki’s famous hallmarks, there’s a fascinating maturity to this film. Miyazaki has no time to hold the audience’s hand and talk them through everything. He trusts that his audiences are smart enough to watch his films and gives them a generous amount of details to figure out the rest on their own. This is a great example of the film’s integrity. The narrative avoids getting bogged down in exposition.

The Boy and the Heron moves at a rather deliberate pace as Miyazaki sets the tone and location of Mahito’s predicament. Mahito doesn’t make trouble for his family, but there’s a subtle, cold distance and resentment. Miyazaki conveys a lot through lush, vibrant imagery rather than dialogue.

The Boy and the Heron features many familiar hallmarks of Miyazaki’s past works. Throughout their journey, Mahito and the Gray Heron encounter many strange yet oddly cute critters, and tiny and adorable elderly people, and the journey unfolds in an amorphous abstract fashion. The magical world Mahito travels to appears like something out of an unconscious dream. It resembles a familiar reality similar to the parts of dreams one can remember and can feel, yet not fully comprehend.

Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli spared no expense in delivering a painstakingly handcrafted animated wonderland. The Boy and the Heron looks visually amazing. While this should come as no surprise to longtime cinephiles of Miyazaki’s work, any single frame could be pulled from this feature and put on display in a museum or a cinematic exhibit. The movie looks how it feels, and it feels magical. It captures the emotional experience of how dreams make people feel.

Hayao Miyazaki is a true master and artisan of his craft. While some healthy skepticism remains the next time he retires, it won’t be surprising if inspiration eventually strikes again.

The Boy and the Heron arrives in theaters, with both English-dubbed and subtitled versions, from GKIDS on December 8.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Hayao Miyazaki proves he is still an unparalleled master of animation with his latest feature. The Boy and the Heron crafts a lovely, heartwarming coming-of-age tale about a boy coming to grips with a personal tragedy and finding new introspection and enlightenment. Miyazaki creates a culmination of his past works while still crafting something unique, uplifting, and wondrous that doesn't constantly hold his audience's hand. Instead, Miyazaki once again empowers his audience with his singular vision. By the time the credits rolled, The Boy and the Heron had me in tears.