"The Boy and the Heron" made history with winning a Golden Globe Award.

Miyazaki’s Final Movie is Finally Out

The Japanese maestro’s ‘The Boy and the Heron' has its international premiere in Toronto, but the general public will have to wait for its release in November/December

"The Boy and the Heron" made history with winning a Golden Globe Award.

© 2023 Studio Ghibli

Since it was first teased in 2017, The Boy and the Heron has been frequently billed as the final work by animation legend Miyazaki Hayao. While Studio Ghibli V.P. Nishioka Junichi claims Miyazaki has more in the tank, the film arrives with a definitive sense of finality, between the occasion and anticipation surrounding its release—not a single trailer or synopsis was published before its Japanese premiere in July—as well as its story, which deals with ideas as heavy and meaningful as anything in Miyazaki’s repertoire, but which he strings together with magical realism akin to lucid dreaming.

It is, as a matter of clear intent, his most abstract and opaque work, forcing closer scrutiny of its zig-zag plot and deliberately bizarre visual poetry. And yet, its jaggedly carved pieces all fit together with surprising ease. It yields a cinematic sculpture that seems, at first, completely shapeless, but upon stepping back and gazing at its form at a distance, it reveals something deeply evocative, nostalgically familiar, surprisingly funny, and by the end, strangely moving.

The film’s international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival comes two months ahead of its North American release (courtesy of distributors GKIDS) on Dec. 8. Trailers and other materials have also published in recent weeks, but since part of the experience of watching (and waiting for) The Boy and the Heron has been its sense of childlike mystery, this review will remain light on details beyond its first act—or as light as is possible while discussing why it feels so personal to Miyazaki.

"The Boy and the Heron" is set to be released Dec. 8.

© 2023 Studio Ghibli

The film, titled How Do You Live? in Japanese, begins with death. During World War II, a U.S. air-raid bombing sets a Tokyo neighborhood ablaze in the dead of night. Nearby, 12-year-old Mahito (Soma Santoki) rushes through the streets—which are engulfed in flame and chaos—in the hope of saving his mother, who works at the local hospital. He doesn’t make it in time. Soon after, he and his industrialist father, Shoichi (Kimura Takuya) move to the countryside, to live with a young woman, Natsuko (Kimura Yoshino), who’s a spitting image of Mahito’s mother. It isn’t hard to figure out the reasons for their resemblance, but this detail is initially obscured; Natsuko is, first and foremost, a living reminder of what Mahito lost, and the guilt he feels at such a tender age.

As he grows slowly accustomed to his new surroundings—from his new home on the outskirts of a forest, to the litany of short, stout, talkative grannies who help out around the house—strange occurrences begin taking him back to that fateful night in Tokyo. He dreams of fire and death, and during his waking moments, a gray heron seems to fly in his direction, provoking him aggressively at random intervals, as it grows more gluttonous and obnoxious. It’s hard not to see the heron as some kind of embodiment of grief, striking suddenly and without warning, engorging into something ugly and uncontrollable. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Before long, the surrounding forest gives way to secrets that lure Mahiko in, practically summoning him to a magical realm where everything feels familiar but uncanny, and where he’s met with delightful anthropomorphic creatures, untold supernatural dangers, and reminders and remnants of his mother’s own childhood.

The short, stout, talkative grannies who help out around the house are just some of the characters Mahito meets at his new home in the countryside.

© 2023 Studio Ghibli

Discovering each of these ideas and characters is a joy in and of itself, as some seem to spring forth from the 82-year-old Miyazaki’s childlike imagination. Others, however, seem sketched from the more mournful and melancholy side of the animation maestro, like textures and objects that morph and melt at the touch, portending a sense of uncertainty and transformation—of known things becoming suddenly unknown, as if warped by the agony of loss. There’s an entire lore to this world that Mahito discovers, but it’s one whose rules and specifics present themselves with sudden dream-logic, and they seem to change at random. It is not, however, all that different from how things work for Mahito back home. Everyone, from the helpful grannies to his own father, seems to skirt around stories and legends. Everything they speak of is a known quantity to which he’s made a stranger, not unlike the way his father has dealt with the loss of his mother: silently, without addressing it head on, and treating it like a secret to which Mahito is too young to know.

Profound beauty can be found in ugly things, and sometimes, even joy and innocent wonder must be bid farewell. These are by no means a huge thematic departure for Miyazaki, but the disjointed form they take in The Boy and the Heron forces a more rigorous reading of not just the “what,” but the “why,” especially at this stage in his career.

But in a Miyazaki film, the internal lives of children are as rich and meaningful as anything in the adult world, so he doesn’t hand-hold his audience as he whisks us away (alongside Mahito) through strange, phantasmagorical happenings that seem barely connected at first, but all of which ultimately surround poetic ideas embodied by various strange, vivid, and memorable creatures. Profound beauty can be found in ugly things, and sometimes, even joy and innocent wonder must be bid farewell. These are by no means a huge thematic departure for Miyazaki, but the disjointed form they take in The Boy and the Heron forces a more rigorous reading of not just the “what,” but the “why,” especially at this stage in his career. Final film or not, it’s surely no coincidence that a gray-haired, mustachioed character, resembling a frazzled version of the director himself, shows up to express harrowing existential dread about what he leaves behind in this world of magic, and to whom he leaves it.

In a Miyazaki Hayao film, the internal lives of children are rich and meaningful.

© 2023 Studio Ghibli

But some personal flourishes in The Boy and the Heron are also overt, and they result in some of the most unique and devastating images across Miyazaki’s long career. Born in 1941, some of the director’s earliest childhood memories were of cities ravaged by bombings—memories which he brings to life here in stunning, terrifying fashion, turning people and environments into blurs, as flames and debris take hellish form. Like Mahito, Miyazaki’s father was also an airplane manufacturer (a possible inspiration for his previous film, The Wind Rises, from 2013), and depictions of Shoichi laying out the parts for cockpit windshields feel particularly detailed. Miyazaki may not have lost his mother in a fire, but the catalyst for so many of the movie’s scenes and ideas appear to stem from him looking back on his own life, on the deaths of both his parents, and his own mortality.

It’s a rumination not just on grief, but its elusive nature, and the way the lives of our parents compel us to imagine them through the years...since everything we experience is something they no doubt went through as well, but we’re tragically separated from each other by time.

It’s a rumination not just on grief, but its elusive nature, and the way the lives of our parents compel us to imagine them through the years—a concept that occasionally takes literal form here—since everything we experience is something they no doubt went through as well, but we’re tragically separated from each other by time. Envisioned as a way for his grandson to eventually deal with his own passing, the film has been in the works for five years, though it bears a striking and moving resemblance to the 2021 fantasy-drama Petite Maman by French filmmaker Célina Sciamma, which has a similarly beautiful core: the idea that in order to understand our parents, we must picture them as clearly, fully, and completely as we do ourselves, here and now.

Miyazaki Hayao's "The Boy and the Heron" has been teased since 2017.

© 2023 Studio Ghibli

The Boy and the Heron gazes into the past through an imaginative and wondrous lens. It’s as powerful in its sweeping depiction of soaring birds and adventurous momentum as it is in its moments of stillness, portraying grief as the subtle movement of fabrics when a young boy curls up in bed. It turns the quiet acceptance of death and the chaos of existential anxieties into a fairytale epic that belies linear understanding, but beats with the kind heart, soul, and clarity of vision that could only come from a master in the twilight of his career. Whether or not it’s truly Miyazaki’s final work, it’s the fondest possible farewell.

Published on September 9, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter