The Boy and the Heron (Christian Movie Review)
About The Movie
Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder of the acclaimed Studio Ghibli, is a living legend in animated storytelling. In what may be his final film, The Boy and the Heron feels like the work of an aging master who is reflecting not only on his body of work but on the meaning of life itself. Despite a surrealist and sometimes disjointed narrative, The Boy and the Heron is a visually beautiful and thematically rich meditation on the reality of life and death.
Two preliminary notes: First, the film has been dubbed in English with an all-star cast, but I screened and am reviewing the original Japanese-language film with English subtitles. Second, I’m glad so many people find enjoyment in anime, but I’ve never really explored the genre in much depth. Therefore, I’m approaching this film as someone who loves cinema but is not well-versed in this genre.
Let’s begin with the visuals. It’s not hyperbolic to say that this might be one of the most visually striking films I’ve ever seen. Every frame is gorgeous. At times, the animation is like a watercolor painting that has come to life. Particularly among American audiences who have grown weary of the empty spectacle of modern cinema, it’s not uncommon for people to downplay the importance of the visual aesthetic: “All that matters is the story.” The story does matter, but cinema is a visual medium. If we only want a story, we can listen to an audiobook. To that end, the visual showcase in The Boy and the Heron is superb and worthy of acclaim.
While the visuals are unquestionably fantastic and should earn universal praise, the narrative in The Boy and the Heron is more complicated. The movie embodies classic storytelling elements reflective of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” That said, this may be one of the strangest films I have ever watched. Floating pillow-like creatures eat sea monster guts that enable them to fly and be born as humans in another world? An evil empire of large, anthropomorphic parakeets? A human that lives inside the body of a heron? It’s all odd. In some ways, it’s an archetypal portal fantasy (a boy discovers a mysterious doorway into a new world), but the bizarre and surrealist narrative mirrors the frenetic and discordant nature of a dream rather than a typical fantasy world.
Worldbuilding elements and “rules” are given without explanation or logic. It seems to be more of a projection of the messy human psyche than a coherent world in and of itself. As with a dream, the importance is not the individual elements but the meanings beneath the surface. Thus, the audience must be willing to accept the irrational or eccentric aspects of the story in order to contemplate the deeper, thematic layers. The Boy and the Heron’s narrative is perhaps akin to beautiful improvisation on a piano; even if the individual notes seem random and lack unifying structure, they come together as a whole to provide a general impression and emotional resonance.
In America, animation is largely considered to be “for children” (although that understanding has been changing in recent years). But The Boy and the Heron is not a children’s movie. It is a PG-13 film that contains harsher content and weightier themes then you would find in the latest Minions movie or Disney flick. That doesn’t necessarily mean the film is inaccessible or inappropriate for younger viewers (the story itself takes an elevated view of a child’s ability to grapple with mature themes), but parents should exercise caution.
As a whole, The Boy and the Heron is a difficult film to pin down. For the most part, I was able to look past the trees to glimpse the forest, appreciating the big ideas the movie explores even as I struggled to grasp onto the narrative. Despite the unconventional plot, the film is a visually beautiful and thematically rich reflection on the inevitability of death and the value of life.
Engage The Film
Life and Death
The movie is called The Boy and the Heron in international markets, but its Japanese title is How Do You Live? The original title encapsulates the film’s central theme as a meditation on life and death. The film begins with 12-year-old Mahito losing his mother in a hospital fire. He grieves the loss of his mother and resents his father for moving on from the loss by remarrying his late wife’s younger sister.
Mahito begins to be visited by a mysterious gray heron (a bird with symbolic and spiritual significance), and stumbles upon an open novel left to him by his mother called How Do You Live? He begins to read it but is interrupted and departs, leaving the novel open. In a sense, the rest of the story is about him exploring that penetrating question.
He encounters various characters and has several adventures along the way, each adding to his understanding and acceptance of death. For example, Warawara are pillow-like creatures that are said to travel to the “real world” to be born as people. Mahito watches in wonder as they ascend to the sky, but the beautiful moment of life is disturbed by a flock of pelicans who begin to eat the Warawara before eventually being repelled by fire. The moment reflects the inevitable dance of life and death that Mahito struggles to embrace. Later, when he discovers one of those pelicans dying from its wounds, Mahito comes to understand that the bird is not evil but simply acting consistently with its nature and purpose. After the bird dies, he decides to honor it with a burial.
In another significant moment, the elderly wizard who rules the dreamworld expresses his desire for Mahito to be his successor, a person without malice who can shape the world into something beautiful. Yet, as he considers the scar on his head where he injured it with a rock (see content section above), Mahito realizes that even as a young boy, he is not free of malice. A dreamworld promises an escape from pain, but he cannot escape his own fallen and sinful nature (consistent with biblical teaching, Romans 3:23). The climax of the film (which I won’t spoil here) contains another poignant moment in which Mahito chooses to embrace his life, accepting that it is better to experience the beauty of life, even if marred by pain and grief.