Written by: Hannah Tran | December 7th, 2023
The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
The godfather of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki, is out of retirement with his twelfth film, The Boy and the Heron, an Alice in Wonderland–esque journey of a boy named Mahito, who goes to live with his aunt in the countryside after his mother’s death. After his aunt herself goes missing, a mysterious heron leads Mahito into a fantasy realm filled with ghosts of the past, man-eating parakeets, and powerful wizards. It stands out as one of Miyazaki’s most imaginative and strange worlds yet.
Despite the fairytale trappings, The Boy and the Heron lands on the more mature end of Miyazaki’s work. While he operates with a childlike curiosity, the story explores the weight that comes with understanding the pain of the world as one grows up. While the occasional goofiness that comes with such an out-of-this-world setting is fun and comforting, what truly makes this story impactful are the moments of horror and violence. Through these sequences, Mahito’s internal childhood turmoil is externalized into a visceral experience.
These moments are brought to life by the unsurprisingly brilliant animation. The terror is felt in the fiery opening scenes as the images seem to bleed and blur together. From the humans to the creatures that inhabit this land, Miyazaki proves that he can still show us something entirely new. His versatility is on full display as the characters range from adorable to grotesque to enchanting. They perfectly contrast with the beautiful backdrops of Japan and Miyazaki’s mind.
While there are so many fascinating moments in this film, it can feel overwhelmed by its sheer range of ideas. As you grow more and more lost in the world, it’s easy to begin to question which direction you are moving. The plot feels less fully developed than the images, and the beginning and end run a little longer than they probably need to. Despite some confusion, trust in Miyazaki’s process allows you to fully feel the impact of his thematic ideas.
The sentimentality of the story, while perhaps not as notable as in Miyazaki’s previous work, is brought to life by the unforgettable visuals, the compelling dialogue, and a moving score by the master’s longtime composer, Joe Hisaishi. In this unexpected but fully welcome moment of his career, Miyazaki leaves us a yearning monument to his work. The Boy and the Heron gives us yet another model of the enduring spirit of the director’s characters and the limitlessness of his imagination.