[NOTE: Spoilers ahead for ‘The Boy and the Heron’]
I’ll be honest: I often lean towards hyperbole.
For instance, when I learned The Boy and the Heron, Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s newest film, would premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I loudly proclaimed that the film would wreck me. Of course, I had no clue what the movie was about, as did no one else in the Western world (Studio Ghibli made headlines earlier this year when they announced that the film would have no marketing campaign besides a hand-drawn poster), but it didn’t matter. Miyazaki was about to release his purported last feature film, and I was sure his penchant for childlike whimsy wrapped in profound emotional truth would do something to me (twice, as I planned to attend the premiere and subsequent press screening the next day). I admitted, though, that I probably wouldn’t succumb to an emotional spiral.
As the credits rolled and Kenshi Yonezu’s ending theme, “Spinning Globe,” played, I cried. They were not silent tears – they were chest-quaking sobs, a torrent of emotion that would’ve publicly embarrassed me if my seat weren’t off to the right side of the theater. I wasn’t expecting the rush of catharsis, either. There were rumbles of it inside of me during the movie, moments that would spark some mist around my eyes. Nothing could’ve prepared me, though, for the intensity of my reaction, which kept me in my seat longer than my antsy self would’ve allowed. I needed to regain my composure and contemplate how and why the film triggered such a response.
The Boy and the Heron (known as How Do You Live? in Japan) is the semi-autobiographical story of Mahito, a young boy living in Japan at the height of the Pacific War. After a firebombing kills his mother, Mahito and his father, Shoichi, move to a countryside estate to live with his pregnant aunt and now stepmother, Natsuko. Also living at the estate is a gray heron who pesters the stoic, withdrawn Mahito. He soon discovers the heron is no ordinary bird but a masqueraded mythical creature who claims his mother is alive. Even though he knows it’s likely a trap, Mahito pursues the heron after he lures Natsuko toward a castle hidden in the woods. The castle is a portal to an alternate dimension at the edges of life and death, past and present. Mahito travels through that world to find his stepmother and himself.
The Boy and the Heron is two distinct films in one. The latter half is a journey through a mystical universe with creatures, rules, and logic that differ from ours. That film is very similar to Studio Ghibli favorites like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Indeed, there is plenty of whimsy and wonder to reawaken one’s inner child, whether through the miniature white waruwaru spirits or the militaristic parakeets. The film encompassing the first half feels like uncharted territory for Miyazaki, a place of raw vulnerability. His prior works have had undercurrents of pain; Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece of righteous fury over humanity’s neglect of the natural world, while The Wind Rises is as much about deeply felt love amidst tragedy as the beauty of innovation amidst war. However, his latest effort looks deeper inward to a far more intimate yet universal experience: grief.
Mahito is polite but distant when he meets Natsuko for the first time. Natsuko immediately tries to form a connection, recalling how she last saw him as a baby and that she would be his “new mother.” She reaches over, grasps his hand, and places it over her stomach so he can feel her unborn child. Aside from a brief moment of embarrassment, Mahito barely regards her overtures. He is similarly remote when meeting the estate’s old women caretakers, bowing respectfully but offering little else. When Mahito finally arrives at his new room, he lets his guard down. He collapses onto the bed and falls asleep, burnt out from the day’s activities.
Mahito’s collapse is more a consequence of performance than his travels. He is performing normalcy, of being okay, even though the lingering grief of his mother’s loss consumes him. A recurring nightmare of Mahito chasing his mother through the life-extinguishing flames haunts his sleep (Miyazaki’s rendering of these fiery dreams are the most hauntingly beautiful visuals of his career to date). As devastating as his mother’s loss is, Mahito senses that the world is moving forward and he must too, for the sake of his fragile family. He acts as well as he can, good enough not to raise red flags but not too much to be unsustainable.
I know the performance well. I gave that performance in 2021 to nurses, doctors, friends, and family as I recovered in the hospital from a severe case of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which rendered me nearly immobile. Visions of fire didn’t consume me, but my mind did cycle through every choice I did and didn’t make that led to me waking up in a hospital room with wrist restraints. (I later learned it was because I tried to remove the breathing tube that kept me alive.) When I wasn’t looking back, I was staring down a pitch-black future without a clear path ahead. I didn’t believe I could voice these thoughts, so I defaulted to what I thought worked better. I smiled, laughed, and gritted through discomfort to put everyone and myself at ease. Sleeping reasonably well at night was easy because performing “being okay” was so hard.
Other parts of Mahito’s first days at the estate were strikingly familiar. In montages set to Joe Hisaishi’s devastating score, Mahito sleepwalks through life. He attends school but doesn’t care about the lessons or the students. He functions at a base, disengaged level, even when a group of kids fight him on his way home. Mahito is dirtied by the bout, but his expression would make you think nothing happened at all. He senses the dissociation as well. In arguably the movies’ most astonishing moment, Mahito bashes himself in the head with a rock. Globs of blood slide down his face and drop onto a leaf on the ground.
