The Boy and the Heron is a breathtaking tale of heartbreaking loss, acceptance of life, and fighting to make the difference that you can in your own world. Japanese writer and director Hayao Miyazaki has toyed with the idea of retirement more than a few times now, each time returning after a multi-year hiatus and bringing audiences a new piece of his life every time. Even lesser engaging Miyazaki is leagues above most of the animation we have here in the U.S. and a large portion of that comes down to the life-like watercolor drawings and their seamless pairing with enjoyable sound effects.
Young Mahito (Soma Santoki) is still reeling from the loss of his mother Himi (Aimyon) when her hospital caught fire near the end of World War II. Some years later, Mahito’s father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) is set to remarry Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), the sister of his late mother. Upon moving to his family’s old estate, strange occurrences take Mahito into a realm between the living and the dead as he searches for his lost mother and seeks to find Natsuko who has been lost in a mysterious tower on the land.
Much like many of Miyazaki’s films, his own life is a major influence in many of the themes that his films deal with, be it loss or longing. There have always been notions of a complicated relationship with his mother and The Boy and the Heron is no different, tackling the loss of one mother and the idea of having some other replace her. There’s a notable attitude Mahito feels towards Natsuko, unsure of how to call her and treat her as he’s still dealing with his own complicated emotions. When Natsuko goes missing Mahito finds himself again in a situation where he is off racing to find his mother figure, this time bent on bringing her back safely if only for his hurting father.
In classic Studio Ghibli form, The Boy and the Heron has been released in the native Japanese language with English subtitles, as well as in the English language with a cast of A-List American celebrities lending their voices to the tale. Personally, I opt to see the Japanese version first as I feel more of the story and wildness exists in the original format. While I enjoy the English dubbed versions, oddly I feel like some of the uniqueness to the stories are lost in translation and the emotions aren’t quite as high as they are in the subtitled version. Regardless of story, Miyazaki’s films are always somewhat bizarre with creatures and characters in the background, but a lot of that only amplifies the wonder you feel when taking in his films.
The Boy and the Heron has many beautiful moments related to family and how we choose to fight for our loved ones, even when we may not feel the most love towards them sometimes. While not my favorite Miyazaki story and despite being one that feels like it loses a bit of focus towards the end, The Boy and the Heron still shines in a year full of strong animation with the help of beautiful artwork and a sensational original score from composer Joe Hisaishi. The themes of life and death are ever-present here as Miyazaki crafts another take on how we all exist in this world and where we go after. We should be so lucky to receive another Miyazaki film in his lifetime, as these experiences are always magical and unlike anything else we get to see between film and animation.
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