Ten years ago, legendary filmmaker and mangaka Hayao Miyazaki announced that he would be retiring from directing feature films, bringing his illustrious fifty year career in animation to an end. This retirement would be short-lived, however, as it would only be a couple years later that the Spirited Away director would begin work on a new animated feature film titled, “How Do You Live?” The film would see a seven year development cycle and finally release in the summer of 2023 with the English title, “The Boy and the Heron.” Like many others, I hold the films by Studio Ghibli and Mr. Miyazaki in the highest regard. Their films have been consistent in providing thematically powerful narratives, particularly when it comes to the experiences and imaginations of children coming of age. So when Miyazaki revealed that The Boy and the Heron would not only continue this trend, but do so by taking inspiration from his very own childhood, my eagerness to watch the film only grew. Unfortunately, having now finally gotten the chance to watch the film in theatres, I must regrettably admit that The Boy and the Heron flounders to capture the magic of Ghibli’s previous outings.
Structurally, the film follows similar beats to those of Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. Mahito, alongside his father Shoichi, move to rural Japan to escape a war-torn Tokyo wherein he lost his mother in a devastating hospital fire. While finding trouble acclimating to his new surroundings, Mahito encounters a strange heron who leads him to a supernatural tower; a tower that the odd heron lures him to enter with the promise of finding his deceased mother. It’s not difficult to see the similarities to Miyazaki’s previous works, and yet something about the way in which this opening act unfolds felt amiss. Aside from a truly riveting opening scene that hit all the necessary emotional beats to put us right into the midst of the devastation, the remainder of the opening act felt uncharacteristically hollow.
The film spends a good amount of time with Mahito and his new surroundings, but that time never feels utilized effectively. Silence and static cinematography is a staple to not only Ghibli’s animations, but Japanese filmmaking in general, going back to directors like Ozu and Kurosawa. However, these techniques always served a purpose. Whether to establish tone, setting, or to either enhance or juxtapose a character’s unverbalized emotions. These techniques have been used to great effect in previous Ghibli films to establish all that was going on inside a protagonist’s mind, whether they be a Satsuki or a Taeko. Yet, never once did I truly feel connected to Mahito’s struggles or thoughts during the opening act of The Boy and the Heron. From his relationship to his father—who has taken a new wife—to his loneliness in a new setting, to coming to grips with the loss of his mother. All of these narrative beats are hit, though only on a surface level as the fatiguingly slow pace coupled with the unfocused editing aren’t able to do justice to these beats on an emotional and nuanced level.
Things begin to ramp up after Mahito enters the ominous tower, but the woes of the film’s disjointed storyboarding continues. This uneven alacrity results in the film glossing over key narrative moments, which are never given a chance to breathe, while also stripping away any true character introspection and reflection. Speaking of which, characters are introduced and quickly forgotten about, and the supernatural world in which they are set in is showcased to be far larger than initially expected; a world that puts Mahito at the centre of its existence, to his understandable confusion. Yet, this sense of grandeur comes unnaturally quick as the mechanics of the world are never properly established as the film moves briskly to its next plot beat. This sense of confusion within a bizarre world isn’t a first for Miyazaki and Ghibli, as the Oscar winning Spirited Away followed similar steps. However, every scene in that film, while at times feeling overwhelming, felt purposefully so as it consistently put the audience in the shoes of its protagonist, Chihiro. Its bizarre, outlandish world always served a purpose that poignantly—and at times grotesquely—conveyed an array of themes, from the manifested anxieties of a young girl to the follies of greed and capitalism.
When reflecting on the world and characters of The Boy and the Heron, I find myself struggling to find such a thematic through-line. I don’t doubt that they exist, but the film’s lack of focused storyboarding, inconsistent pace, unrefined characters, and haphazard visuals make it difficult to understand them. Speaking of visuals, however, it’s here where the seven-year development time makes sense. Miyazaki and his crew of animators over at Studio Ghibli have once again outdone themselves in showcasing what’s possible with 2D, hand-drawn animation. This is a breathtakingly gorgeous film whose visuals are made all the more captivating when witnessing them in the theatres. I simply wish my heart could have been moved just as much as my eyes were. It’s something that Miyazaki and Co. have successfully done in the past, but have come up short this time around with a film that, though clearly has a lot to say in regards to loss and death, is muted by its own muddled execution that never allows its heart to shine.