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Boy and the Heron premiere Getty 1.jpg

With the Release of His (Possibly) Final Film, Hayao Miyazaki Is Playing By His Own Rules

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 20, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 20, 2023 |

Boy and the Heron premiere Getty 1.jpg

The legendary animator and director Hayao Miyazaki has long made promises of his plans to retire. Such announcements are often quickly followed by a backtracking and news of just one more film before he hangs up his pencil at Studio Ghibli for good. Yet this time, it feels like his retirement might actually happen. After all, he’s now 82 years old and has been a stalwart of Japanese animation since the ’60s. He won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and remains the only Japanese filmmaker to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. He helped to introduce the entire concept of anime to generations of the English-speaking world. Spirited Away, considered by many to be his magnum opus, is the second highest-grossing Japanese film of all time (he’s responsible for 25% of that top 20.) To call him an icon who changed the world of animation feels like an understatement. So, nobody could begrudge his choice to finally leave this tough industry. But before he goes, he has one film left in him, and he’s giving it to the world entirely on his own terms.

In 2013, Miyazaki announced another retirement, with The Wind Rises positioned as his final film. This lasted until 2016, when he made a short film, Boro the Caterpillar, and decided to make one more movie. In 2017, Studio Ghibli announced production of Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka, which is the name of a 1937 novel. It was later revealed that the film doesn’t have anything to do with this novel, so, as the years passed, all fans knew about this film was its title. Miyazaki was working without deadlines, so we didn’t even have a release date to anticipate. Then a poster was revealed, but no trailer. No plot synopsis, no hints of the narrative’s secrets, not even a vague hint of what was to follow.

On December 13, 2022, the distributor Toho announced the theatrical release date of Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka, translated to How Do You Live?And that was it. This is a film that received zero promotion before its release, and that’s by design. In an interview with Japanese magazine Bungei Shunji, Ghibli’s longtime lead producer Toshio Suzuki said this was a chance for them to ‘do something different’ in introducing their films to viewers. This is certainly in line with Ghibli’s business ethos, which has long restricted the amount of merchandise made to prevent over-exposure and even limited pre-opening press access to their theme park for fear the attraction would become too popular. Suzuki also positioned their lack of marketing for How Do You Live as a decidedly non-Hollywood decision:

‘There’s an American movie — ah, I almost said the title out loud! — coming out this summer around the same time [as How Do You Live?],” he said. “They’ve made three trailers for it, and released them one at a time. If you watch all three, you know everything that’s going to happen in that movie. So how do moviegoers feel about that? There must be people, who, after watching all the trailers, don’t want to actually go see the movie. So, I wanted to do the opposite of that.’

I can certainly relate to that. I’ve sat through trailers for films that give away so much of the action that it feels, if not pointless, at least far less exciting to pay my money for the cinematic experience. There are no secrets or surprises in most major Hollywood movie trailers. We knew practically every cameo in Spider-Man: No Way Home months before it premiered. A lot of promotional material feels like condescending back-slapping for audiences, confirmation that they won’t have to think too hard about the tentpole of the season. It’s rare that I’m truly shocked by what I see now, but when it does happen, I treasure it immensely. That’s the real magic of cinema, that moment of pure discovery that sparks furious inspiration within you.

Miyazaki’s film opened in Japanese cinemas this past weekend, newly retitled The Boy and the Heron. Fans eagerly queued to see the film, and to find out what it’s all actually about. Now, the secret is out. The film’s Wikipedia page has a synopsis, reviews are detailing the plot, and spoilers are a-plenty if you know where to look for them. I won’t be sharing them here because I want to go into this film as fresh as possible when it eventually opens in the UK (the North American rights were acquired by distributor GKIDS for release later this year.) I’m genuinely eager to see this film knowing nothing about it, an opportunity I don’t often have as both a pop culture critic and general lover of movies.

Of course, there’s a reason that nobody does what Ghibli are currently pulling off. Marketing is everything and studios will lavishly spend to ensure as many people as possible are aware of their product. When you make something that costs well over $250 million, you can’t cross your fingers and simply hope people will turn up to theatres of their own volition. The market’s too crowded and our attention spans too divided to risk it. We don’t have many films or properties or directors who are truly critic or marketing-proof. Indiana Jones couldn’t make it work with The Dial of Destiny, Pixar hasn’t been able to spin Elemental into a smash on brand name recognition alone, and The Flash flopped hard even as Warner Bros. poured everything into making it a profit. Now, we’re at a point where the system is so obscenely over-inflated that studios are dumping money into marketing that only further increases the minimum gross required to break even. The cycle will continue until the bubble bursts.

This is perhaps a once-in-an-era moment for film. Here is a director of immense clout and respect who is at the end of his influential career and he wants to wrap things up appropriately. Miyazaki has long treasured the ability of animation to transcend storytelling boundaries, and stridently believed in the empathy of children to understand his themes and ideals. He’s presenting his vision to the world and hoping they’ll find their way to it. Not so secretly, I think audiences want something like this more often, a welcome contrast to bombardments of advertising and forced FOMO. I doubt such a model will ever be replicated unless the market drastically changes (hey, the summer of strike could mean anything), but seeing Miyazaki do it lightens my heart. So, no spoilers, please!