Sunday, December 10, 2023


Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron—though I prefer its more evocative Japanese title: How Do You Live—is a movie that feels intensely and beautifully like the work of an elderly man. This is hardly a negative when you’re in the hands of a master. The 82-year-old animator has given us such magical movies as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, pictures that sing with the simplicity of childhood fables and spin out with the elaborate emotional growth of complex and true feelings. He situates his magic within real natural worlds, with care taken to show us the pulse of wind through a field of grass, the ripples in a pond, the steam off a hot meal, the soft shift of a person’s weight from one foot to the other. All the better to gently and then suddenly unfurl his fantastical delights. Whether his movies are action-filled or more sedately contemplative, there’s always that tension between the slowed-breath awe and the sensationally unexpected. There’s a moment early in The Boy and the Heron in which a character runs toward a massive fire and, as the typically fluid and expressive movements of his style rushes forward, the image ripples with the intense heat of the flames. Ah, I thought, here’s once more the comfort of a picture full of the attentiveness to which we’ve become accustomed with this filmmaker. Every frame is lovingly placed and painted. And the rest of the film itself continues to unfold with a patience and a confidence—pulling us along through a winding experience. It’s slow and slippery and a bit scattered, but imbued with a pulsing dream logic and a purity of purpose through its magical realism.

It’s also, appropriately for its elderly qualities, haunted by death. World War II is raging just beyond the frame. The fire in the beginning claims of the life of a young boy’s mother. He then moves with his father to live with his aunt in a palatial country home, where all the servants are tottering, chattering old women. This is where he sees a heron, who lurks around trying to get the boy’s attention, slowly revealed to have an old man’s face drooping out from under the beak. This creepy bird tells him there’s a place where his mother’s still alive. I know it’s a lie, the boy will say, and yet I have to see. Isn’t that just the way to enjoy a fantasy? So off they go, into a dilapidated tower in the dark forest where an ancestor—who was maybe a wizard—disappeared. This is clearly a place rich in spells and magic. But the movie never explains itself or sets forth rules for its imaginary spaces, even as the boy tumbles into a phantasmagoric world of odd landscapes populated with strange creatures—giant birds, blob spirits, shadowy phantoms, a fiery little girl, and a labyrinth of doors. Here’s a movie about a boy lost in a world he can’t understand, hazily trying to find his way out in an inscrutable dream-logic. It’s a film of dazzling visual designs and unusually compelling confusion. The sheer force of its ideas pull the story along.

Here is Miyazaki once again telling us: children are innocent but wily, adults can be chaotic even when they mean well, society can be painful, nature is often a balm, and the spiritual power of a fantasy can be the invisible string that holds our sense together. But here the telling is more fraught than ever, shrouded in mournful doom. That’s not only true for the characters, but the teller, too. When we eventually see the wizened figure of an old wizard wrinkled at the end of time, locked in a tower of his own making, he’s quite ambivalent about the worlds he’s created. We meet him in the end, after a winding, episodic journey, as he’s hunched over a spare table wondering if it’s worth keeping his fantasy going. How moving, then, for a film so robust and so frail, so funereal and familial in its concerns, that such oblique self-doubt comes at the climax of a movie that’s a perfect amalgamation of Miyazakian interests. Its setup is by turns semi-autobiographical and right out of a Victorian children’s book imbued with Shinto spirits, and then there’s a dizzying drop into a flurry of fanciful figures moving at their own pace and working through their own eccentric agendas in their own closed loops of logic. So does the film. It makes meaningful connections and spins strange tales, made all the stronger for all involved knowing they’re fleeting, destined to melt away, fade to nothing, and be forgotten. But the emotion might linger all the same. If this is really his last film, he’s given us a movie hushed and haunted, pushing through pain and confusion, hanging on the power of a story to reunite ghosts and revive one sad child’s will to go on.

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