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Finding Meaning In Miyazaki’s The Boy & The Heron Movie

Once you delve deep into its themes, the movie transforms into a masterpiece!

Boy and the heron

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy & The Heron movie released in Indian cinemas on May 10, 2024. After watching the movie a couple of days ago, I sat down to write a review.

I planned on including pedestrian phrases highlighting the movie as Ghibli’s first release in India, making it a landmark on its own.

However, as thoughts clogged my brain, I felt that a simple review wouldn’t do the movie any justice. Because, for me, The Boy & The Heron was all about its hidden meaning and messages!

And I’d say finding and understanding the essence of the movie is a journey akin to the one Mahito had in the film. Maybe not as fantastical, but surely an interesting and a very personal one to beat!

So here I am, writing a part analysis – part review of The Boy & The Heron movie! P.S. Also check out our review video at the end of the article!!

Initial thoughts:

To be honest, I sat in the theatre with a feeling of discontent and emptiness when the end credits abruptly started rolling.

Armed with a loosely woven, lackadaisical plot, and emotional moments that were teetering between hit and miss, my initial thoughts almost unanimously passed judgement that Miyazaki had missed the mark with this movie.

True, the movie had all the elements of a classic Ghibli flick, especially the animation. It rolled back the years with its beautiful and gorgeous art, which was only accentuated by the big screen.

And after watching characters move and walk like zombies in some popular anime recently, it felt amazingly refreshing to see The Boy & The Heron’s characters be freed from the clutches of CGI and be humane in their demeanor.

The movie is certainly a visual treat. But that’s not all. It also borrowed elements from previous Miyazaki hits, adding a sense of much needed nostalgia for a long-term Ghibli enjoyers like me!

Boy and the heron
This scene reminded me of Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke

The lush green countryside of Japan, with a looming threat of the war in the background. A shounen who finds himself almost lonely in this setting. And a grand adventure tucked away in a hidden location, filled with boisterous and colorful elements!

All of it should have left me with a familiar sense of fulfilment. But all the pomp and glory fell flat in my eyes – that is until I sat down to think what Miyazaki really wanted to communicate through this work of his.

Finding meaning in the movie’s subtle themes:

The Boy & The Heron’s producer Toshio Suzuki had said that Miyazaki was working on the film for his grandson as his way of saying, “Grandpa is moving onto the next world soon but he is leaving behind this film”.

According to me, the essence of The Boy & The Heron movie is the inevitability of death, or loss to put in a more subtle way. And Mahito’s journey in the movie is to accept and come to peace with his loss.

When I looked at the movie through this newfound lens, it made a lot more sense to me. And suddenly, what I had witnessed, transformed into a masterpiece. Only, I was a bit too late to realize it.

The Boy & The Heron opens with a harrowing scene: a firebomb attack on Tokyo that tragically claims the life of Mahito’s mother.

In what has to be one of the best sequences from the movie, we see Mahito rushing through a disheveled Tokyo city to the hospital where his mom was, in a failed attempt to rescue her.

This trauma and regret forms the crux of Mahito’s journey, and also the message that Miyazaki wants to convey.

Following this devastating event, a 11-year-old Mahito moves to the countryside with his dad to live with his stepmom (who is also his aunt). Here he comes across the titular heron, who blurs the boundaries of dream and reality.

The heron’s presence throws Mahito’s perception into question, leading him to wonder if his mother might still be alive.

As is typical of Miyazaki’s work, the heron’s actions hold a deeper meaning. They serve as a metaphorical representation of Mahito’s buried emotions: his longing for his mother and the crushing regret of not being able to save her.

These emotions are skillfully manipulated by the heron, luring Mahito into an extraordinary adventure reminiscent of Alice’s fantastical journey down the rabbit hole.

The adventure itself unfolds as a psychedelic trip, where logic takes a backseat. The audience, much like Mahito who willingly goes along for the ride without questioning the surreal events, is invited to simply enjoy the fantastical spectacle.

Boy and the heron

Ultimately, Mahito’s experiences bring a profound change in him. This otherworldly realm, imbued with a sense of magic and timelessness, helps him confront the inevitability of death and the natural cycle of endings.

The Boy & the Heron’s conclusion arrives with the unexpected demise of this otherworldly dimension. Abrupt though it was, the event served as a final, symbolic reminder of impermanence – even powerful kingdoms and structures crumble in time.

While the lack of a solid narrative in the movie may appear unconventional to some, it constructively mirrors the nebulous nature of dreams – free-flowing, often with an illogical structure.

Though jarring, this approach allows the film to evoke a powerful emotional response, similar to how some dreams can leave a lasting impression even after the details fade.

Final thoughts:

Mahito’s transformation is beautifully portrayed. He learned to let go of his past grief, embracing new beginnings. This is evident in his growing warmth towards Natsuko and his decision not to stay back in the fantastical world.

Miyazaki’s masterful storytelling offers two distinct yet complementary perspectives on coping with loss.

The heron initially represented a path of forgetting, urging Mahito to move on, just like one would forget a dream after experiencing it.

However, Mahito ultimately chose a different path – one of acceptance and cherished memories.

He held on to the keepsakes and remembered the good times with his mother. The very stones which he once viewed as malice, now shone with a different beauty in his hands.

By presenting these contrasting approaches, Miyazaki poses a rhetorical, yet profound question to us viewers: “How Do You Live?” In the face of loss and regret, what coping mechanism do we choose?

The Boy & The Heron’s beauty lies in its open-ended narrative. The message resonates differently with each viewer. I highly recommend experiencing this film in theaters and discovering the unique meaning it holds for you. It is an experience you won’t regret!!

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