Unreasonably cute little boogers? Must be Miyazaki!
The other day, I watched The Boy and the Heron with some friends. I had no idea what to expect going in, and I may have left knowing very little. The picture is packed with symbolism and imagery that are entwined with the clichés of a through-the-looking-glass fairy tale, where events might occur without reason or even against it. The Boy and the Heron is, in my opinion, the hardest of Miyazaki Hayao’s works to comprehend, but since he made the extra effort to come out of retirement in order to create another masterpiece, I figure the least I can do is temporarily unghost in order to write up my meager commentary, especially on why I believe Miyazaki really intended The Boy and the Heron to be his swansong.
(I apologize for the bird pun, but I was at a loss for words).
I should note that this is more of a debrief with those who have already seen it, thus there will be very little synopsis and lots of spoilers. Follow along as you please, though, if none of that matters to you.
The Boy and the Heron, a film that is considered a spiritual successor to The Wind Rises and maybe autobiographical by Miyazaki himself (more on this later), is set during World War II, an event that not only permanently altered Japan but also impacted Miyazaki’s early recollections. Mahito, the brash son of a wealthy factory owner, is the boy in question. Mahito’s mother literally perishes in a fire in the first scene of the movie, leaving the small youngster traumatized. After realizing the danger and misery of the war, Mahito’s father leaves Tokyo with him and moves to an estate in the country, where he meets Natsuko, the younger sister of his mother, to whom his father had remarried. In this context, the titular heron—which is not your average waterfowl—arrives. It draws Mahito to a tower outside the estate, where the elderly maids murmur that Mahito’s great granduncle erected it at tremendous expense—both in blood and treasure—just before he abruptly vanished. The heron tells Mahito, “Your mother is alive,” and gestures for him to come inside the tower so it may speak with its master.
I purposely kept the summary short since, in many ways, The Boy and the Heron is a purposeful fever dream tale, and I don’t want to come out as having lost my mind if I put it in print. However, at that point, I can just text. Because Miyazaki sells The Boy and the Heron through visual impact, the film never feels utterly ridiculous or unauthentic. John Keats once said, “Beauty is truth,” and The Boy and his Heron is flawlessly true to that statement. The technical skill of the animation is evident since this is Studio Ghibli; a hospital burning down should be objectively horrifying, yet I was enthralled with the intricacy, just as I was with the birds’ simple flight. Naturally, every frame exudes Miyazaki’s signature appreciation of the rural Japanese landscape—even when the scene literally descends into a rabbit hole. But The Boy and the Heron’s beauty shines most brightly when it is at its most fantastical. The stunning visuals and the poignant melody by Hisaishi drown out any thoughts about the intricacies of the procedure when the warawara rise into the night sky to be reborn. Animation has always had this advantage: a scene doesn’t need to be realistic in the same way as it needs to be captivating. The Boy and the Heron has plenty of compulsion, enough to make one want to ignore reality and just go with the flow.
However, The Boy and the Heron wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it was just a flashy story with no real depth. Apparently a lot, possibly too much even for me to analyze quickly even if I wanted to. There is, of course, a parable about leaving a shattered world for future generations. It could not be more obvious than the pelicans, who, in order to survive, metaphorically feed on the future (unborn souls). They ought to be pitied even when they are condemned and burned. They lack the ability to act differently. Themes like the trauma of loss, the anguish of bereavement, the dread of inadequacy, and possibly the necessity of giving up one’s childhood goals are, perhaps sadly, connected to this. But is Miyazaki really devoid of hope for us? Is this the worst possible time to be alive? But in the end, the War did finish, as Miyazaki reminds us.
All of this, however, speaks generally; The Boy and the Heron seems to me to be a more intimate film for Miyazaki. I think he made this one for himself, much like he did with The Wind Rises. Undoubtedly, the metaphorical master of the tower is none other than Miyazaki. Despite its claimed imperfections, the world he created in his tower was full of wonder and creativity. A child could find their way, be brave, make friends, and find solutions to problems in it. The tributes were obvious, just like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. It also created a bridge between generations that would not have otherwise had anything in common culturally save a yearning to be like kids.
Miyazaki is elderly, though. He was born in 1941 and is currently in his 80s, which is advanced age even for an industry like animation where dexterity and vision are valued qualities. Following Miyazaki’s public remarks, you may have noticed that he occasionally comes across as a grouchy old man with a lot of expletives directed at the children (or rather, a younger generation of adults) playing on his yard. I believe that Miyazaki is aware of this on some level and has made a conscious effort to avoid it in his works, choosing to inspire rather than to lecture. Literally, kid’s toys, blocks form the basis of the otherworld in The Boy and the Heron. Ojii-san is aware that he cannot perpetually maintain the innocence and optimism necessary to create and enhance such a world. Mahito knew, though, that he was not quite there either. Who, after all, can replace Miyazaki? Although several people have been named the heir apparent, none of them can truly step into those shoes. If anything, Miyazaki never really thought of his works as “anime”; rather, they are a creation exclusively of his. There won’t be any more once he is gone.
Maybe in The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki is telling himself it’s alright. His demise also follows a natural path. The future is something that all children have, even if some will forget and some will remember. It is actually worse when these things are forced; the otherworld is destroyed not by evil intent but rather by zealous preservation and a misinterpretation of its fundamental principles. In the end, everyone must move on. For my part, I’ve found serenity. The great auteur, I hope, has as well. Farewell to Miyazaki-sensei. I hope that this time around you get to enjoy your retirement.