Hayao Miyazaki’s Solemn Swan Song

“The Boy and the Heron,” the Studio Ghibli auteur’s purported final film, shines an autobiographical light into his childhood traumas and the spirited dream worlds he lovingly creates.

In 1944, when Hayao Miyazaki was three years old, World War II was gripping Japan. His family fled Tokyo for the Japanese countryside and his father worked in a fighter plane factory while his mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Many of the Studio Ghibli mastermind’s earliest childhood memories are tinged with war, fear, and “bombed-out cities,” as he recalled in interviews. Such imagery also permeates his films: In The Wind Rises, the protagonist designs fighter planes, and in Porco Rosso, the titular pig pilots one; the mother in My Neighbor Totoro is sick and bedridden. Miyazaki tempers grim realities with a spirited quietude that stares into the subconscious. Though they’re inextricably linked with his lived experience, he’d rarely described his films as “semi-autobiographical.”

That’s not the case for The Boy and the Heron, purported to be Miyazaki’s final film and a dark outlier in his oeuvre that hit theaters in the United States last week after enjoying a summertime release in Japan. The film’s harrowing opening sequence depicts a firebombed Tokyo hospital; a young boy, Mahito, wakes up and dashes there after realizing his mother is on a shift, but it’s too late. Flames subsume her, and he spends the next few years overcome by grief. Though he moves to a quiet estate in the countryside, he struggles to adapt and encounters a mendacious heron that beckons him to a derelict tower—and claims his mother’s spirit is inside. It’s a portal to one of the alternate universes teeming with life and the “weird little guys” that Miyazaki lovingly renders across his films in Studio Ghibli’s gorgeous animation style.

Equal parts graceful and grotesque (the titular bird tends to shit everywhere), The Boy and the Heron is a fittingly solemn denouement to the career of one of animation’s most beloved auteurs. It also offers a glimpse of Miyazaki’s own story, beyond his persona as the meticulous creature of habit who pours so much mental, spiritual, and emotional stamina into conjuring his hand-drawn dreamworlds that he repeatedly threatens to retire upon completion. Something tells us that, at age 82, he’s serious this time.

As a boy, Miyazaki struggled with communication and preferred to express himself by drawing pictures. Those morphed into his ornate animated films, many with fiery female leads whose internal conflicts and inner desires manifest through lovably menacing creatures. With Mahito as a rare male protagonist, comparisons to Miyazaki’s own upbringing are inevitable; perhaps it’s a window into his true self. “I noticed that with this film, where he portrayed himself as a protagonist, he included a lot of humorous moments in order to cover up that the boy, based on himself, is very sensitive and pessimistic,” Toshio Suzuki, a co-founder of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s right-hand for the past four decades, told the New York Times. “That was interesting to see.”

All images coutesy of Studio Ghibli.

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