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‘The Boy and the Heron’ Caps Hayao Miyazaki’s Continuing Career

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and possibly last) Studio Ghibli release would be a fitting film for the legendary director to go out on, not that he’s ready to retire

Toho Co./Ringer illustration

The question of when Hayao Miyazaki will retire has followed the esteemed Japanese filmmaker for decades. The news cycle surrounding his plans has repeated itself, over and over again, upon the arrival of every new entry in his iconic filmography.

In September 2005, Miyazaki attended a press conference at the 62nd Venice International Film Festival to promote his then-latest film, Howl’s Moving Castle, and to field questions about receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Naturally, the subject of his retirement was broached as well.

“One thing about film directors is that once you become one, you’ll always be one,” Miyazaki said. “You’ve never heard of ‘former film directors’ or ‘retired film directors,’ right? It’s a job that elicits all sorts of bonno, or worldly desires and passions in the Buddhist sense, and no matter how many years you work as a director, you never become a more wonderful human being. It’s a job in which bonno just increases. [Laughs.] It’s true of directors even at 80 or 90. There’s no change.”

Almost 20 years later, at 82 years old, Miyazaki is still working, still pursuing his unending passion for telling stories through animation—even after his most recent “retirement” following the completion of The Wind Rises in 2013. His latest film, How Do You Live?, premiered in Japan in July and earned the equivalent of $13.2 million over its opening three-day weekend to secure the highest-grossing debut in Studio Ghibli history (despite a limited marketing campaign), though its total revenue has since fallen behind that of some of Miyazaki’s previous projects. Retitled The Boy and the Heron for its international release, the movie made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival earlier this week, ahead of a planned December 8 wide release. By any name, the film stands as another stunning achievement by a creative who continues to reveal new dimensions to his boundless imagination with every project he pours himself into.

Set against the destruction of the Pacific War, The Boy and the Heron follows a young boy named Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki) who flees Tokyo for the countryside with his father, Shoichi (Takuya Kimura), after his mother is killed in a hospital during a firebombing. It’s a swift, devastating transition for Mahito, yet one that is seemingly easier to endure for Shoichi, a war-profiteering factory owner who supplies munitions to the army. Shoichi is already remarrying a woman named Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), his late wife’s younger sister, whom he and Mahito move in with at her rural estate. As Mahito struggles with his grief and his new surroundings, he discovers an ancient tower neighboring his new home that has a mysterious history tied to the maternal side of his family. Prompted by the persistent urging of a strange gray heron and Natsuko’s sudden disappearance, Mahito investigates the tower and enters a fantastic realm that transcends time and space, defying the confines of life and death itself.

Watching Miyazaki’s films is always akin to peering through a window to another world or era. While The Boy and the Heron shares that delightfully familiar out-of-time-and-place quality, Miyazaki’s latest film, in the twilight of his decades-spanning career, also feels like a window into his previous works—even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the best among them. Like Spirited Away, it lures its audience into a dreamlike world through the eyes of a child who’s leaving behind their parents and a more grounded reality that resembles our own. Like Princess Mononoke, it features flashes of brutal violence and moments of somewhat disturbing surrealism, along with cute, sprite-like creatures. There’s a scene with delectable food and another magical score from longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi.

Studio Ghibli

As with The Wind Rises and other projects before it, Miyazaki weaves some of his personal history into the characters and events of The Boy and the Heron, a particularly semi-autobiographical film that draws from his childhood. Mahito’s traumatic experience escaping Tokyo for the countryside recalls Miyazaki’s own youthful relocation from the war-torn city amid air raids. Shoichi’s factory built air munitions for the military, and Miyazaki’s father headed the Miyazaki Airplane factory, which made parts for military planes in the Pacific War, contributing to the very conflict that displaced his family. Through Mahito’s relationship with his mother, and his yearning for her after her death, Miyazaki explores the loss of his own mother, who had been diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis when he was just a child.

But for all that’s familiar in The Boy and the Heron, the film is much more than a mere recycling of Miyazaki’s greatest hits. There are some magnificent sequences and imagery that feel just as inventive as his earlier projects, even though—or, perhaps, because—his preferred hand-drawn approach has long been surpassed in popularity by computer-generated 3D animation. Frequent visual references and allusions to his past works notwithstanding, there’s a freshness to his distinctive art style that still evokes a sense of wonder.

As Mahito learns how to live with his grief and navigate a contradictory world full of beauty and destruction and good and evil, The Boy and the Heron touches on life, death, creation, and loss in ways that seem specific to where Miyazaki is in his career. Miyazaki explores some of the same themes as the 1937 novel that inspired the film, Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live?, which focuses on a boy’s emotional growth after the death of his father. The Boy and the Heron finds the filmmaker meditating on the life that he’s led while imparting a hopeful message to younger generations, including his grandson, to build a better world, despite all the faults they may find in the foundations they’re inheriting.

Because of Miyazaki’s age and the protracted time it takes him to meet the painstaking demands of a hand-drawn medium, The Boy and the Heron was again anticipated to be the writer-director’s final feature. Yet at the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Boy and the Heron made its North American premiere earlier in September, Studio Ghibli executive Junichi Nishioka told reporters that Miyazaki is already working on ideas for his next film. (“This time, he’s not going to announce his retirement at all,” Nishioka said through a translator.) As another master director with a new movie, the 80-year-old Martin Scorsese, said in a recent profile, “You keep going until you can’t.”

The Boy and the Heron will continue to make the rounds on the festival circuit ahead of its domestic release, which will include showings on IMAX screens across the country, but the future of Studio Ghibli seems more uncertain than ever after last week’s announcement that the company is being acquired by broadcaster Nippon Television Holdings. In many ways, The Boy and the Heron might be a fitting final film for Miyazaki, a triumphant, challenging swan (heron?) song that hearkens back to a lifetime of artistic achievements while still breaking new ground. But for the never-ending man, it seems as if every film will be his final project until he makes the next one. Generations of Miyazaki fans, whose ranks have only expanded with the rise of the annual Studio Ghibli Fests, aren’t sorry he’s having a hard time saying goodbye.