Studio Ghibli’s “The Boy and The Heron”: Masterpiece in Art and Storytelling
Studio Ghibli’s newest animated movie, “The Boy and the Heron” (2023), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro”), is an instant masterpiece in animation and storytelling from a beloved director.
The film tells the whimsical tale of a young boy, Mahito Maki, voiced by Luca Padovan (“You”), in Japan during the time of the Pacific War. After the bombing of Tokyo and the subsequent death of his mother, Mahito and his father, Shoichi Maki, voiced by Christian Bale (“Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Batman Begins”), move to his mother’s ancestral home after Shoici marries his late wife’s sister, Natsuko, voiced by Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Raya and the Last Dragon”). Mahito discovers a mystical tower long forgotten on the land that leads to a fantastical world where he develops a relationship with a talking Gray Heron, voiced by Robert Patterson (“Twilight,” “The Batman”). This movie is hauntingly beautiful, both in the telling of the story and the animation of it.
As in most Studio Ghibli films, the animation style of “The Boy and the Heron” is a delight to view, making it almost impossible to look away from each intense scene. Whether it be a terrifying fire or the fantastical world that the Tower leads to, each scene is drawn with such care and attention to detail that it masterfully suspends disbelief.
The beginning of the film creates the same heavy oppressive war theme that felt so similar to that of Studio Ghibli’s “Grave of the Fireflies (1968 directed by Isao Takahata), and yet the fancifulness and strangeness of the Tower World also inspires the feeling of the spirit world from “Spirited Away” (2001 directed by Hayao Miyazaki). It also has similar elements of other Ghibli films with the use of talking animals, cute but poignant creatures that help to convey new life, similar to those in “Princess Mononoke” (1997 directed by Hayao Miyazaki). “The Boy and the Heron” feels as though Miyazaki is writing a love letter to each of the films that came before from Studio Ghibli, all the while creating a unique and moving story that feels like nothing that has ever been released before.
Scene from "The Boy and the Heron" courtesy Studio Ghibli
Originally the film was going to focus on Hayao Miyazaki’s professional relationships with the other founders of Studio Ghibli. Fellow director Isao Takahata, who was the inspiration for the character of Granduncle, and producer Toshio Suzuki, who was the inspiration for the Heron. This concept was going to strongly tie into the relationship between each member of the founding team and the ideas of destruction, reconstruction and imagination. However, after the passing of Takahata in 2018, Miyazaki made the decision to focus the film more on the relationship between Mahito and the Heron, and the memories that the two surviving founders of the studio share in combination with the personal experiences that Miyazaki has. The film also switched the ideas away from those of its original ideas to those of acceptance, redemption, and the power of creation, but also coming of age and how to accept both loss and the need to live for others.
Scene from "The Boy and the Heron" courtesy Studio Ghibli
“The Boy and The Heron” is also both loosely based around the novels “The Book of Lost Things” by Irish author John Connolly and “Ghost Tower” by Edogawa Ranpo, and took inspiration from the title of “Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka (translated to: ”How Do You Live?” and also “The Boy and The Heron”)” by author Genzaburo Yoshino, while also being a semi-autobiographical telling of Miyazaki’s own life and his experiences.
Miyazaki is known for pulling from his real-life experiences, such as in “Spirited Away” (2002), the Stink Spirit scene being based around his experiences doing a river clean-up and the various items pulled from the river, but “The Boy and The Heron” takes this to a level not seen from the director previously. Miyazaki used his own childhood experiences to model most if not all of the creative directions for the film, some of the largest being that Mahito’s father follows the line of Miyazaki’s own father by working with airplane parts. The family in “The Boy and the Heron” has to evacuate from the city to the countryside during the war as the Miyazaki’s family did, and that the beginning fire at the hospital that killed Mahito’s mother parallels the death of Miyazaki’s own mother.
Miyazaki, who had originally retired in 2013 from animation, came out of retirement two years later to work on a short film that was destined to be released in the Studio Ghibli theme park in 2015 named “Boro the Caterpillar.” A year later, Miyazaki announced that he had the idea for a new film, which would become “The Boy and The Heron,” and started production on it in 2017 with a targeted release date to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Due to the commitment that Miyazaki had to hand-drawing most of the film, and only enhancing the film with computer animation in limited spots, the creation of the film took longer to create than most modern films. Miyazaki stuck to creating the storyboards and left the overseeing of the animation to the animation director, Takeshi Honda; however, this still meant that they were producing one minute of film per month. What also slowed down the production process was the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions that were put on the animators, which forced them to work from their homes. With this animation style and the slow progress of the film’s creation, producer Toshio Suzuki observed, “[I] think[s] that we spent more money making [The Boy and the Heron] than any other movie that’s ever been made in Japan, probably.”
“The Boy and The Heron” is also unique to the way that Studio Ghibli chose to release it. Prior to its release in Japan, no trailers, images, synopsis or casting details were released. The only thing that was released was a solo poster which features the Gray Heron with the name of the film in red lettering. This was done because Miyazaki didn’t want to spoil any important plot points. However, for its release in the United States, there were trailers and casting details released, but many fans refused to watch any of the trailers, wanting to see the film as the studio intended for it to be seen.
"The Boy and the Heron" scene courtesy Studio Ghibli
This film also marks a prestigious moment for Miyazaki. “The Boy and The Heron” has won the eighty-three year old director his first Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film. “The Boy and the Heron” has also won Best Animated Film at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, was the second runner-up for the People’s Choice Award from the Toronto International Film Festival, and had composer Joe Hiaishi nominated for best Original Score at the Golden Globes. It is shortlisted for the Annie Awards and the BAFA, British Academy Film Awards, as well as the Oscars.
“The Boy and The Heron” is now playing in select theaters. MPAA rating PG-13 for some violent content, bloody images, smoking, profanity, and intense scenes.