The Boy and the Heron: visual virtuosity can’t compensate for a tired formulaic plot and dubious motifs

Hayao Miyazaki, “The Boy and the Heron” (2023)

A decade after “The Wind Rises”, the film that originally had been intended as his swansong, Hayao Miyazaki brings out a new film “The Boy and the Heron”, inspired by a young-adult fiction novel “How Do You Live” written in 1937 by Genzaburo Yoshino. That book’s themes of a young adolescent boy grappling with various ethical and spiritual dilemmas associated with growing up provide a launch-pad for Miyazaki’s own meditations on maturity and leaving behind the world of fantasy (and the freedoms it offers) to live in the real world of pain, limitations and resisting (or accommodating) social expectations and conventions based on one’s age, gender or social class. The titular boy, Mahito (voiced by Luca Padovan in the dubbed English-language version of the film), loses his mother in a hospital fire; some time later he leaves Tokyo with his father Shoichi (Christian Bale) to live in the countryside. The two arrive at the country estate of Shoichi’s new wife Natsuko who happens to be the younger sister of Mahito’s mother. Bored with having several old spinster maids as company while Shoichi goes into town to supervise workers at his air munitions factory, Mahito explores his surroundings and discovers an old derelict stone tower on Natsuko’s property after following a grey heron (Robert Pattinson).

After fighting with the kids at school and injuring himself with a rock, Mahito is recuperating at home, reading “How Do You Live?”, when he peers through the window and sees Natsuko walking towards the tower. Hours later the elderly maids are searching for Natsuko so he joins the search. The heron comes and taunts Mahito, telling him that both Natsuko and his mother are still alive in the tower. Mahito, followed by one elderly maid Kiriko, enters the tower and falls into a fantastical universe of magic where the living and the dead co-exist together. There, Mahito meets a younger version of Kiriko as independent, self-assured seafarer and a young teenage girl, Lady Himi, possessed of magical pyrotechnic powers. Mahito encounters the Warawara, spirits that rise to the upper world to be born as humans, and man-eating giant parakeets organised into a highly militaristic and authoritarian society centred on a giant parakeet king. With the heron, revealed to be partly human and partly clown, as his guide, Mahito eventually meets the creator of this magical universe who turns out to be his grand-uncle. The grand-uncle offers Mahito the chance to be his successor, to maintain the magic universe by keeping a set of magical building blocks in balance.

The film is very uneven in its pacing and plotting, dragging its heels in the first hour which is devoted mostly to exposition and portraying a visually stunning and complex natural world away from 1940s-era Tokyo. Much attention to visual detail is lavished here; alas, not so much attention is given to delineating Mahito’s character in detail so that from start to finish he comes across as a flat and frankly unlikeable teenager. The plot and the action pick up in the second hour and the most significant female characters appear in this part, almost as an after-thought. While the young Kiriko and Himi are appealing in their own ways, ultimately Mahito (and the audience) learn that they have their own places in the upper world, and these roles turn out to be despairingly passive. The assertive young Kiriko becomes the elderly querulous old maid and Lady Himi acquires an even more passive (and ultimately tragic) role – as Mahito’s doomed mother!

Motifs from past Studio Ghibli films appear here, so much so that “The Boy …” almost appears like a pastiche stitched from bits and pieces of the films. Like many of the other child heroes and heroines of those films, Mahito carries a defect, exemplified by his head wound. The young Kiriko is a throwback to the pirate figures of films like “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” and Lady Himi is not very different from the young girl Sheeta from that film. The Warawara might have come from films like “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”. Even the plot of “The Boy …” with its message of redemption, the power of imagination and creativity, and acceptance of reality parallels plots of later Studio Ghibli films like “Arrietty”.

I must admit that I had low expectations of “The Boy …” before seeing the film, and my expectations were not exceeded. Visually the film is very impressive, on par with the work done on “Spirited Away”, but I do not think “The Boy …” can stand more than a few viewings as the flat characterisation, the confused storyline and ultimately a spirit of resignation, of accepting the real world as it is without really questioning what there is about it that makes it so, become more and more conspicuous.