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The boy and the Heron.jpg

TIFF 2023: With ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ Hayao Miyazaki Makes Another Masterpiece

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 10, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 10, 2023 |

The boy and the Heron.jpg

The newest film by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki opened in his native Japan with deliberate mystery. There were no trailers, no slew of starry publicity campaigns, there wasn’t even a description of the plot. Audiences had a title, a poster, and the unique promise that a master of his craft was going to offer them something special. It paid off, and The Boy and the Heron was a massive hit. It had its North American premiere in Toronto, where new stills, a synopsis, and a trailer were available prior to the first screening. I chose to avoid all of that and go in fresh. How often do you have that opportunity as a viewer, let alone a professional critic?

So, in that spirit, I will offer this: I would be perfectly happy if you stopped reading this review and just saw the film in confidence. Hell, I recommend it. Just know that The Boy and the Heron is as wonderful as you’re hoping it is. It’s worth the anticipation.

But I also go to TIFF to actually write reviews, so for those of you who aren’t fussy about spoilers or already saw the trailer, here we go!

The Boy and the Heron opens in the midst of the Second World War, as Tokyo is in flames. Mahito loses his mother in his carnage, and a couple of years later, is forced to leave the city with his father. He has remarried to Mahito’s aunt, Natsuko, who lives in the countryside with a gaggle of old maids who lament the lack of fresh food and cigarettes. Troubled by nightmares over his mother’s death, Mahito struggles with his grief, and things get even stranger when a cackling heron who speaks human starts to taunt him. An ancient building in the forest hints at something special within its doors. Is Mahito’s mother alive? Who does the heron work for? What other worlds lie beyond this one?

It would have been so easy for Miyazaki to rely on his laurels and turn The Boy and the Heron into a greatest hits reel or rehash of his most iconic works. Far lesser filmmakers have relied on well-worn clout when in such a position. What has made Miyazaki endure for decades is his intense respect for his audience, particularly his younger viewers, who he has never condescended to or dismissed their outlook on the world. This is a director with reverence not only for his craft but for the ways it can delve into what makes us human. The Boy and the Heron may share strands of DNA with films like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and especially The Wind Rises, but it is a far more reflective and dreamlike affair in its examination of childhood, grief, and the natural world.

The attention to detail remains staggering. The sheer spectrum of emotions that Miyazaki can evoke through this hand-drawn form puts his many copycats to shame. Mahito’s attempts to smother his grief are evident in the way he tenses up and bows when he tries to hold it together in front of strangers. When he catches his father and his new wife kissing, he crawls back like a bug, a moment that elicited heavy laughter from the enthused audience. The heron of the title is a combination of beautiful and monstrous, a very Miyazaki move as No Face can attest to (there’s a moment involving the gutting of a giant fish that feels like it came straight from Akira.) There are evil parakeets - yes, really - who move like hired goons and sharpen knives sinisterly, as well as adorable ghost-like creatures called the warawara that I desperately need plushie versions of. The shift from the real world to the Wonderland that Mahito literally sinks into allows the animators to greatly expand their colour palette, from the subdued nature of wartime Japan to a near-magisterial realm. There are too many moments where you watch the film and just go slack-jawed at what you’re seeing. Even something as simple as the grass in the wind feels special.

Miyazaki has always understood the treacherous nature of growing up, that catch-22 existence of being forced into adulthood yet never being appropriately prepared for it. Spirited Away, perhaps still his magnum opus, soars in its portrayal of a pre-adolescent girl’s journey to self-realization through the traditional hero’s journey and its melding with Japanese folklore. Here, the fairytale aspects are evident but never prioritized over Mahito’s growing inner strength. He’s a smart kid dealing with trauma, grief, and a literal world war. The supernatural infringing on his life is barely a surprise. It can’t be any more unfair than reality, right? He’s not petulant, nor is he cloyingly mature. He’s a good, if understandably angry, young man who wants to stay good as everything threatens to overwhelm him. Even if you’re furious at a world that’s going to hell, it’s worth fighting for your own humanity and that of others.

Hayao Miyazaki had previously announced plans to retire after The Boy and the Heron, but, like his many earlier insistences that he was ready to hang up his pencils, he’s gone back on his word. So, The Boy and the Heron might not be his cinematic swan song. Aren’t we lucky? Still, if it is, then it’s one hell of a way to end a legendary career: emotional, highly original, pensive, funny, and hopeful. All in all, classic Miyazaki. I can’t wait for you all to see this.

The Boy and the Heron had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released wide on December 8.