The Boy and the Heron
Master of animation Hayao Miyazaki is back with another poetic, yet often disturbing, flight of imagination steeped in Japanese mythology and the beauty of the natural world.
“The Boy and the Heron” is the first film in 10 years by writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest animators in cinematic history — and you don’t even really need the “one of” modifier. “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and other of his iconic movies combine his wild sense of imagination, steeped in an appreciation for the natural world and Japanese mythology.
“Heron” isn’t among his greatest, but that’s like saying a car is the slowest Ferrari. Miyazaki is in his 80s now and keeps talking about retiring, but his love of filmmaking always seems to bring him back. I wish him many more years and myself many more of his breathtaking films.
A recurring theme in his movies, the story centers on a child in distress. Mahito (voice by Soma Santoki) has recently lost his mother in the midst of World War II. His father, Shoichi (Takuya Kimura), a well-to-do manufacturer of warplane parts, his remarried to Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), who is bearing his new brother or sister. Mahito is moved to his father’s new estate in the country, and has difficulty adjusting to his new family and school situation.
After a tussle with some other boys, Mahito intentionally injures his head with a rock, telling everyone he took a tumble. He is ordered to extended bed rest and fussed over by the small army of old women, or grandmas, who serve the household. Chief among them is Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki), a sour-faced but devoted servant.
Mahito is continually vexed by a large grey heron that seems to always stay around their home. After he is somewhat recovered from his injury — resulting in a large scar and shaved side of his head — the boy gets into a fight with the bird, which begins speaking to and taunting him (Masaki Suda).
(I should mention that “Heron” is also being released with an English voice cast, which includes Robert Pattinson, Florence Pugh and Christian Bale. Personally I prefer subtitles to dubbing.)
Like much of Miyazaki’s oeuvre, the line between reality and fantasy is a very hazy one, so we never really know how much of what is going on is in the boy’s head. It’s pretty clear that Mahito’s loss of his mother and sense of ambiguity about his new life circumstances is being channeled into his adventures.
Mahito encounters his granduncle (Shōhei Hino), long dead, who built the mysterious tower on their estate that acts as a portal to another world where much of these excursions take place. There he encounters little balloon-like creatures who will become new souls in the ‘real’ world, if they are not hunted by the swarms of pelicans. They are served by a pirate-like fisherwoman who acts as the boy’s guardian.
He also meets Lady Himi (Aimyon), who is the benevolent knight-errant of this realm, using her powers of flame as both weapon and armor. Birds seem to be the primary denizens of this underworld, with parakeets cast as the overgrown, hulking professional soldiers, with their own misguided king (Jun Kunimura).
Physical variation/transformation is a recurring theme in Miyazaki’s stories, and we see many such incredible examples in both worlds of “Heron.” The titular bird seems sleek and graceful, but underneath is revealed to be a troll-like, dyspeptic little man. He wears his heron guise as some kind of cross between costume and alternate form — he even has a way of “swallowing” himself.
Also like Miyazaki’s other films, the worlds we explore are amazing to the eye but also dangerous, with death hidden around every corner. Similarly the tone alternates between joy, fascination and forbidding. There is always something disturbing about the animator’s landscapes, which I think is why they are appreciated more as a adult fare than kiddie cartoons.
“The Boy and the Heron” is a tale of adventure, but also great sadness and anxiety. Mahito tries to be a brave little samurai, but must rely on others in order to persevere. So must we all.