New York 2023 review: The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki)

“History cannot be undone, yet in Miyazaki’s well-worn thesis of resilience, expanding our view of it can accommodate perspectives which challenge and enrich our own.”

Genzaburō Yoshino wrote his beloved novel How Do You Live? (Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka) with the aim of imparting philosophical axioms onto an adolescent Japanese readership. His tale of a 14-year-old boy in Tokyo’s moral awakening had its pedagogical designs rooted in resistance against the militaristic authoritarianism that by 1937, the year of the book’s publication, would lead to eight years of conflict in China and the Pacific Theater. Yoshino’s work survived censorship of its social commentary, specifically around classism and jingoism, to endure as a didactic text which challenges the reader, young and old, to cultivate their cultural curiosity in tandem with their political convictions.

This background information isn’t integral to appreciating the audio-visual pleasures of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, whose Japanese title is lifted from Yoshino’s and briefly references the book itself. Yet while the fantastical narrative of Miyazaki’s first film in a decade completely deviates from Yoshino’s novel, their shared historical and thematic concerns are significant in providing an entry point to Miyazaki’s most personal feature. Moreso than his 2004 repurposing of Dianna Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki’s radical adaptation of How Do You Live? reconfigures cosmic motifs, filial lineage, and the effect of war on youth to produce the auteur’s most boldly oneiric fable in his six-decade career.

Miyazaki’s plot revolves around another teenage boy, Mahito (Soma Santoki), who evacuates the city to the countryside with his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) after his mother perishes during a firebomb raid. Shoichi, the owner of a munitions factory aiding the Imperial Army, remarries his late wife’s sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), who Mahito observes is the spitting image of his mother. Mahito only formally addresses his new stepmother, who is already pregnant with his half-sister, concealing and fitfully expressing his oedipal rage while struggling to adapt in his new environment.

Matters are only further complicated by Mahito’s encounter with the estate’s resident heron (Masaki Suda), a bird whose flash of brilliant teeth denotes a hidden layer of human malevolence (and, as often in Miyazaki’s work, is indeed not initially what he seems to be). This avian adversary lures Mahito into a mysterious tower on the estate’s grounds to rescue Natsuko from a netherworld populated with all manner of ornithological wonders and dangers. That flight becomes a major motif in the film should come as no surprise to acolytes of the director’s work, but the flocks of anthropomorphic birds Mahito confronts provide ample room for allegorical reflection on conformity and free will within a recognizably human construct.

Miyazaki’s signature penchant for fabulist metaphor often gestures toward specific historical moments, but The Boy and the Heron transcends the immediate trappings of its Second World War milieu. One of the maids who cares for Mahito in his new home briefly mentions that the mysterious arrival of the tower shortly predated the Meiji Restoration and sparked the obsession of Mahito’s granduncle, an architect driven to madness and disappearance. More than a throwaway line, it recontextualizes Miyazaki’s fable as one which strives to account for the cumulative effect modernization had on Japan. 

The cosmopolitan complexity of this subtextual wrinkle may strike some as underdeveloped, but I’d argue it remains wholly in spirit with Yoshino’s text, which considers the influence of Napoleon and Alexander the Great on Japanese military fervour. It’s no coincidence that the omnipotent ruler of this cosmic plane, whose machinations remain mysterious to its occupants, has his precarious authority challenged by the strongman monarch leading the parakeet uprising (to his credit, Miyazaki understands the absurdity of that premise and mines plenty of slapstick that, like in Porco Rosso, makes fools out of fascists).

In typical Miyazaki fashion, the women voice the strongest form of dissent against patriarchal arrogance. Kiriko (Shibasaki Ko), one of the maids who follows Mahito into the netherworld, appears transformed into an androgynous sailor whose lesson in fish-gutting is suffused with phallic undertones of penetration as Mahito haltingly performs the task. She feeds the fish to a haven of white, bulbous creatures called Warawara, who ascend from their world into the heavens, transmuted into newborn infants in our world. They are also protected by Princess Himi (Aimyon), whose ability to burst into flame at will contrasts with the weaponized inferno humans fail to control.

What prevents these characters and images from feeling like simple retreads of earlier Miyazaki films is a disarming ambivalence over goodness as a prevailing attribute. Malice, both toward others and the self, dominates the film’s most starkly violent scenes, and Miyazaki implicates himself in perpetuating that vicious cycle as someone affected by the wartime loss of his own mother. His desire to witness the level of profound metamorphosis that he can only simulate through his craft imbues The Boy and the Heron with a rueful sorrow that effectively complements his wistful biopic The Wind Rises. But Miyazaki’s auto-critical vision beckons the viewer, through the liberatory confines of his chosen medium, to consider our shared stakes in building a world whose foundations aren’t forged from the stones of the dead. History cannot be undone, yet in Miyazaki’s well-worn thesis of resilience, expanding our view of it can accommodate perspectives which challenge and enrich our own. That’s the advantage of youth over experience; in Miyazaki’s prismatic refraction of our troubled world, it may well be the attribute needed to reconcile our nightmares and dreams into a unified template for grace.