‘The Boy And The Heron’ Review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Mysterious Tale Of Loss And Wonder – Toronto Film Festival

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In cinema, few names are as iconic as Hayao Miyazaki, and his latest adventure carries the weight of expectation. Drawing inspiration from the mysticism of Japanese folklore and grounded in the pain of personal loss, The Boy and the Heron, which opened the 2023 Toronto Film Festival, is a visual spectacle that rekindles the art of 2D animation in an era dominated by the digital.

It is a bit of a mixed bag as there are moments of beauty along with narrative missteps. From Studio Ghibli’s signature heartwarming touches to a plot that might perplex, this visual stunner undeniably reaffirms Miyazaki’s status as one of the world’s most beloved filmmakers.

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The film starts with Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) waking up to the sound of warning sirens. There is a fire in the town hospital that belongs to his mother. He tries to help put out the fire, but he’s too late and the burning building collapses with his mother inside. Four years later, Mahito and his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) move to a new town where his pregnant new wife Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura) lives. At his new home, a gray heron (Masaki Suda) flies around the premises and shows a particular fondness for the boy and vice versa. After following the bird around, he sees it fly into the window of an abandoned tower on the property that’s tucked away behind tall trees. The entrance is sealed off, but Mahito is small enough to climb through. But before he can fully get in, he’s caught by one of the nannies.

This kid suffers from survivor’s guilt and often has violent nightmares about his mother, and in one of the dreams, she screams out for him to save her. After his first day at school, he gets into a fight, and while Mahito is in bed recovering from his injuries, the heron flies to his window, sits on the ledge, mutters “help me” and then quickly leaves. For some reason, this incident compels the boy to go back to the tower to investigate why the heron is in there. Once he crosses the threshold, he is thrust into a world of secrets, magic and multiverses that go far beyond the realm of imagination.

There’s an undeniable Alice in Wonderland quality. Like Alice falling through the rabbit hole, we’re introduced to a world where birds — particularly the white heron — take center stage. Rooted in Japanese folklore, the white heron’s ability to traverse air, earth and water anchors much of the narrative. This isn’t just a film about birds; it’s about interconnections, transitions and transformations.

Miyazaki’s films often have danced around themes of grief, mortality and the afterlife. The Boy and the Heron is no exception. The profound pain of losing a parent and the lengths one might go to for reunion are examined with the emotional reverence that only Miyazaki can manifest. It’s not about heaven or hell; in Miyazaki’s universe, “as above, so below” reigns supreme. There’s a cyclic nature to life and death; they’re two sides of the same coin.

In an age dominated by Pixar and flashy 3D animations, Miyazaki’s commitment to 2D feels rich, evocative and cinematic. Every frame is a hand-painted canvas, reminding viewers of the depth and emotion that traditional animation can convey. Unfortunately, mainstream audiences have drifted from this style, but Miyazaki stands loyal, illuminating its unending potential.

The “aww” moments synonymous with Ghibli films are present in the form of the Warawara — adorable, balloon-like entities that represent the souls of future humans. Their innocence and charm add a whimsical layer, providing levity to the film’s weighty themes. These whimsical moments are aided by the film’s score; the music ebbs and flows, creating tonal shifts that guides viewers through the emotional peaks. Music is one of Studio Ghibli’s many strengths as the company always manages to find the harmony of sight and sound in these fictional worlds.

Yet, for all its strengths on a conceptual and technical level, the story lacks a strong focus. There’s a line between that which leaves things open to interpretation and that which makes a plot nearly indecipherable, and this film, unfortunately, leans toward the latter. Sure, it’s one issue in a sea of praise, but it’s such a challenging watch that demands patience and multiple viewings to even begin truly unraveling its threads. It pains me to say, but narratively, this is the weakest in Miyazaki’s filmography.

The Boy and the Heron deals with complex themes that manifest with visual splendor. While it might not be Studio Ghibli’s strongest outing, it’s still an important one. Miyazaki’s return after a decade-long hiatus serves as a reminder of the unique vision and artistry he brings to the world of animation. Whether you leave enchanted or perplexed, one thing is certain: Miyazaki’s impact on the art form remains unparalleled.

Title: The Boy and the Heron
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Distributor: Gkids
Release date: December 8, 2023
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenwriters: Hayao Miyazaki, Genzaburô Yoshino
Cast: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Takuya Kimura
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 2 hr 4 min

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