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The Boy and The Heron Review

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Run Time: 2 hours 4 mins

The Boy and The Heron is centered on a young boy named Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki) whose mother dies in a city-wide fire when he is a child. The fire and loss of his mother haunt and traumatize Mahito. His father, Shoichi Maki (voiced by Takuya Kimura), remarries quickly, choosing his wife’s sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). She’s already pregnant by the time Mahito meets her, simultaneously moving the boy into the property as the he struggles to take in rapid changes. On his first day at his new home, while his stepmother/aunt tours him around, the boy notices a heron (voiced by Masaki Suda). 

This same heron stalks and protects a structure near the woods of their home that is seemingly closed off and unused. Already curious about the structure, Mahito decides to keep an eye on what he soon discovers is more castle-like. At this same time, he’s hearing voices of his mother, dreaming of her, and still antagonized by the heron from earlier. The final straw for entering the castle structure is his stepmother mysteriously disappearing into the same woods; Mahito reasons that she must be there, especially since other family members reveal how the structure used to be connected to the main house. Natsuko heard voices before she drifted away, but now it’s Mahito’s turn to venture deeper into the castle, which ends up becoming a portal into other realms, planes, and spectrums of time. He comes face to face with the truth behind the heron, his stepmother’s disappearance, while also facing the loss of his mother.

One of few 2023 films that attempts to take on more themes than it can seemingly handle, The Boy and The Heron deftly moves between commercialization, militarism, trauma and grief, family dynamics, geopolitics, the universe, and individuality. Amazingly, Miyazaki and team craft the story with similar conceits and pieces to previous films, beginning the story with a young person who’s suffered a great loss and is quickly faced with the opportunity to overcome the adversity, but not in the way they likely want to. 

the-boy-and-the-heron-review

Courtesy of Studio Ghibli.

What’s so fascinating about the film is that its plot is predictable if you’ve seen a Studio Ghibli movie before. The frame is a young person going through coming-of-age decisions and choices with fantastical elements thrown in, but as The Boy and The Heron moves along, the film becomes so much more than that, as Miyazaki is famous for pushing audiences to question and reaffirm their life choices amidst and after the film.

From an animation standpoint, the colors and textures of the film are just as vivid as ever. There are multiple scenes to get lost in. The emotionality Studio Ghibli artists can create with expressions, color, and lines is always astounding. The only element that might take an audience member out of the film is the minimal use of computer-generated animation. The CG work is fine, but if you’re used to fully immersive worlds that are hand-drawn or painted, the generated work may catch you off guard and pull you out of some of the more grandiose scenes.

Courtesy of Studio Ghibil

I was fortunate enough to view the subtitled version, as the dubbed version wasn’t complete yet. Therefore, the fisherman Kiriko, voiced by Ko Shibasaki, and the titular heron, voiced by Suda, were my standouts in terms of voice acting. Both actors, appearing in Studio Ghibli films for the first time, are exciting and energetic as audiences follow them through the story and really gain a taste for their range as the characters develop. Santoki does lots of heavy lifting, appearing in almost every scene of the film, but the heron is the voice that really stuck with me and conveyed emotion the most seamlessly.

A few final elements that make the film worth experiencing is the musical score, of course, but the bravado and spectacle of the film also make The Boy and The Heron a beautiful watch. Typically after finishing a Miyazaki film, I’m not sure how to feel, but this one was different in that I wasn’t sure when I’d know how to feel after it. The film simply touches so many points in you as a human.

In short, The Boy and The Heron may not be the easiest Miyazaki film to encompass or take in, but audiences are blessed and fortunate to witness another one of his films, especially after a proposed retirement. There’s no word on if Miyazaki will produce another film, but audiences are ready either way. Either to re-enter another one of his imagined worlds or return to the decades of previous films.

4.5 out of 5

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