November 26, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, mostly in 1944, the animated film “The Boy and the Heron” features a cast of Japanese human and animal characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.
Culture Clash: A lonely adolescent boy, who’s grieving over the accidental death of his mother, befriends a a half-heron/half-man, who leads the boy to fantastical world inside a mysterious tower, where he encounters past versions of various people and a power-hungry group of parakeets.
Culture Audience: “The Boy and the Heron” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and time-traveling anime movies that appeal to various generations.
“The Boy and the Heron” artfully blends heavy issues of grief with the escapism of a thrilling adventure. It’s a beautifully told and moving story that is as much about being a legacy to departed loved ones as it is about establishing one’s own identity. “The Boy and the Heron” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “The Boy and the Heron” is inspired by but not connected to Genzaburō Yoshin’s 1937 novel “How Do You Live?,” which is the Japanese title of the movie. “The Boy and the Heron” has elements of Miyazaki’s childhood in the movie, which has an original screenplay. Miyazaki (who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for 2001’s “Spirited Away”) has been synonymous with among the best of what Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has to offer. “The Boy and the Heron” ends a 10-year gap between Miyazaki’s movies. His previous movie was 2013’s Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises.”
“The Boy and the Heron” begins with a tragedy. In 1943, in Tokyo during the Pacific War, 12-year-old Mahito Maki is woken up from his sleep to the sound of chaos. His businessman father Shoichi Maki tells him that the hospital where Mahito’s mother Himi works is on fire. The hospital and the fire can be seen from the Maki family home. Mahito (who is an only child at this point) wants to go with his father to the hospital to help save Maki, but Shoichi insists that Mahito stay at home. Unfortunately, Maki does not survive the fire. It’s implied that the fire was caused by a bomb during this war.
The following year, 13-year-old Mahito and Shoichi move to Grey Heron Mansion, in an unnamed city in the countryside. Shoichi, owns an ammunition factory near the estate, is now married to Himi’s younger sister Natsuko, who is described as a look-alike to Himi. The first time that Mahito meets Natsuko, he finds out that she is pregnant with his younger sibling. It’s a lot to take in for introverted Mahito, who is deep in grief over his mother’s death.
The mansion has seven elderly maids, who dote on Mahito and often work together in a pack. The maids’ names are Kiriko, Aiko, Izumi, Eriko, Utako, Oyuki, and Kazuko. Kiriko is the unofficial leader of the maids. She is often stoic and less talkative than the other maids in the group. Natsuko and all of the maids treat Mahito with kindness. Shoichi is a caring father, but he is very preoccupied with his work.
One day, Mahito notices that a grey heron has flown up to him, as if to try to get his attention. Mahito is told that his grey heron has lived on the property for quite some time. The grey heron will visit Mahito more times over the next several days.
Shortly after moving to this new home, Mahito goes exploring in the estate’s wooded area. He finds a tower that is somewhat sealed off, but Mahito finds a way to peek inside. He’s later told by Natsuko that the tower was built by her granduncle, who had a mental breakdown and disappeared. However, this granduncle left behind a book of his writings. Natsuko also tells Mahito that when Himi was a child, Himi disappeared for a year, but reappeared a year later with no memory of having been gone.
At school, quiet and shy Mahito has a hard time making friends with other students, who mostly ignore him or give him hostile stares. Out of frustration and to get out of going to school, Mahito hits himself on the head with a rock. It causes him to bleed profusely. Mahito tells people that he fell down, but his father Shoichi doesn’t believe Mahito. Shoichi thinks that Mahito was assaulted by a bully and is determined to find out who it is.
While Mahito is recovering from his injuries, he gets an unusual visit from the grey heron, who flies to Mahito’s window and squawks, “Mahito, save me!” The heron tells Mahito that Mahito’s mother is still alive and living in the tower. Around the same time, Natsuko goes missing. Through a series of events, Mahito, the heron and Kiriko find themselves trapped in the tower, which is actually a magical place inside that has past versions of some of the people whom Mahito knows.
The grey heron also reveals himself to be half-pelican, half-man, who can wear the pelican part of his body like a costume. It’s best not to go into further details in this review, but it’s enough to say that the story in “The Boy and the Heron” also features pelicans, a parakeet kingdom, and beings called warawara that look like white-colored stars and have a purpose that’s connected to life forces. Some of the scenes in this movie are visually stunning and very immersive.
The voices of “The Boy and the Heron” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Soma Santoki as Mahito, Masaki Suda as the Grey Heron, Takuya Kimura as Soichi, Yoshino Kimura as Natsuko, Kô Shibasaki as Kiriko, Aimyon as Himi, Jun Kunimura as the Parakeet King and Kaoru Kobayashi as a wise old pelican. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Luca Padovan as Mahito, Robert Pattinson as the Grey Heron, Christian Bale as Soichi, Gemma Chan as Natsuko, Florence Pugh as Kiriko, Karen Fukuhara as Himi, Dave Bautista as the Parakeet King and Willem Dafoe as a wise old pelican.
“The Boy and the Heron” explores themes of life, death, and what it might mean to change one’s destiny by going back in time and possibly doing things differently. There are also some sociopolitical observations about how much control people should give leaders over who lives and who dies, as well as some obvious (but not preachy) commentary about the dangers of damaging the environment. There’s a point in the story where Mahito has to decide how much he is going to make his grief control a big decision that he has to make.
The movie has some well-animated and suspenseful action scenes and gives each of the main characters a distinct personality. The voice actors also give very good but not outstanding performances. With so many animated movies stuck in a formulaic rut, “The Boy and the Heron” can be a viable option for people looking for a well-made and entertaining animated film that also has meaningful messages about humanity’s connections to other creatures, the environment, and the life cycles are unique to all.
GKIDS released “The Boy and the Heron” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on July 14, 2023.