A strange, beautiful, melancholy study of grief and renewal filtered through a magical lens.
A school-aged boy Mahito loses his mother when the hospital where she works catches fire in wartime Tokyo. He sees the flames from a distance and races towards the building but, due to the distance and his young age, he is unable to save her. Mahito’s father, a factory owner, later marries his dead wife’s sister, Natsuko, and moves Mahito to Natsuko’s family’s country estate. Mahito is respectful of his pregnant stepmother but is emotionally distant from her as he navigates his ongoing grief and the strange old mansion in which he must now live. His busy father assures Mahito the local school children will be impressed when he arrives in an automobile (a rare luxury in that era). However, the other schoolboys bully Mahito and beat him severely. This is a tipping point for Mahito’s despondence and he engages in a dramatic act of self-harm to ensure he does not have to return to school. While recuperating at home, Mahito is haunted by a large bird who tells him his mother is still alive and tries to entice him to enter a mysterious, sealed-off tower that stands on the estate. When his stepmother goes missing, he decides to follow the heron into the strange tower in an attempt to unravel the mystery of his mother and her sister. This is where the story makes a dramatic turn into a fantastical quest narrative that harkens back to Chihiro in Spirited Away and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. In the course of his quest, he enters a spiritual realm / astral plane where spirits exist in different stages of being. The realm is run by his ancestor, who wants Mahito to remain in the realm but Mahito is concerned with finding his mother and saving his stepmother.
The film’s emotional reach is anchored by the profoundly thoughtful animation. In an early scene, Mahito ascends the broad outdoor steps to his new home. With each step his knee bends with carefully detailed efforts conveying the physical weight and distance as well as the overwhelming grief that burdens him. The hand-drawn movements are a dramatic change from the sharp, loud, bright, fast visuals that dominate many recent animation blockbusters. As a result, the characters in The Boy and the Heron feel close to us emotionally.
On the other hand, certain groups in the tale are drawn differently from the lead characters giving them a more fantastical element. The stepmother’s mansion is staffed by a group of older ladies with exaggerated, cartoonish aging features. The schoolboys who attack Mahito are all collectively designed with rounded features that distinguish them from Mahito’s more angular design. Both of these are interesting stylistic choices that sometimes feel a little too overt but also foreshadow the dreamlike state of the boy’s emotions. The visual distinctions continues when Mahito crosses over into the tower’s magical realm.
The contrasting animation style emphasizes the film’s themes of death, grief, despondence, resilience, and self-determination. Many of Mahito’s encounters in the tower are both dreamlike and nightmarish. In one scene his entire body is gradually covered by a swarm of frogs, in another he is covered by strips of paper, and in another he is overcome by birds. In each situation, the gradual, suffocating accumulation of small obstacles creates an immersive connection to the grief and resilience being symbolized.
You don’t have to be a Studio Ghibli expert to enjoy The Boy and The Heron. But if you are a fan, you will notice nods to the prior films. Mahito resembles a younger version of Prince Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke and he uses a homemade bow and arrow in his quest. The older women who take care of the estate are reminiscent of the senior center ladies in Ponyo and some have a design similar to Yubaba in Spirited Away. The mystical tower that “straddles worlds” and links to an alternate dimension is a reminder of the magical castle in Howl’s Moving Castle. Mahito’s ally Kiriko in the magical realm reminds us of Haku’s mentorship of Chihiro in Spirited Away.
If you haven’t seen other Studio Ghibli films, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are great introductions, but they are not necessary to enjoy the new story. Despite the gorgeous and thoughtful storytelling, the plot of The Boy and the Heron feels less linear than other Miyazaki films, especially in terms of the various motivations in the tower’s spirit realm. The other main discomfort of the film is its abrupt ending which doesn’t quite wrap up the expansive story in a truly satisfying way. However, that approach is consistent with the themes of the film which reminds us that sadness and loss are intrinsic to life and sometimes you just do your best and then try to move forward, even without a deep revelation or resolution.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10
- Gorgeous, emotionally evocative animation
- Interesting design and plot choices
- Powerful themes of death, grief, despondence, compassion, and self-determination.