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By Liz Chan
3rd December 2023

82-year-old Hayao Miyazaki is an undisputed legend, responsible for reigning storytelling classics at Studio Ghibli. Hell, I even feel like I should be addressing him as Mr Miyazaki throughout this because he is far too revered to be addressed on a sole first-last name basis. This year, he returns from retirement (again) with a new film - 'The Boy and The Heron'. I prefer the film's Japanese title, 'How Do You Live?', for reasons that'll manifest below, but just hold onto that title while I take a brief anecdotal detour.

In a 2016 documentary, a Dwango Artificial Intelligence Laboratory team pitches a new creation to Miyazaki. It was designed by artificial intelligence – a creepy, writhing, zombie-like creature that they describe as something that "feels no pain whatsoever". They sit in eager, nervous anticipation while they wait for Miyazaki's reply.

After a deafening silence – Miyazaki proceeds to state his clear displeasure, starting with, "Whoever creates this stuff has no idea what pain is whatsoever," and ending with, "I strongly believe this is an insult to life itself." One team member pipes up in an attempt to save the awkward atmosphere, explaining that they seek to create a machine that can draw just as well as a human. (Why would anyone say this to the guy famous for making hand-drawn animated movies who already looks displeased, who knows?) In the next scene, Miyazaki remarks, "I feel like we are nearing the end of times. We humans are losing faith in ourselves."


Back to 'The Boy and The Heron'! Our hero is Mahito (Luca Padovan, in the English dubbed version, though it's also available in Japanese with English subtitles), a young boy who loses his mother in a wartime fire. Moving to an old family property when his father (Christian Bale) remarries his dead mother's sister Natsuko (Gemma Chan), a glum Mahito is soon taunted - both physically and verbally - by a grey heron that resides on the property.

When Natsuko goes missing, Mahito ventures to save her, called to an abandoned tower mysteriously shrouded in the forest. The grey heron beckoning him is revealed to be one of the freakiest character designs you'll see this year (think, rows of human teeth with a magical man half-fused inside a bird's beak), embodied further by Robert Pattinson doing an equally freaky voice.

The voice work by the English cast works wonderfully, and for those who worry about casting big names for voiceover work performance-wise, I wouldn't worry in the slightest. Some of the English dialogue seemed slightly awkward, and I would be keen to watch the original version to spot differences.

The story structure is admittedly very dense and convoluted, whisking us from set piece to set piece as we explore the world alongside Mahito. It has the pacing and visuals of a fever dream, making world rules before breaking them soon after. We meet the adventurous protector of spirit creatures Kiriko (Florence Pugh), a spritely girl with fire powers (Karen Fukuhara) and sentient parakeets led by the parakeet king (Dave Bautista) seeking to overthrow Mahito's granduncle (Mark Hamill). Time seems to pass differently here, and people oddly look like younger versions of people Mahito knows in his world.

With just so much to say in so little time, Miyazaki is urgent to manifest every single idea he has before it's too late into the best vehicle possible – a feeling – which makes the film equally stunning and head-hurting.

'The Boy and the Heron's' abstract world-building and inconsistent pushes between acts was something that greatly hindered my viewing experience, although I can definitely see a "either you get it, or you don't get it" situation where some would adore the structural choices. With just so much to say in so little time, Miyazaki is urgent to manifest every single idea he has before it's too late into the best vehicle possible – a feeling – which makes the film equally stunning and head-hurting. Among the haunting visuals and fantasy worlds, Mahito ultimately has to face the expiry of life in the film and make a decision to continue living despite his grief.

More than ever, the open-ended nature of the film leaves the viewer to decide their own takeaways. The 2D animation is stunning, with painted backgrounds and painstakingly frame-by-frame drawn characters move with weighted surety. Between the open interpretation and the animated visuals, I cannot help but muse about Miyazaki's legacy in animation and filmmaking as a whole as he leaves us with a final(!?) goodbye.

Mahito’s character journey in 'The Boy and the Heron' has been noted to be autobiographical in nature, drawing similarities with Miyazaki’s childhood growing up and losing his mother. Circling back to the story I opened with, Miyazaki remarks artificial intelligence animation is an insult to life itself. To me, the 'Boy and the Heron' is about Mahito learning to live with his human flaws, honour the legacy of his loved ones, and move on from tragedy. In essence, it poses the question: "How do you live?" It recalls how Miyazaki has left us a storytelling legacy built from his "human-ness" of lived experiences and wild imagination, brought to life by hand-drawn cel 2D animation. It seems impossible to think that his personal artistic touch could be replicated by the artificial intelligence he scorned.

By narratively and visually overflowing with so much to say, 'The Boy and the Heron' has so many loose ends and unanswered questions leaving its gates wide open to interpretation. However, the ultimate joy remains clear to me: Miyazaki's unbridled human creativity draws from his personal decades of life and is put to screen by the hands of the animators themselves, frame by frame.

RELEASE DATE: 07/12/2023
RUN TIME: 02h 04m
CAST: Soma Santoki
Masaki Suda
Takuya Kimura
Kô Shibasaki
Yoshino Kimura
Shohei Hino
Jun Kunimura
Kaoru Kobayashi
Karen Takizawa
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