There are a few ways to interpret Mahito’s action. He could’ve deliberately harmed himself to get out of attending school, which eventually happens. Another reason could be his desire to appear tough after fighting with the school bullies. However, his explanation to Shoichi and Natsuko that he “fell” contradicts that interpretation. What rings more faithful is Mahito’s desire to feel anything other than numbness, a symptom of his unresolved trauma. His self-harm releases building pressure that he cannot communicate through words or outbursts. It is a brutal reminder that he can still live and feel, even if he doesn’t quite know how.
Miyazaki’s inclusion of Mahito’s self-harm is shocking. His films have always included complex themes and discussions, but this particular moment is raw in a way live-action movies struggle to reach, let alone animated films. It is a painstakingly honest and unguarded moment about the spiritual damage that grief causes, especially without the tools to properly process it. That bash to the skull should forever disabuse audiences of the notion that animated cinema only exists for children.
While I never self-harmed, I did wonder if life would be easier if I hadn’t woken up from my DKA episode. At the time, I insisted it wasn’t suicidal ideation because I never actively contemplated taking my own life. However, those initial steps were still too far in that direction to be considered healthy. My and Mahito’s actions were markedly different, but the genesis of thought that inspired them were the same. We were both paralyzed by grief and seeking coping mechanisms that offered a resolution, good or bad.
We both found something else to latch onto. For me, it was my stint in intensive rehabilitation, where I focused on regaining my strength, mobility, and eventually independence. For roughly two hours a day, I poured everything inside me – my frustration, fear, sadness, agony – into each measured step and controlled movement. Mahito’s focal point is the gray heron that stalks and bothers him across the estate. When he realizes what the heron is, he dedicates himself to attacking it, building a weapon, and getting unwitting help from the caretakers. This new goal is the first time Mahito appears fully alive in the film.
Around the same time, Mahito discovers a book amongst his mother’s possessions, a novel titled How Do You Live?. Mahito’s mother intended to give him the book when he came of age. We don’t know what the book is about, but we see Mahito’s deeply moved reaction to its discovery. It isn’t coincidental that the book’s discovery coincides with Mahito’s journey with the heron, nor that the book shares the film’s title in Japan. With the book, Miyazaki poses the question to himself and his audience: how do you live? Specifically, how do you live amidst grief?
The second half of The Boy and the Heron answers the question by distancing itself from its contemplative structure. Mahito’s otherworldly journey engages the audience with visually splendid landscapes and countless magical creatures. It also takes on different narrative and thematic shapes; it explores life’s delicate, cruel balance while playing as a buddy comedy between Mahito and the heron. Miyazaki’s staggering scope can sometimes leave the narrative slightly unfocused as he becomes enamored with his world-building. (That said, getting lost in the weeds with him is still preferable to following the main road with nearly every other filmmaker.) The film does eventually get back to its initial question, when Mahito must choose between the two worlds. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s movies won’t be surprised by Mahito’s choice. Even the nihilistic masterpiece Princess Mononoke advocates for humanity’s capability to live, learn, and change.
Miyazaki answers that life is worth the effort, even amidst profound loss. He doesn’t pretend recovery is straightforward; the film’s first hour reinforces that truth. However, it is slightly more bearable with the support of loved ones. Mahito calling out to Natsuko as his mother in the birthing suite is critical to his breakthrough. It is the first time he actively responds to her and claims her as part of his life. It also informs his reasoning for rejecting his ancestor’s request to take over as the alternate world’s master. Mahito doesn’t want to sleepwalk through life anymore. He isn’t without malice – he points to his head scar as evidence – but that doesn’t mean he must shut himself off. He will likely always grieve, but he can move forward.
That conclusion is what broke me in the end. I thought I had moved beyond the darkest moments of my health scare. The proof was there; I was, after all, sitting at the international premiere of one of the year’s most anticipated films as a member of the press. The strides I’ve made since waking up in that hospital bed in April 2021 are still hard to contemplate, even though I’ll never be where I was before. I thought I was done; I was healed. Miyazaki showed me I was wrong. I realized through Mahito’s journey that I had more work to do. I accepted that I may never fully complete that work, and that’s okay. Grief is a deeply human experience that can coexist with others. With the proper support, I can truly live.
The Boy and the Heron healed something I didn’t know was broken. I hesitate to put a name to it, but I know it’s somewhere deep inside of me, in a place I can’t access in everyday life. Only a singular experience can reach it, like watching a master storyteller at work. I can’t say if others in the audience had similar reactions that night. Given the universality of grief, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. That is the beauty of art: one individual perspective reaching across and uniting a broad swath of people under some truth. Still, feeling worthy of Miyazaki’s vulnerability is difficult. If he intended it to be his last film, it is a tremendous gift. Even if another masterpiece is a few years down the line, I will be forever grateful for what The Boy and the Heron gave me: a renewed path forward.