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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

The Boy and the Heron: Studio Ghibli

★★★

Review: The Boy and the Heron, film by Studio Ghibli, released in the UK on 26 December 2023, and now showing throughout the UK.

MILD SPOILER ALERT

The Boy and the Heron is Hayao Miyazaki’s final film for the animation studio Studio Ghibli.  As I’m sure you know, Miyazaki  co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985, and I think it’s fair to say that the animation films it has produced have had an unprecedented impact on global popular culture. While Miyazaki has announced his retirement multiple times, this film really does feel like Miyazaki’s farewell chapter.  



As with all of Miyazaki’s films, The Boy and the Heron is a rich and multi-layered experience, full of magic and whimsy. In essence though, the film is a very personal message to Miyazaki’s family, friends, colleagues and fans – though primarily, it’s a gift to his grandson – as Miyazaki himself has said. The entire film is an extended allegory, exploring Miyazaki’s life, his work and what will and should happen to the studio when he departs - and it is fascinating.  



Set in war time Japan, the story follows a young boy, Mahito, as he tries to come to terms with his mother’s death.  Unlike Miyazaki’s other films, in The Boy and the Heron, the story is not the primary device for communicating Miyazaki’s messages – instead, the story functions as a sort of loose connector for a series of vignettes or meditations on aspects of Miyazaki’s past and his ideas for the future.  This means that for me, some aspects of the story can be quite jarring.



Miyazaki has said that he believes that once he retires, Studio Ghibli will collapse. And indeed, it’s widely acknowledged that nobody else at Studio Ghibli can recreate that special enchantment that is Miyazaki’s wildly successful filmic signature.



In The Boy and the Heron, Mahito’s Grand Uncle has built up a magical universe and works continuously to maintain it.  Grand Uncle hopes that Mahito or perhaps the Parakeet King will take over running the universe. However, nobody has desire or the skill to balance all the elements needed to keep the magical world in harmony. As Grand Uncle departs, the magical stone that imbues the enchanted world with its substance disintegrates, destroying the enchanted world.  It’s about as literal as an allegory can get. 


The film features many of Miyazaki’s favoured tropes - including flight, displacement, coming of age, nature, and magical realism.  And, as always, it features very merchandisable kawaii spirit characters. 



However, what the film lacks, in my opinion, is Miyazaki’s signature trope - long moments of reflection and repose in nature - in Japanese  "shinrin-yoku" (森林浴). I think these moments, as in many other Miyazaki films, would have provided a continuous thread of connection between the very many different and disjointed vignettes.



The film is scored by Joe Hisashi, Miyazaki’s long-time collaborator, who wrote the now iconic music on many of Miyazaki’s most beloved films including Spirited Away, and Totoro. I absolutely love Hisashi’s music, but I don’t think that this is Hisashi’s best score.  The music felt as though there was some sort of expressive obstacle inhibiting Hisashi from fully realising emotion in the way he usually does.  The score felt sparse and simple, but not in that subtle and extremely satisfying way that is the usual Hisashi signature.  In fact, to me, it sounds unfinished.



Miyazaki’s films are a process - you need to watch them numerous times to experience the full richness.  On my first viewing, The Boy and the Heron is not up to the same standard as his iconic films, and I don’t think that this is the best film for Ghibli newbies.  For the uninitiated, I would recommend Spirited Away, Laputa, Howl’s Moving Castle or Porco Rosso, as a first Studio Ghibli film.



For the fans, however, The Boy and the Heron is a beautiful, ethereal farewell.

 

*The g sound in Ghibli is pronounced "ji" (ジ) and not "g" as in "goodbye".

If you enjoyed reading this review, you may enjoy my other posts about Studio Ghibli, my other posts about manga and animation, or my other posts about Japan.

All images © Studio Ghibli.

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