The Boy and the Heron review: Miyazaki’s ‘last’ film is a masterpiece

by The Insights

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the great masters of cinema, whose work happens to be animated, in hand-drawn films of exquisite delicacy and beauty. They are grounded by  thoroughly believable young heroes and heroines who often find themselves in otherworldly landscapes, like the girl in Spirited Away (2001), who wanders into a country of ghosts, or the young woman in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), with its house that floats through time and space.

The Boy and the Heron, the 82-year-old Miyazaki’s first film in a decade, amounts to a summing up of many strands of his long career, with a magical castle, forays into the spirit world and the weighty reality of World War Two. Told through the eyes of a boy named Mahito, whose journey takes him from a bombing in wartime Tokyo to a land where he is menaced by pink parakeets bigger than he is, this may be Miyazaki’s most expansive and magisterial film. If it is not the most instantly stunning, that might be because he takes the time to deliver worlds within worlds, layers under layers, to create an overwhelming experience by the end.

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The film starts with the sound of a siren and an explosive scene. During World War Two, the hospital where Mahito’s mother works catches fire, red-orange flames filling the night sky. Mahito races through the street toward her, embers flying around him, but the hospital collapses and she dies. A year later he and his father move to the country, where his father continues working for a company that makes wartime planes for Japan, just like the hero of Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises, (2013) and the director’s own father. And his father has married Natsuko, the younger sister of Mahito’s mother. The loneliness we see on the boy’s face there is unmistakable, another sign of how brilliantly Miyazaki brings to life characters who visually exist in bold outlines. You cannot dismiss them as cartoons.  

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