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How do you live? — A review of 'The Boy and the Heron'

Against his retirement plans, Hayao Miyazaki made a strong return with his latest creation, The Boy and the Heron, released on Boxing Day in the UK. He has once again captured the hearts of Studio Ghibli fans with his intricate representations of reality interwoven with fantastical realms and creatures. 


The film has received positive feedback; while being claimed by The Guardian as "overplotted", the film still brings delight and has been regarded as a masterpiece. Moreover, the renowned filmmaker Guillermo del Toro even compared Miyazaki’s animation with Mozart, saying, "We are privileged enough to be living in a time where Mozart is composing symphonies." 


As a loyal fan of the fantasy genre as well as postmodernist literature, in which subjectivity and consciousness were explored, The Boy and the Heron certainly fed into my desire for a visual feast on the outlandish while inspecting one's inner state and progression. 


The following content contains spoilers.


Following the passing of Mahito's mother, we followed his footsteps from a war-torn Tokyo into the isolated but majestic rural house of his stepmother, Natsuko, to whom Mahito's father intended to remarry. These initial settings of woodlands, isolation from the city, and new beginnings seem to bring us back to the woods and the house in My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away, giving the audience nostalgic sentiments.


What awaits Mahito is a mysterious and gigantic tower at the back of the house with a curious backstory of his great-uncle. Coincidentally, a massive and menacing grey heron, who follows Mahito wherever he goes since his arrival, seems to be the key to the dark mystery surrounding his family. It turned out that the tower was a portal, and the heron was a guide. The heron had been given a task by Mahito's great-uncle to lead Mahito to the oceanic underworld of his great-uncle's creation. It is up to Mahito to explore his own path in the mystical underrealm of his great-uncle. 


How do you live? 


One might find it confusing after watching The Boy and the Heron, as the heron was not the film's most crucial element. The original title in Japanese was translated as 'How do you live', referencing a novel published in 1937 by Genzaburo Yoshino, which was the main inspiration behind The Boy and the Heron. In addition, one can regard the film as semi-autobiographical, which resembles Miyazaki's upbringing and personal relations with people. The book appeared in the movie as a gift from Mahito's mother to his future self, not only staging the following adventure he was about to embark on but also the hardship he would soon be facing. 


The Heron 


The first magical creature that Mahito encountered during his journey was the Grey Heron. From the narrative of Mahito, the audience sided with him while regarding the heron as threatening and deceivable as he continuously provoked the protagonist with doubts regarding the death of his mother. On the other hand, Mahito's reaction towards the heron could also be self-reflective, implying his failure to grieve the loss of his mother and obtain closure. Due to the heron's intentional and raw revelation, such as to have Mahito witness the liquifying torso of his mother, Mahito painfully but gradually acknowledged the death of his mother. Consequently, it also compels the fast-forwarding of Mahito into the world of adulthood. 


The Tower and the oceanic realm: The complexity of the adult world 


Despite the escapism represented at the beginning of the film, there is an undeniable parallel between the two worlds that underpins the themes Miyazaki wanted to convey: the times of uncertainty and the crumbling of patriarchy. 


The era in which The Boy and the Heron was set was around two decades after the Meiji Restoration when empirical Japan aspired to modernise as a result of Western industrialisation and thus indirectly influenced fashion and architecture. The audience witnessed the change of era along with Mahito, walking through the main gate of his aunt Natsuko's house, which was characterised as a traditional Japanese entrance to an individual western villa. What made an impression on me was Mahito's outfit as a Japanese schoolboy. In a way, the simplicity and schoolboyish outfit of Mahito demonstrate his stubbornness for change and his denial of what he has lost. 


Once diving into the oceanic underworld of the towermaster, Mahito had several curious encounters with birds. He was surrounded by a crowd of pelicans that devoured innocent and newborn souls in the realm. Eventually, the Pelicans were defeated. Nevertheless, a confession made by a dying pelican unveiled the cruel truth of this seemingly magical realm. The pelicans were not a product of the world. Instead, they were brought in by the creator, the tower master. In the oceanic world, the pelicans have no food except from the 'warawara' (the innocent souls), compelling them to feed on the innocent. 


Following the pelicans, we went deeper into the realm and discovered the Parakeet Kingdom, where they developed a feudal system that fell under the rule of the tower master. The seemingly content parakeets, despite their colourful fluffy feathers, were regarded by the audience as villains as they desperately wanted to capture Mahito and his companions. Later on, we learn that the king of the parakeets has the ambition to overthrow the tower master, thus explaining his kidnapping of the descendants of the tower master in exchange for new governance, however, in vain.  


From the perspective of the birds, we understood that even a fantastical and magical realm such as this can also fall victim to the hierarchical structure of patriarchy. Despite the effort of the devin and unreachable 'tower master' to create a perfect world and to implement order, he failed to understand and sympathise with the various subjects within his creation. Therefore, the pelicans and the parakeets became the repressed minority subject to the tower master's indifference.  


Grief, self-progression and the search for life purpose: Affirmation and closure 


Throughout Mahito's adventure in the oceanic world, what motivated him to continue his journey was the younger version of his mother, Himi, who came from the time of the past. Himi protected Mahito from the aggressive pelicans and the murderous parakeets, while Mahito gradually realised that Himi was his mother all along. Before returning to their worlds and time, Mahito warned Himi about the fire and her death. Out of her love for Mahito, she reassured Mahito that she was fearless and would give birth to her son. The companionship, protection, and sacrifice of Himi finally provided Mahito with closure of his loss. He eventually found the courage to face his war-ravaged world rather than stay and become the next tower master, as his great-uncle suggested. 


Another scene that demonstrates Mahito's gradual acceptance of Natsuko as his stepmother is when Mahito finds a weak Natsuko lying in the delivery room of the underworld. In order to rescue her, for the first time, Mahito referred to her as 'mother' instead of by her name. 

Contrasting to the patriarchal system that the tower master accidentally created, where hunger for food (resources) and greed for power dominated the system, the role of the female in this film gives out warmth, protection, and encouragement that put Mahito back on his feet with hopes for a better future. 


The ambiguity of good and evil and to live originally 


Echoing the original title of the film, How Do You Live, the message that Miyazaki intended was to live like a person and to live originally. The pelicans and the parakeets lived in desperation, which prompted their deeds of eating souls or initiating riots. Meanwhile, Mahito rejected the tower master's offer as a powerful creator. He chose to reunite with his family and work on their relationships. 


Unlike Miyazaki's previous films, where good was destined to triumph, the audience could observe a fine line between good and evil. Despite the original setting of the birds, we could also regard them as the byproduct of the patriarchy and the ignorance of the man in power. Mahito, as the supposedly 'good' character, also demonstrates his innate barbarous nature by injuring himself. 


Such examples of ambiguity in the film can be witnessed worldwide today. They can be compared to the dynamics of hegemonic power and the resistance against it in day-to-day interactions with people.  


Once again, Miyazaki has delivered a mind-blowing visual feast to entertain his audience while prompting philosophical thoughts. Fortunately, The Boy and the Heron will be one of many to come that continues to amaze the world. 


Edited By: Josh Reidelbach

Image: Onderhond 

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