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THE BOY AND THE HERON | Japan | 2023 124m | Japanese


Starring: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Takuya Kimura, Aimyon , Kou Shibasaki, Yoshino Kimura

Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki

During the Second World War, young Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) suffers a heartbreaking family tragedy and must move immediately to the countryside, where his father (Takuya Kimura) works for a family making planes for Japan’s military, as Miyazaki’s own father did.

Isolated, Mahito begins exploring the mysterious landscapes and encounters a grey heron, persistent in its presence. The boy also happens upon an abandoned tower. Curious, he enters. From there, The Boy and the Heron expands into a wondrous, often-startling phantasmagoria.

TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus

RATING 4 out of 5

The Boy and the Heron is a soulful experience, navigating grief and legacy in a deeply moving film, that combined with exquisite animation, outstanding voice performances, and a magnificent musical score for Joe Hisaishi, makes for yet another animated masterpiece from Studio Ghibli.


Studio Ghibli has been taking audiences on fantastical adventures for years from esteemed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, with such memorable films as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. While originally billed as his final films, fans of this legendary studio can rejoice that Miyazaki still has more stories he wants to tell, though The Boy and the Heron still feels like the perfect swan song for his illustrious career. Exploring existential themes of grief, moving on and legacy, the latest from Studio Ghibli is destined to be another classic in their library with breathtaking animation, taking audiences on an unforgettable journey that becomes an emotional experience that you won’t soon forget. 


A year after his mother perished in a fire during the bombing of Tokyo in 1943, Mahito and his father evacuate the war zone and move to the countryside to live with his father’s new wife. There, while adjusting to his new life and still grieving the loss of his mother, Mahito discovers an ancient tower on the property, guarded by a grey heron, which begins a fantastical adventure into a magical world as Mahito begins to come to terms with his mother’s death. 


On the surface, The Boy and the Heron features a fantastical adventure in a magical world, full of danger, excitement, and wondrous creatures (including some blood thirsty parakeets that will have you questioning how this film is appropriate for younger viewers who will no doubt watch it!), but Miyazaki’s story is much deeper than this adventure. It’s a metaphysical meditation on grief, moving on, and one’s legacy while preparing to leave the world and leaving it in the hands of a younger generation, (a truly fitting theme for what was meant to be Miyazaki’s final film), which are all bound to have audiences pondering its ideas long after watching the film. All the themes are captured beautifully in one single scene as Mahito finds a book left for him by his late mother, entitled “How Do I Live?”, which is also the far superior translation of the film’s original Japanese title, which says so much more about this moving film than the bland North American title. Miyazaki allows the story to breathe, with a slower first half to the film to set up the character of Mahito and his grief, before exploring his recovery during his adventure in the film’s second half. While it’s a strong film, the second half does suffer from an abundance of important plot elements occurring at once with not enough screen time to fully explore them all. 


If the film falters at all, it is in one crucial part of the third act. The film set this moment up as a big reveal, meant to have a huge emotional impact on both Mahito and the audience, but if you had been paying attention to the film, it comes as no surprise. It results in the moment feeling slightly anticlimactic, and without the emotional suckerpunch it should have packed. Furthermore, the scene plays out the reveal very quickly, feeling like it should not be such an important moment for Mahito, as it was the moment the entire film had been building to. The scene is still emotional, as it is impossible to not empathize with Mahito’s pain at this point in the story, but this could have been a full blown waterworks event if it had been a proper reveal, and allowed this beautiful moment to fully play out, rather than rushing it to end the film.

With the leaps forward in computer generated animation, the art of two dimensional, hand drawn animation has become a way of the past in the animated genre. There are not enough films that use this style of animation, and within seconds of The Boy and the Heron beginning, you are instantly reminded of the wonders of the medium. Vibrant and colourful animated images fill the film from start to finish, featuring hand drawn characters and settings, and painted backgrounds that create stunning visuals in every single frame. The detail is incredible, fully bringing to life both 1943 Japan, and the fantastical world beneath the tower in a breathtaking beauty that fully immerses you in the world of the film. At the same time, the animation feels modern with clever techniques to push the boundaries of two dimensional animation with camera zooms and the magnificent display of fire, creating a visual experience that only Studio Ghibli could conjure up. 


In addition to the stunning animation, the other element of the film that brings it to life is the brilliant musical score by Joe Hisaishi. With only a handful of main characters and entire scenes without dialogue, the musical score plays a vital part in this film’s storytelling. It becomes a secondary character, capturing Mahito’s emotional state at every step of his journey. Hisaishi captures the wonder and amazement Mahito experiences in his journey with a larger orchestral sound, but it’s in the more emotional moments of the story where the musical score truly soars. While dealing with the grief Mahito is processing, the musical score flourishes with a solo piano playing a hauntingly beautiful theme that gives sound to Mahito’s pain. It evokes an emotional response in viewers that passes Mahito’s pain to them, truly bonding the audience to Mahito’s personal journey over the course of the film. Without question, it’s a magnificent musical score that ranks among the best of the year, and one that I cannot wait to listen to over and over again. 

There are films that are enjoyable, and then there are films that take you on an unforgettable journey and touch you on an emotional level, and The Boy and the Heron is the latter. Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, is nothing short of a spectacular film with magnificent animation, and a deep beautiful story, that creates a cinematic experience that will stay with you forever.

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