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John DoughertyJanuary 18, 2024
“The Boy and the Heron” is both a soaring adventure and a bittersweet meditation on letting go (Studio Ghibli/GKIDS via AP).“The Boy and the Heron” is both a soaring adventure and a bittersweet meditation on letting go (Studio Ghibli/GKIDS via AP).

In Mami Sunada’s 2013 documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” the legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki offered his official statement of retirement, which began: “I hope to work for 10 more years.” Sure enough, retirement didn’t stick: Three years later, he announced that he would make one final (final) feature. For an artist as prolific and driven as Miyazaki, stopping work was always going to be a challenge.

A decade later, Miyazaki’s final film—titled “The Boy and the Heron” in English markets, but “How Do You Live?” in its original Japanese release—is in theaters around the world. “The Boy and the Heron” is a grand farewell: lushly animated, full of joy, regret and searing hope. This is what it looks like when one of the greatest filmmakers of all time says goodbye.

Miyazaki’s influence is so massive that it’s hard not to understate it. Directors as diverse as James Cameron, Bong Joon Ho, Guillermo del Toro and Céline Sciamma cite him as an inspiration. Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar see Miyazaki as a sort of godfather, crediting his work in the development of their animation and storytelling style. Studio Ghibli, the company he founded with his friend and producer Toshio Suzuki and the late director Isao Takahata, is widely considered the global high watermark for animation.

Hayao Miyazaki’s influence is so massive that it’s hard not to understate it.

One would be hard-pressed to deny it. Miyazaki’s films are gorgeously, painstakingly animated by hand, in a style that is at once traditional and groundbreaking. “The Boy and the Heron,” despite being the definition of a late-career work, cuts no corners in this regard. Unique and expressive characters stroll, run and fly through stunning painted environments: rich green forests, sprawling oceans plied by ghostly ships, an ancient vine-mottled tower looming over a pond. The action is fluid and effortless, belying the enormous effort that goes into bringing these two-dimensional worlds to life. Frequently the lines between humor and horror blur, as in a dream: Giant parakeets waddle with butcher knives hidden behind their backs, and the heron of the title transforms between bird and human states by, essentially, vomiting up the latter.

But it’s not just technical excellence that defines Miyazaki’s art. His films are sad, strange, breathlessly beautiful, rich in imagination and story. Miyazaki himself is a compelling and paradoxical figure: a chain-smoking pessimist and gruff workaholic who nevertheless has created some of the most beloved children’s films in history, including “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) and the Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away” (2001).

A Political Filmmaker

He is an unapologetically political filmmaker, his work shot through with concerns about the human race’s exploitation of the natural world and our seeming eagerness to annihilate ourselves. His works are prophetic in a way that Pope Francis or Dorothy Day might appreciate. In “Princess Mononoke” (1997) he tells an epic, tragic origin story about humanity’s antagonistic relationship with nature; and his penultimate film, “The Wind Rises” (2013)—a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the fighter planes used by Japan in World War II—would make great companion-viewing with this year’s “Oppenheimer.” Those concerns inform even more innocent works like “Castle in the Sky” (1986) and “Ponyo” (2008).

This is not to say that his films are ponderous and preachy—far from it. But an essential element of Miyazaki’s genius is his trust that children can engage with emotional complexity and serious themes. Most often seen as through the eyes of a child, these films approach hardship with a spirit of innocence and hope, a belief in change that has not yet been ground down by the world—which makes it capable of working miracles.

Miyazaki trusts that children can engage with emotional complexity and serious themes.

“The Boy and the Heron” is both a soaring adventure and a bittersweet meditation on letting go. The film opens in Tokyo during World War II as—in an eerily relevant note—a bomb strikes a hospital. Teenage Mahito’s mother dies in the blaze. A year later, his father has married his late wife’s younger sister, Natsuko, and the three of them flee Tokyo to live on her country estate. Mahito is troubled by this change in his family dynamic and haunted by dreams of fire. He freezes out Natsuko and injures himself with a rock to avoid going to school, leaving a scar on the side of his head. And this is all before a talking heron with unnerving rows of human teeth appears at his window, croaking out that his “presence is requested” at an eerie, abandoned tower on the edge of the property.

