The Boy and the Heron (君たちはどう生きるか, Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka) – Film Review

It had been ten years since Hayao Miyazaki retired from the industry.

2013’s The Wind Rises was thought to be the acclaimed writer and director’s final farewell not only at Studio Ghibli but in his career. Yet somehow in 2023, quietly and somewhat randomly, an announcement of a new Hayao Miyazaki film with Studio Ghibli left many Japanese animation and Ghibli fans reeling in both excitement and disbelief.

Thus, we were introduced to The Boy and the Heron (君たちはどう生きるか, Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka). The promotion for the film in Japan was just as elusive and almost as secretive as its announcement, with no trailers, no real synopsis, nor any images revealed. There was only a beautifully hand drawn art image of a heron bird.

As a massive Studio Ghibli fan, I wanted to have my experience of the film be the same as Japanese film goers. So, I made the effort to avoid any trailers, screenshots, and articles on The Boy and the Heron. I even chose not to attend a dubbed screening, wanting to see the film with Japanese audio and English subtitles.

This is actually my personal preference for all Japanese animation. While I have nothing against dubbed animated media, I wanted my first experience of this new Studio Ghibli film to be with the Japanese audio. After all, you can only see something for the first time once.

So, what is the film about? Set during The Pacific War, the film follows a young boy named Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki) who moves to a new town a while after the death of his mother. Curious about an abandoned tower on the grounds of his new home, Mahito finds himself entering a fantastical world and encounters a talking grey heron along the way.

I was surprised by The Boy and the Heron, firstly not only for the return of Hayao Miyakzaki to the film industry (who clearly has more stories to tell) but for his decision to have a male main character when most of his films have strong female leads instead. The film also surprised me with how serious it is. The Boy and the Heron doesn’t have many light-hearted moments; however, this is not its intention. Instead, the film artfully, bravely and beautifully tackles the difficult topics of familial love, change, death and loss, and does so with such grace and poignant sincerity.

Equipped with magnificent musical compositions by fellow film legend, composer Joe Hisashi, The Boy and the Heron doesn’t hesitate to vigorously pull at your heart strings. I found myself in awe of what Miyazaki had created and essentially has gifted to the world. Not only should we all be thankful of his return to the film industry but what has been created is a visually stunning, pure, heartfelt and moving masterpiece of animation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if many compare The Boy and the Heron with Spirited Away, but while Spirited Away can be funny, light-hearted and somewhat cute, The Boy and the Heron is deep, dark, serious, and holds nothing back, magically displaying how grief can be perceived through the eyes of a child.

Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisashi have done it again and I hope that this is not the last time the two collaborate. While incredibly moving in many ways, The Boy and the Heron will be particularly powerful to those who have experienced loss (it had me sobbing), I found Mahito and his emotional journey to be scarily relatable. I’m only sorry I didn’t see this film in cinemas sooner. Unfortunately, the Japanese audio screenings are hard to catch. Now that I’ve seen the Japanese audio version, I’ll definitely be watching the dubbed version in the not too distant future.

Whether you’re a Studio Ghibli fan, a Japanese animation fan, or just love a good story that you’ll be analysing or crying about long after the movie is over, The Boy and the Heron is a must-watch exquisite theatrical triumph.

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