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MOVIE REVIEW: Studio Ghibli does it again: ‘The Boy and the Heron’ marvels and inspires with a personal tale of grief and loss

Studio Ghibli has, since 1985, delivered gorgeous, animated movies that inspired and marveled audiences from around the globe and ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is just another continuation of that legacy.

When watching a Studio Ghibli, you are somewhat assured of stunning visuals and a fantastical story filled with inherent symbolisms. Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned Japanese filmmaker is back after ten years with ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the era of the Pacific War. While the film is magical and mysterious, there is a heavy, pervasive sadness that grounds this movie, as the story keeps at its center the main’s character sense of loss and grief for their dead mother. It is the beating heart of this lusciously drawn animated feature.

‘The Boy and the Heron’ is the story of Mahito, who loses his mother during a fire in the middle of the Pacific War. He then moves to the countryside with his father and his new wife, Natsuko, the younger sister of Mahito’s mother. As the young boy copes with his new environment – a large home the size of a castle, bullies at school, a host of nosy, elderly women helping around the house – Mahito struggles resolving his feelings for Natsuko, who is pregnant with his soon-to-be-sibling, and the grief he still carries for his mother.

It is at his most vulnerable when Mahito discovers that the heron living near the grounds is inviting him to explore an abandoned, locked up tower in the woods. At first, the heron is mysterious and mystical, capable of speech and other fancy tricks. But later, it takes on a more sinister approach, and even revealing human teeth. When Mahito finally gives in to the lure, in efforts to find Natsuko, who has gone missing in the woods, he finds himself in a fantasy world where birds can take human form and speak, where the oceans are cursed, and beings who command fire exist.

There are quite a few parallelisms found in ‘The Boy and the Heron’ with Hayao Myazaki’s life – the loss of his mother, the point-of-view of a world filled with strife and conflict, amongst others – that there is a heaviness to the film that keeps the tone dark and melancholic, despite the sheer beauty of the film’s visuals. The film is not without its share of whimsy, including cute characters like a warawara, that can float into the sky by inhaling deeply. The film is also filled with birds of various breeds and when they flock around a character, that character is filled with bird poop. It has no real effect on the plot but it’s just a sense of visual whimsy that pulls against the sadness that anchors this film.

Because what is truly pushing the story forward is Mahito’s grief for his mother but also his determination to reconcile his emotions with Natsuko. More than his relationship with the heron, who becomes his guide in the fantasy world, it’s his relationship with both Natsuko and the fire being, Lady Himi, that sets the tender and beating heart of this film.


What is great about ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ aside from the sheer beauty of its design and art is how the story does not dawdle or feel like it needs to explain itself to the audience. There are things that happen in the film that are never justified nor picked apart and it is perfectly fine. The connection between the fantasy world and the real world is tenuous and unexplored but it is also not a necessity to know. There is a confidence in the world and world building of Hayao Miyazaki that allows you to just accept what is given narratively and you just take it because it makes sense.

Practically a legend, the renowned filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki still manages to dazzle and impress even in his latest outing. ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is a film that will leave you breathless with wonder and invites you to marvel at the power of creativity and dreams. The score by Joe Hisaishi is splendid and creates incredible melodies that can sometimes contrast a scene, creating a rich texture to the story as it unfolds. It is surprising at every turn and while it has an air of sadness and weight, it never wallows in it. It manages for whimsy and even humor while still delivering a lovely adventure that crosses time and space. Studio Ghibli has, since 1985, delivered gorgeous, animated movies that inspired and marveled audiences from around the globe and ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is just another continuation of that legacy. There are threats that this film may be Hayao Miyazaki’s last, and if it were, what a way to go.

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The Boy and the Heron
Adventure, Animation, Drama, Fantasy
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