The second major anime release in a year to deal with lost mothers, after Shinkai Makoto’s Suzume (2022), Miyazaki Hayao’s The Boy and the Heron (Japanese title: How Do You Live?) is gorgeously illustrated in a different direction. Rather than Shinkai’s photorealistic spectacle of light, sky, and water, Studio Ghibli gives us impressionistic smudges of grass and trees (cinematography by Okui Atsushi), while remaining lovingly attentive to details: When young protagonist Mahito (Santoki Soma) sleeps, a crease in his shirt disappears as he inhales and reappears as he exhales.

Mahito loses his mother when the Tokyo hospital at which she works is bombed during WWII. In flashback (edited by Seyama Takeshi), we see him running toward the hospital through streets full of fire, smoke, and general chaos, the lines of his body blurring into his surroundings. It’s something he dreams about often. His father (Kimura Takuya) later marries Mahito’s younger aunt Natsuko (Kimura Yoshino, no relation), and they move into her rural mansion.

The first third of this 124-minute film follows Mahito as he explores his new surroundings. Natsuko is a good mother and wife, if slightly remote. Mahito later keeps referring to her as “the woman my father likes.” And the maids and housekeepers comprise about a half dozen kindly old ladies (one critic calls them “a grumble of grannies”), drawn and animated in that inimitable Studio Ghibli style that’s so expressive of aged faces.They’re like Snow White’s dwarves, their many years of companionship having fostered a childlike purity of heart. The mansion itself sits between a stream and a forest hill, ensconced in lush greenery, affording much for a young boy to explore.

Just as you think this is going to be one of Miyazaki’s more realist efforts, a gray heron with a knowing gaze comes swooping through the veranda, accompanied by discordant piano plinks (music by Joe Hisaishi). The piano plinks again every time the heron appears, the heavy-handed repetition being one of the film’s few missteps. The heron lurks outside windows and in the back of shots, like some kind of horror film monster. And then it speaks (Suda Masaki).

With promises of restoring his mother, the heron repeatedly lures Mahito to a decrepit stone tower atop the forest hill that’s been sealed off for years. Natsuko goes missing, and Mahito knows she must have entered the tower somehow. He knows it’s a trap, but he sets forth anyway. An old man who disappeared long ago (Hino Shohei) appears high up in the tower to toss a rose that shatters on the floor, recalling another famous use in anime of tragic rose symbolism, in Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999). Mahito descends to another world, one created by the old man, where he finds a young fire sorceress named Himi (Aimyon), man-sized parakeets that sharpen knives to feast on people, and cute white puffballs called warawara (Karen Takizawa) that eat from Old Man and the Sea–sized fish to ascend and be reborn as humans. (The parakeets, unfortunately, are also cute.)

If this all seems a bit overwhelming, I haven’t even mentioned the temporal displacement. We intuit that there are rules, but we never know what they are, so things feel like they happen randomly. It’s a bit unhinged. This matches the film’s theme well.

At its core, this is Miyazaki’s The Tempest, with the old man as Prospero, the alter ego. But instead of colonialism, the key theme is grief. How do you live with it? Do you shut yourself up and fashion a world to your ideal specifications, only to discover it to have been doomed by its imperfections, stemming from the imperfections of its creator, and now be tottering on the brink of collapse? Do you then seek a more perfect successor to try again and inevitably fail again, but perhaps fail better? How do you deal with the parakeets you brought with you who have now multiplied, savor human flesh, and plot to usurp you?

Or do you recognize that grief is a part of life, that the most perfect world you could design wouldn’t be able to stave it off, and that the only way out is through? Once you embark on this path, even the parakeets shrink back to their usual, relatively harmless size. They’re still there; they just can’t hurt you as badly.

They say that this film is a letter to Miyazaki’s grandson. They say that it won’t actually be his last film, that he’s already working on the next one. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s next play (skipping the disputed Cardenio) was most likely Henry VIII. I wonder what Miyazaki has in store for us.

The Boy and the Heron is in theaters.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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