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The Boy and the Heron – BFI London Film Festival 2023 (Film Review)

4 min read

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

There's no denying the buzz and excitement surrounding a new upcoming film despite the little to no marketing campaign bar one iconic heron fronted poster and a handful of bizarre stills. Marking the latest (but reportedly not last) entry from visionary director Hayao Miyazaki – since he last retired with 2013's The Wind Rises – The Boy and the Heron (or How Do You Live?) is certainly another surreal fable from the famed Japanese animation studio, which doesn't quite live up to its lofty expectations.

The highly anticipated feature is an interestingly odd feature to unpack amongst the array of the animation studios' beloved features, combining a mature, emotional heft with darkly comedic humour and a somewhat muddled otherworldly adventure. Perhaps thematically and narratively sitting closer with My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki certainly takes his time to gently build the world and introduce the more mysterious elements – including the titular heron and an equally mysterious stone tower.

Opening with a shocking and vivid flashback to losing his mother in an intense fire-bombing of Tokyo, reminiscent of Isao Takahata's harrowing Ghibli entry Grave of the Fireflies, the film attempts to tackle a raft of lofty themes including dealing with loss and grief amongst real upheaval and change. Following the tragedy, Mahito is uprooted out of Tokyo to the countryside with his father, as they move in with his newly married (and pregnant) bride – his former sister-in-law. The distant child struggles to fit in with the other kids at school, his new family dynamic and the new situation, often chasing after a heron in the woodlands for escape.

Studio Ghibli

The question at the heart of the film marks the director's musings on how to accept the loss of a loved one and move on from the past through the lens of young Mahito's Alice in Wonderland-esque arc. Despite being a shadow of Miyazaki's usual powerful heroines, you certainly feel for this reserved protagonist as he struggles on his rescue mission in the other (or after) world, striking up an unconventional bond with the grotesque Heron Man and other inhabitants along the way. 

The inclusion of a whole other plotline surrounding an ancient wizard and his building blocks perplexingly late in the third act poses an interesting but underdeveloped look at legacy and passing the baton to the next generation, perhaps signalling a poignant and bittersweet reflection from the iconic (and chronically retiring) director. 

While often proving a profound, surreal and darkly whimsical coming-of-age tale, the narrative drifts into a familiar otherworldly realm as it (rather ploddingly) spotlights Mahito's formative rite of passage, underscored by his pain and grief. Much like My Neighbour Tororo, there's a lingering question over whether the anthropomorphic animals are indeed truly real, or whether they're a coping mechanism/form of escape to help cope with the child's grief and trauma.

While there are indeed flashes of adventure and intrigue within the fantastical world filled with giant man-eating parakeets, mystical meteorites and magical fire maidens, the inclusion of many familiar hallmark Ghibli elements results in a feature that feels more like a box ticking exercise in paying homage to the animation studio's wonderful and whimsical breadth of work, than a wholly unique new tale of its own. 

Studio Ghibli

Unfortunately there is also a lack of narrative cohesion amongst the many weighty themes and weird and wonderful plot threads juggled, ending in a somewhat frustrating fever dream third act which lacks true clarity. However, there are many comedic moments throughout to revel in, particularly when the gaggle of excitable but kind old ladies are on screen and also throughout the hilarious knife wielding giant parakeets.

The film truly comes to life throughout the breathtaking animation packed with a riot of colour and quirky character design. Whether that's the famed Ghibli food, the fantastical talking creatures (with the standout adorable marshmallow-esque creatures known as Warawaras) or the stunning vistas of Japan's countryside. The hallmark whimsy is once again paired with the grotesque for the nonsensical design of the titular Heron, with an especially terrifying toothy grin gleaming through the heron's beak.

The otherworldly score is once again another beautiful entry from Miyazaki's longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi, paired with the film's wonderful theme song “Spinning Globe” from Kenshi Yonezu.

The Boy and The Heron is a mystical, surreal and often convoluted fever dream of a film which doesn't quite hit the heights of previous instalments. While it does stray into a box ticking exercise of Ghibli's most well-known elements, the world building, riot of colour & fantastical animation certainly sweeps you along for a journey full of artistry and pure imagination.

The Boy and The Heron was shown as partof this year's  and will release in UK cinemas on Boxing Day.