BY Franklin Melendez in Opinion | 09 JAN 24
Featured in
Issue 240

‘The Boy and The Heron’: Hayao Miyazaki’s Swan Song

Touted as his final film, the animation indulges nostalgia to unravel the myths of making

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BY Franklin Melendez in Opinion | 09 JAN 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 240, ‘Sleight of Hand

Magic has always been at the core of Hayao Miyazaki’s cinematic project. It is the defining philosophical thrust that lends depth and poignancy to the Japanese filmmaker’s output, especially in the highly idiosyncratic cosmologies of his undisputed masterpieces. The ‘magic’ of movement is also what formally links the artistry of animation to the larger history of cinema, particularly its nascent roots amidst the flickerings of carnival phantasmagoria. Lately, the craft of traditional animation has grappled with its own obsolescence, as the laborious process of hand-drawn cells has been largely replaced by more financially efficient digital alternatives. This could be why magic is usually rooted in loss in the Miyazaki-verse – the classic hydraulics of Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) enacted through an extravagant visual mise-en-scène. And so it is with The Boy and The Heron (2023), the 83-year-old’s ostensible swan song.

The Boy and the Heron, 2023. Courtesy: © Studio Ghibli
The Boy and the Heron, 2023. Courtesy: © Studio Ghibli

Narratively, despite being adapted from Genzaburo Yoshino’s novel How Do You Live? (1937), this film proves an odd bird in the oeuvre for its vaguely autobiographical content. The story follows Mahito, a sensitive boy whose mother perishes in a Tokyo hospital that has been firebombed. The film opens thunderously, with Mahito rushing to the disaster site where, confronted by an impassable inferno, his grief gives way to a delirious vision: his mother’s flesh commingling with living tongues of flame – an image suggesting less a demise than a transfiguration. Flash forward and the grieving boy has been evacuated to the countryside and is being introduced by his father (who, like Miyazaki’s own, manufactures fighter-plane parts) to his new, pregnant wife and former sister-in-law. They settle into the family’s estate, where the morose protagonist slips into Hamlet-like malaise. Enter the titular heron, a mysterious talking chimera who fixates on the boy, pestering him incessantly in an attempt to lure him to a sealed-off tower that houses a trove of family secrets – among them his mother, who might still be alive.

The Boy and the Heron, 2023. Courtesy: © Studio Ghibli
The Boy and the Heron, 2023. Courtesy: © Studio Ghibli

This familial intrigue leads to familiar visual terrain as Mahito embarks on a reluctant adventure that rewards the viewer with all the artistic splendour of Studio Ghibli petites mains: wondrous beasts, M.C. Escher-esque architecture, warrior femmes, sumptuous food and even ancient aunties doubling as attendant totems. In one scene, Mahito watches in wonder as multitudes of palm-sized spirits called warawara (think smiling steamed dumplings) float languidly into the stratosphere where they will transcend into yet-to-be-born humans. It is a beautiful scene, reminiscent of the kodama (tree spirits) in Princess Mononoke (1997), which similarly exist as primordial blobs.

It’s almost as if the master were looking back fondly at his creations.

In fact, the direct correspondence between these two terminally cute hordes feels more like self-quotation than anything else. It injects a level of acute nostalgia, almost as if the master were looking back fondly at his creations. This mood reverberates throughout the film, which is teeming – almost bursting at the seams, at times – with familiar leitmotifs. For a late-career auteur, this seems like an unavoidable (re)flex, and Miyazaki is certainly not alone in his approach. I’m thinking of Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On (1983), for instance, or David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (2022), which felt less like a standalone feature than a humorous revisiting of the sci-fi provocateur’s favoured tropes (with an appreciation for their absurdity).

The Boy and the Heron, 2023. Courtesy: © Studio Ghibli
The Boy and the Heron, 2023. Courtesy: © Studio Ghibli

It is revealing that Mahito’s adventure culminates not in the recuperation of the lost mother

but in a face-to-face encounter with his enigmatic great-uncle: cosmic engineer, conjurer and worldbuilder, who must now step down as guardian of his manifold creations. There is a deep emotional resonance to this gesture, even if plot-wise it is lost among threads too numerous to trace. Then again – does it really matter? The takeaway here seems to be less about narrative coherence than the simple assertion of the hand(s) that make it possible. In one scene, Mahito attempts to rescue his aunt who has also been spirited away to this interstitial realm (another convoluted subplot). She sleeps in a circular bed in a cavernous rotunda; above her, a fan whirls, fluttering with paper streamers. As Mahito attempts to coax her, the fan and the streamers expand and multiply, filling the room with a dazzling tornado that seamlessly merges CGI and classic animation. The effect is mesmerizing and lingers long past the closing credits, perhaps a final magician’s trick by Miyazaki to preserve his beloved craft. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 240 with the headline ‘Mourning and Magic’

Main image: The Boy and the Heron, 2023. Courtesy: © Studio Ghibli

Franklin Melendez is a writer, art advisor and independent curator

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