TIFF 2023: The Boy and the Heron
Is this the end of the road for Hayao Miyazaki? The legendary Japanese animator — one of the most captivatingly original directors we’ve ever seen — has long been rumored to retire, first after the release of 2013’s The Wind Rises and most recently in the lead-up to his latest work, The Boy and the Heron (originally titled How Do You Live?). Though recent comments indicate that perhaps Miyazaki still has more work ahead, his latest film is nothing short of a masterpiece: if it is indeed his last, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting culmination to a singular career.
As is typical with Miyazaki, you can sketch out the premise of the film fairly quickly, but conveying the density and complexity of the material — both narratively and thematically — becomes a much more challenging task. Set two years prior to the end of World War II, we follow 12-year-old Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki) as he moves with his father and his new stepmother to a countryside estate whose grounds house mysterious and magical secrets. Encounters with a malevolent-seeming heron lead Mahito to enter a world offset from our own, filled with friends and enemies and forces existing somewhere in-between. As he progresses through an unfamiliar landscape, Mahito must grapple with questions of destiny and family before he can return home.
Though Miyazaki’s oeuvre is filled with strands of connective tissue, both disparate and layered, the easiest lines to draw here are from Spirited Away and The Wind Rises. Like the latter, there’s a clear and mature preoccupation with legacy, grief, and creation; the filmmaker questioning both the audience and himself about the individual’s responsibility to themselves and to society at large. It’s an anxiety nestled in the core of the notion of genius, artistic or otherwise: is it enough to simply share one’s talents with the world? Or are there moments where one has to forsake both control and expression for the greater good?
Of course, these existential wonderings are painted on a canvass whose beauty rivals anything Miyazaki has yet produced. Like Spirited Away, The Boy and the Heron showcases his incredible facility with elusive worldbuilding, with images and causalities that fit together perfectly in the moment, but like a dream start to slip away the more you try to grasp their inner workings. Of course, the magic of Miyazaki comes from the fact that the logic doesn’t fall apart — rather, you know that, like a dream, it all makes instinctual sense, prompting you to constantly revisit, searching for the answers you know lie just around the corner, on the edges of your peripherals.
But more than anything else, the Miyazaki throughline most explicit here — understandably and devastatingly so — is the very concept of time itself. We find the artist, now 82, reckoning with whether he can, literally or figuratively, change either the past or the future. Will what he built live on? Can a life’s work ever truly be finished? Watching The Boy and the Heron, you see how a true master, faced with the idea of mortality, slyly hedges his bets. If Miyazaki is indeed retired, content to turn his attention to more relaxing pursuits, we couldn’t ask for a more perfect final work, complete with thematic resonation that echoes backwards through his entire filmography. But we also see him hint towards an understanding that he may not be able to let go that easily. In either instance, I feel nothing but immense gratitude that the art of Miyazaki will live on for us to cherish for generations to come.