Mahito rebuffs the heron (Masaki Suda) until Natsuko wanders into the woods and disappears. Intent on rescuing her, Mahito enters the tower and finds himself transported into a magical alternate world, with the heron as his reluctant guide. Along the way he discovers wonders, horrors and surprising friends, like the tough Kiriko (Kô Shibasaki) and Himi (the singer-songwriter Aimyon), a young girl who can conjure mystical fire. At the center of the world waits his mysterious great-uncle (Shôhei Hino) and a choice that will determine the fates of them all.

A Critical Self-Portrait

The great-uncle (never named) is easy enough to see as a stand-in for Miyazaki, an aged sorcerer who crafted his own fantasy world and sustains it through his careful attention. But it is a critical self-portrait, channeling Miyazaki’s ambivalence about his art and legacy. The source of his power—which he wants to transfer to Mahito—is a menacing Lovecraftian space rock. The door to his tower is marked with the words fecemi la divina potestate (“I was wrought by divine power”)—which sounds impressive until you realize it’s referring to the inscription Dante describes above the Gates of Hell.

As he reaches the end of his career, Miyazaki is too clear-eyed to take a simple victory lap. The film trembles with his worries about the systems he has participated in to make his art, and how his influence may have imprisoned others, preventing them from finding their own way (not to mention his complicated relationship with his son, the filmmaker Goro Miyazaki). In a moment that echoes “The Wind Rises,” Mahito’s father, a munitions factory owner, pauses to appreciate the beauty of a set of glass fighter jet canopies. Lying in the sun, devoid of context, they do look beautiful: like giant, crystalline teardrops held together by a fine web of metal. But they are also part of an instrument of death. Miyazaki wants us not to forget that: There is no such thing as a pure act of artistry untouched by the world around us. To isolate oneself in creation, to focus only on the work of making art and not the ends it is put to, is to deny one of our core responsibilities as human beings.

As he reaches the end of his career, Miyazaki is too clear-eyed to take a simple victory lap.

Miyazaki is a man who has for a long time been defined by his work. This film feels like his attempt to make peace with the knowledge that, like all of us, he will leave this world with work unfinished. It is tempting to want to pass that unfinished work onto the next generation, to ensure that it—and, in a sense, we—continue after death. But ultimately, Miyazaki suggests, the only worthwhile legacy to pass on is one that will help the people who come after us to face this broken world with courage and compassion. Miyazaki uses his final film to offer a story of hope and encouragement. More specifically, when the film was announced, Toshio Suzuki said Miyazaki was making it for his grandson: “It’s his way of saying, ‘Grandpa is moving on to the next world, but he’s leaving behind this film.’”

It’s a masterful goodbye, although I’ll admit that doesn’t make parting any easier. Miyazaki is in my pantheon of favorite directors, and his films have enriched my thought, writing and faith; that’s why I chose “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1985), my favorite Miyazaki film, as one of the first selections for my Catholic Movie Club column. I’m grateful for all that these films have given me, and that I have been able to share them with my children. They love them as much as I do: laughing and cheering and, I hope, learning something about being kind, brave and willing to do the hard work needed to bring about the sort of world you want to see.

So I am grateful that he sat down at the drafting table one last time to make this last film. Sooner than I like to think, my children will be introduced to the adult world, with all of its horrors and hardships. They are inheriting a planet that lies cracked and bleeding, a world plagued by violence and selfishness, where faith and hope can seem at best naïve. They will lose people they love, and in the face of all of this they will ask, as we all have: How do you go on? How do you live?

This film, and Miyazaki’s entire career, is his answer. You live by finding true, if sometimes unlikely, friends. You live by choosing to treat the world and everything in it with tenderness and care, doing your best to save what you can. You hold onto hope, even in the face of overwhelming opposition. And you try, in whatever way you can, to create something beautiful, something that enriches the lives of others, something worth leaving behind.

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