Worlds Without End
By Kambole Campbell

The Boy and the Heron
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, GKIDS

In the 1937 book How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino, a boy nicknamed Copper considers his infinitesimal presence amidst the vast scope of the world. Looking down from a rooftop at people walking through a rainy Tokyo, Copper considers that each tiny dot has its own inner universe and complexities he’ll never know about. He and his uncle compare human beings to water, moving through the city like the tide.

Though it has been said to share no real connection with Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron—titled How Do You Live? in Japan—the book itself appears in the film, open to an illustration of this very moment, which Miyazaki has spoken of. In the interview “Memories of Lost Landscapes: On Genzaburō Yoshino’s Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiruka (How Will You Young People Live?)” from a 2006 issue of Neppu, he speaks of entangling in his mind the moment on the rooftop with his own childhood experiences, where that 1930s depiction of a city becomes “full of foreboding, that it might soon be engulfed in flames from air raids.”

The Boy and the Heron’s frantic opening is a dramatic realization of that vision, as the protagonist Mahito desperately runs through burning city streets, drawn in an appropriately nightmarish fashion for a sequence that will continue to haunt him throughout the film. An insightful interview with one of the film’s animators, Toshiyuki Inoue, attributes this to longtime Miyazaki collaborator (and legend in his own right) Shinya Ohira, his idiosyncratic style more strongly inflected on the sequence than those familiar with Miyazaki might expect. Mahito learns that his mother’s hospital has caught fire following a bombing, and as he runs to try and find her, the background smears into a frenzied blur of panic, consuming him as he disappears into the crowd, the people appearing almost ghoulish in a looser and stranger drawing style than the neat linework more commonly associated with Miyazaki. In that moment, the film feels startlingly different from the director’s codified visual approach, even as it works in continuity with every Miyazaki film that came before it, so many of which are made with what Miyazaki described in that same interview as an underlying sadness mixed with nostalgia—sadness about the end of a world, and wistfulness for what it once was.

The Boy and the Heron follows a semi-autobiographical fantasy adventure, set during the time in Miyazaki’s life when he first encountered the book. This is perhaps one reason The Boy and the Heron feels like it carries all of Miyazaki’s work under its wing. It is of a piece with Miyazaki’s previous film, The Wind Rises and its conflicted biography of Jiro Horikoshi, whose idealistic love of aircraft design was overtaken by war. That film felt like Miyazaki calling into question the pursuit of his craft. There’s a ten-year gap between The Wind Rises and The Boy and the Heron, which is also an elegiac film about legacy and an existential crisis about the purpose of one’s life. Following multiple pseudo-retirements, it seems that Miyazaki can’t stay away, and Heron holds the same tricky contradictions that run through his work.

The film begins in Tokyo in 1943, but soon moves to the countryside to a secluded wealthy estate, with the ongoing World War only witnessed at its periphery, as it would be to a child. A year after his mother’s death in the hospital fire, his father marries her sister, and they move to her family house. Mahito feels isolated in his strange new home, not just because it’s mostly populated by a flock of quirky old ladies but also because of his father’s loud enthusiasm for their new life and his work as an airplane manufacturer, boisterously proposing that they take the Datsun to school to impress his new classmates (who beat up Mahito instead). All the while, Mahito is harassed by a grey heron, which mockingly parrots his calls for his deceased mother that he made in his sleep. The bird’s annoying hostility soon tips into horrific imagery, as it gradually gains anthropomorphic features—first a voice, then human teeth, and a nose inside its long beak, its movements slowly changing in one of the film’s most captivating examples of character animation. It’s the kind of design that made me fall in love with Miyazaki’s work in the first place, silly and disturbing, without one of those tones ever compromising the other.

Miyazaki’s films have a reputation for being quiet and meditative, which is often true, but they also move at the rollicking pace of a filmmaker who cut his teeth on action adventures. His first feature, 1979's The Castle of Cagliostro begins with explosive verve; Spirited Away builds for about five to ten minutes with character work before pushing Chihiro into a world without her parents to coddle her. The Boy and the Heron’s “real” adventure doesn’t start until about 40 minutes in. In the first half, many of its sequences simply observe Mahito going about his new life in isolation. Long cuts of animation depict even the most mundane occupations of his time, patiently unfurling his grief. All the while, Joe Hisaishi’s score remains eerily light, for a time holding back from the swelling, dramatic overtures that have become a key component of Studio Ghibli films.

That quiet is broken in a number of small but shocking ways: after that fight with his new schoolmates, Mahito hits himself in the head with a rock, drawing a large amount of blood—the wound keeps him out of school and later becomes the impetus for a lesson. As Mahito stays in a little western-style annex on the estate grounds, the film decompresses, its mystical elements slowly gathering as Miyazaki observes the boy’s refusal to accept his new mother, turning his attentions to chasing the heron that torments him while he recovers from his head wound. The pace accelerates until it begins to feel chaotic. His new mother disappears into an abandoned tower that sits at the periphery of the grounds, a boundary between this world and another.

Led by the heron, he journeys into a strange and sparsely populated land comprised of unintelligible geography, dreamlike in the way one space inexplicably leads to another. Following this shift, he encounters echoes of his “real” life: a tough fisherwoman, Kiriko, who looks like one of the old ladies from the estate, and a young girl with fire-based magic powers who resembles his mother in her youth. Even amidst such encounters, Mahito remains stoic, though the early parts of the film have helped contextualize the turmoil underlying his usually set expression. Mahito approaches the onslaught of new rules and information that bend the world around him and his reluctant heron companion with an eerie calm; his navigation of this parallel world isn’t so much about understanding it as it is about how it connects back to Mahito and his grief.

There are visual echoes of past Miyazaki films too: "wara wara" spirits resemble the "kodama" from Princess Mononoke; a line of boats occupied by spirits recalls Porco Rosso; reminders of The Wind Rises appear in the form of factory workers shipping airplane canopies to be used in war; Mahito’s crossing of a boundary into a parallel fantasy world and liminal space in search of a parent feels akin to Spirited Away. Instead of that film’s densely populated commercial spirit world however, he wanders into a sparse, sort-of feudal land overrun by gigantic, human-eating parakeets (maybe one of the film’s funniest recurring visual gags, as they oafishly wield butcher knives and wear chef hats). The parakeets and their king vie for control, other birds preying on whatever they can find to eat. The world is tearing itself apart, and its creator—a character who reveals himself as Mahito’s Grand Uncle—remains isolated and absent, toiling to keep its structure intact while ignoring its denizens. He desires to build something perfect, but the strain of trying to do so has isolated him: perhaps a lesson that Miyazaki has learned about his own craft.

With its sprawling story and opaque world-building, The Boy and the Heron is hard to summarize. But that diffuseness is part of the charm. That its universe is not fully knowable feels in keeping with both the youthful perspective of Mahito and the narcissistic myopia of his Grand Uncle, who only ever looks at his world in terms of the bigger picture. This is to say it's one of his strangest and most ambitious films. It’s reassuring that the filmmaker can still surprise like this.

In the film’s final act, the world ends again. Reality bends and breaks, and there’s something beautiful in the sense of cosmic inevitability and emotional resolve. The previous generation, as represented by Grand Uncle, gives way to the new—a show of faith from a filmmaker often thought of (fairly) as a grumpy traditionalist. Perhaps, for the filmmaker himself, it’s a sign that he can finally let go—a moving acceptance that he’s done all that he can. (Or, perhaps not.) The Boy and the Heron, in the end, seems to offer hope that a new generation can persevere rather than simply mourn the world that’s been handed to them—no longer terrified of it burning, optimistic that it can change for the better.