Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labour of the actors and other creatives involved in the project(s) mentioned here, Pages and Pictures would not exist. Pages and Pictures stands firmly behind SAG-AFTRA members as they fight for fair labour conditions.
The Boy and the Heron may or may not be Hayo Miyazaki’s final film, but it reflects his legacy. This is among Studio Ghibli’s strongest projects to date, with stunning visuals and an incredibly heartfelt story. In true Ghibli fashion, stunning visuals are combined with heartbreaking but uplifting storylines. Each character brings something to this enthralling mystical tale to give the fantastical world something concrete to delve into.
The characters are what truly bring this story together in a compelling way. Beginning with Mahito (Soma Santoki), he’s a protagonist who’s worth investing in. Like all good Ghibli protagonists, he adds an emotional weight that grounds what is otherwise an otherworldly narrative. Each of them brings their own complexities that blend nicely with the fairytale stakes. The fact that these characters are written having experienced actual historical events makes them that much easier to empathize with in the dream-like world.
Along with the beautifully crafted characters, this story succeeds because it’s a heartfelt reflection of life in post-war Japan. These other-worldly stakes allow for some honest emotional reflection in the aftermath of the war. It’s important that this movie never justifies the actions of Imperial Japan nor the action or inaction of the Japanese people during World War 2. In lesser hands, this incorporation of real history could have become inappropriately romanticized.
The Boy and the Heron is at its most authentic when it maintains its focus on the intricacies of family bonds. It’s evident throughout this story that this is what is at the core of this fantastical tale. The fact that these shifting dynamics are evident throughout demonstrates the strength of the story itself. It makes sense that Mahito would be so focused on his own grief and loss, as well as his father’s new relationship, regardless of what is happening around him. These feel like authentic stakes for a child in this situation.
Like all good Ghibli projects, there’s a touch of humour throughout this story that really brings the story to life. This added whimsy highlights the serious themes being explored. This adds an additional layer to this already deep exploration of the human emotions that are animated here. The supporting cast of wild characters only highlights Mahito’s emotional richness and makes his journey that much more endearing.
Finally, this movie does a phenomenal job of putting a global catastrophe in perspective by telling such a contained and personal story. Watching Mahito navigate his new, post-war reality puts the situation into a new perspective. The perspective of a child is always a useful one, and it is used to its full potential here. The range of emotions that are portrayed through colourful, silly characters add to Mahito’s character and help him grow exponentially.
The Boy and the Heron understood exactly what it needed to be. This is a timely yet timeless reflection on history, legacy and what is worth living for. This is a journey that’s absolutely worth taking for all ages. The movie combines the best of what Studio Ghibli offers while creating a fresh new story that is nothing less than enthralling.
The Boy and the Heron is coming to theatres in the US and Canada on December 08, 2023.