'The Boy And the Heron' movie review: An incisive rumination on grief through Miyazaki’s vibrant imagination

Replete with signature Ghibli cosiness, the film still embraces the ache and unease of grief.
A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s 'The Boy And The Heron'
A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s 'The Boy And The Heron'Photo | IMDb

Hayao Miyazaki’s films, with all the adorable characters, watercolour painting aesthetics, and dreamy worlds, have often touched upon darker themes like death and loss. That being said, The Boy And The Heron, might still be the most sombre Miyazaki film yet. Replete with signature Ghibli cosiness, the film still embraces the ache and unease of grief. A young boy named Mahito loses his mother to a fire accident. His father marries his late mother’s sister Natsuko, and then they move to a rural estate, where Mahito encounters a talking heron who reveals that his mother is alive, and takes Mahito on a grand adventure into a mystical world.

Right from the beginning, a sense of profound stillness pervades the film. We do not hear the rustle of wind through the grass, nor do we see the trees gently sway, or hear the chirps and calls of birds and insects. As Mahito interacts with his new home, in the background, we see that the world is completely still. In his films, Miyazaki takes particular care in imbuing life into his world. Through the sound of the wind, the call of the crickets, and the parade of magnificent clouds, in the background, nature is always in motion.

The filmmaker feeds your senses with every frame, which is not the case with this film. Perhaps, the stillness in The Boy And The Heron is how we are made to see the world through Mahito’s eyes, and how it is drenched in grief over the loss of his mother. The first moment in the film where we see torrential winds, is when the grey heron tells Mahito that he could take him to see his mother. The possibility of seeing her again shatters the stillness and brings life back into his world again. 

Once Mahito descends into the magical oceanic realm, the film starts getting progressively surreal with every passing scene. In a dream-like succession of scenes, we are introduced to a number of zany characters; like the tiny blob-like creatures known as warawara, that are essentially souls yet to be born, the pelicans who devour them, politically shrewd parakeets who eat people, and so on. The other realm being an allegory for death, time, and fate, is unmissable.

When Mahito enters the place, a fisher woman who saves him from an aggressive flock of pelicans, comments that, ‘He reeks of death’. The tomb-like structures, and the tall cypress trees in the other realm, seems to be inspired from Arnold Boklin’s famous painting, ‘Isle Of The Dead’. It is the place where Mahito encounters younger versions of the older adults in his life, where his ancestor, essentially the guardian of the realm, tries to make sense of all the life and death in his bloodline by stacking blocks. His attempts to create a better world of the realm, one without malice, and Mahito’s acceptance of his inner malice towards the end, forms the philosophical fulcrum of the entire story. 

A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s 'The Boy And The Heron'
At 83, filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki earns historic Oscar for 'The Boy and the Heron'

What starts as an affecting portrayal of grief, soon ends up becoming a psychological dissection of its layers. We see the depression, the underlying desperation to somehow cheat death and bring back what was lost, and our acceptance in the end, in the face of an unyielding reality. The film goes even deeper, by following the threads of grief all the way to our pathological need to fix and control the external while being oblivious to our inner imbalance.

This is captured with how the great grand uncle tries to stack the toy blocks on top of each other, trying to balance it and somehow bring order to his world, while at the same time, his realm is gripped with disorder, like the human eating parakeets and the pelicans who are forced to eat the innocent warawara before they could ascend and be born in the real world. 

The Boy And The Heron is an allegorical rumination on death, loss, grief, and fate, woven as a classic coming-of-age tale with the colourful elements of fantasy. While such heavier themes are usually handled through darker tales, Miyazaki’s unwavering commitment to his signature style, renders a refreshing experience, imbuing the film with warmth, colour, vibrancy, and the kind of playfully chaotic creativity, we are accustomed to in his films.

This might be the veteran filmmaker’s most philosophical film yet, not because it propounds deep, complicated thoughts but because it approaches ideas like death and grief with a child-like curiosity. Miyazaki does not attempt to give you answers on how to handle grief or to get over the loss of loved ones. However, the film does meditate upon the thought that maybe we don’t have to make sense of grief. And we could just learn to accept the blemishes of our soul, of our world, learn to forget, and learn to love those still in our lives. 

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Cast: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

(This story originally appeared on Cinema Express)

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