Warning: This article contains spoilers.
When I think of Studio Ghibli, I think of a visual feast. So detailed that it is almost disgusting and scary, and the direction of Hayao Miyazaki has always mastered it. The quintessential imagery that almost suffocates you with colors paired with a Joe Hisaishi score found its place in The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki’s latest feature.
The film made history as it became the first non-English animated film to win the “Best Motion Picture - Animated” category at the 2024 Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 8, giving Studio Ghibli its first-ever Golden Globe.
Even though the victory is newly celebrated, the movie offered the usual Miyazaki standard. Yet, I felt an unfamiliar emotion that no other Ghibli film seemed to evoke from me before.
It felt like saying goodbye to a friend.
Nostalgic, not new
Photo from The Boy and the Heron (2023)
One of the quickest realizations that came to mind upon watching the film was how nostalgic it was, even though it shouldn’t be. The story was completely new. Like a classic Miyazaki movie, it transported me to a new world with its own societal workings, rules, and lovable characters already knowing their places. But as the story of Mahito (Soma Santoki) unfolded, there were elements in the film that gave me familiar flashes of Miyazaki’s previous works.
The Boy and the Heron paints the life of a 12-year-old Mahito during the Second World War as he relocates to a rural residence with his father and stepmother. With memories of his mother’s death, Mahito starts to uncover a new world thanks to a stubborn gray heron (Masaki Suda), and their journey is illustrated with the familiarity of Miyazaki’s vision.
There has always been an “airy” feeling to how the characters move—the way their hair bounces slowly as they hug a loved one or how a character momentarily “floats” in excitement as they eat mouth-watering “Ghibli food.” It has always been soothing to watch, making me wonder how two-dimensional art pieces “flow” so smoothly.
As some visuals flowed serenely, there were also scenes to overwhelm the viewer. When Mahito was face-to-face with the gray heron, toads covered him until his eyes were barely seen. When Mahito also reached another world, pelicans flocked to him when he opened a golden gate.
These scenes were reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Ponyo, specifically the scene when large fish swam rapidly to the shore to accompany the movie’s main character.
“Overwhelming visuals,” or when magical creatures present themselves in staggering battalions that they almost look like they are coming out of the screen anytime soon, has always been a Miyazaki essential.
There was also the presence of the “little guys” and they were in the form of the marshmallow-like creatures called the Warawara. They add to the growing list of “little guys” in previous Miyazaki works, like the soot sprites in Spirited Away, Ponyo’s sisters in Ponyo, and the Kodama from Princess Mononoke.
Another element that reminded me that I was watching a Miyazaki film was the presence of richly written women characters. Kiriko (Kô Shibasaki), Himi (Aimyon), Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), and the old ladies who were in charge of the residence in the movie all had significant roles in the film that propelled Mahito to reach his goal.
These women all had their distinct charm and strength. Some wore dresses, and some wore pants; one was responsible for feeding a colony of souls, and one was a fire maiden; one was carrying a baby amid a war, and some took care of a centuries-old mansion and knew stories of comets and magic.
Miyazaki is no stranger to putting women and girls at the heart of his movies. This can be seen in Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, among others.
Seeing these women in *The Boy and the Heron *brought a sense of pride as a viewer, and it has also made me realize how easy it is to write women in roles fundamental to a film, as the movie showed. They may have been supporting characters, but they were written in a way that they have their own lore, not just there to help Mahito in his quest, and I hope more films with women-supporting characters follow suit.
The film's reveal, which seemed too quick, also made the movie look like it was following a formula. It was revealed that Himi was actually Mahito’s late mother when she was young. This instantly made me remember previous Ghibli films with familial plot twists, like When Marnie Was There and From Up on Poppy Hill.
There were many moments in *The Boy and the Heron *when I couldn't help but recall previous Studio Ghibli movies, especially Miyazaki’s works. That is why it felt so familiar like it was something I had already seen before. For me, it did not feel like something entirely new. It felt like a summation of Miyazaki’s mark in the world of animation, like a curtain call.
Photo from The Boy and the Heron (2023)
Mahito’s grief and the fear of facing changes were tackled flawlessly in the movie through the complicated and sometimes clumsy gray heron.
The heron first posed itself as a villain to Mahito, nearly attacking him and emotionally tormenting him about his late mother. But the heron was also appointed as Mahito’s guide throughout his journey.
This entails that the heron, even with its stingy nature, was eventually helping Mahito through his journey. It may not be filled with soothing words of comfort and advice, but it was clear that the heron intended to help him. That’s how grief and facing permanent change really starts. It’s unsafe in a way that it hasn’t been discovered. We feel scared of being intimidated, and we deny that something has changed. It makes us mad that such a thing happened, but these feelings, unbeknownst to us, actually help us move forward.
Throughout Mahito’s journey, Miyazaki displayed a myriad of worlds—the cursed sea, the green plains with a golden gate, the parakeets’ society, and many others that stunned Mahito in his tracks. It was sort of a distraction to Mahito, but it also served as a test. The places could be so beautiful that we want to stay there for a moment, like how we do with bittersweet memories of the past, instead of moving forward to a world of change. In the case of Mahito, finding his stepmother Natsuko.
Dealing with change is also not the same for everyone, and it is seen in Natsuko. This came as a surprise. When Mahito finally finds her, Natsuko is fuming, and even tells him she hates him. With the prim and proper image of Natsuko since the beginning of the movie, it is only that part when we see a crack of emotion from her. Grief is a deceptive thing, and sometimes, we can’t easily detect it.
Photo from The Boy and the Heron (2023)
One of the most defining moments of the film was when Mahito was chosen as the successor of his granduncle (Shohei Hino). It was a heavy responsibility and it seemed so huge as portrayed by the large floating rock in the film. As I grow older I feel like being chosen by the granduncle almost every day. There is always a responsibility, not just as a student, but also as a writer, a daughter, a sister, and a friend, and I know that’s how it is and how it will be. Like Mahito, we will always be faced with decisions that seem to hang in the balance, and these decisions and responsibilities won’t always be a steady bike ride in a park, sometimes, it’s a crashing wave, a solemn flow of the sea, or a storm. After all, dealing with these things are not linear.
But a complicated heron and a group of comforting grannies sometimes are all that we need to face the new chapters of our lives. We all have these, and we see them in the faces of our friends, those you consider family, and even yourself.
Even though the story was unknown territory to me, there was a warmth of familiarity which succeeded in reminding audiences of Miyazaki’s magic—like a reminder that even if the landscape of films and animation changes, Miyazaki’s style remains timeless.
The Boy and the Heron is now showing in cinemas.