‘The Boy and the Heron’ Is a Magnificent Ode to Hayao Miyazaki’s Work

Studio Ghibli is back with a brand-new film that celebrates what has come before.

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, names in Japanese animation is Hayao Miyazaki. The animator, writer, and director behind The Boy and the Heron has captivated audiences across the globe with his beautiful, creative designs and stories. With a career in animation for over five decades, Miyazaki has received numerous awards for his projects, including an Academy Award for Spirited Away, which is considered one of the best animated films of all time.

Through each unique body of work, Miyazaki tackles philosophical themes that people of all ages will connect to. From environmentalism to complex dynamics to the power of the friends we made along the way, these concepts are expressed in nuanced ways with stunning visuals. Although The Boy and the Heron is no longer Miyazaki’s final film, it does present itself as a swan song.

The Boy and The Heron Plot (No Spoilers)

Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) running through fire in THE BOY AND THE HERON | Agents of Fandom
The opening sequence for The Boy and the Heron sets the tone of the film. Image Credit: Studio Ghibli.

The story centers on Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki), a young boy who moves to the countryside after his mother is killed in a burning building during the opening sequence. This scene immediately sets the stage for The Boy and the Heron to be on the darker side of Miyazaki’s work, as his use of fire expertly evokes both destruction and serenity. The inferno engulfs some villagers, causing their silhouettes to fade into the smoke, while others appear to surrender themselves peacefully to the blaze, evoking a sense of tranquility in their passing. The flames form a frantic and distorted look that is reminiscent of Impressionist art.

Mahito now lives with his late mother’s younger sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), who is pregnant and married to his father, Shoichi (Takuya Kimura). Their home is visited by a gray heron (Masaki Suda), who is interested in Mahito, which he finds questionable. The heron leads him to an abandoned tower brimming with something that is beyond Mahito’s comprehension.

‘The Boy and The Heron’ Review: An Enchanting Journey of the Self

Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) and Himi (Aimyon) embracing one another in THE BOY AND THE HERON | Agents of Fandom
The power of friendship is a commonly used theme in Studio Ghibli films. Image Credit: TIFF.

Miyazaki pulls themes and narrative beats from his previous work but recontextualizes them for The Boy and the Heron to fit this story. The Japanese title, How Do You Live?, is very fitting as the characters deal with trauma and the legacy they want to leave behind. Although the protagonist is only a child, his past haunts him every day. His journey throughout the film will resonate with those who have experienced a similar loss, providing a therapeutic nature Miyazaki is known to evoke.

Also prevalent in Miyazaki’s projects are his fantastical worlds and the uniquely designed creatures that inhabit them. The Warawara (tiny white balloon-esque creatures that embody the souls of future humans) and the titular heron are sure to be fan favorites, with the former potentially being a huge marketing item. In a time when 2D drawings are rarely used in cinematic features, Miyazaki takes a traditional approach by showcasing painted backgrounds that can easily be displayed in art museums. After working in this industry since the 1960s, he continually proves to the audience the beauty of hand-drawn animation, and the range of capabilities this medium can accomplish.

The film features instances of slow movements with little dialogue, letting the viewer soak in the environment, which unfortunately tends to feel like padding as it’s used far too often in a 124-minute runtime. Even though this isn’t the longest Studio Ghibli movie, it’s poorly paced with a confusing story. Those familiar with the film studio’s work will still have trouble following the overloaded plot. This will not be the last tale Miyazaki shares, and thankfully so, as it does not live up to some of his best work narratively.

The Tranquil Sounds of Joe Hisaishi’s Score

Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) and Great-Uncle (Shōhei Hino) looking at a floating object in THE BOY AND THE HERON | Agents of Fandom
Joe Hisaishi’s instrumental soundtrack enhances The Boy and the Heron. Image Credit: Studio Ghibli.

Composer Joe Hisaishi has collaborated with Miyazaki on numerous projects since 1983. The duo complement each other’s work, with Hisaishi balancing both humorous piano chords and heavy themes. The score amplifies the emotions evoked by the characters and the story graciously, without overpowering the scenes that have no dialogue. These quiet moments are seen quite regularly, but the accompaniment of Hisaishi’s compositions will remind viewers of much simpler times. The soundtrack is one of the best of Hisaishi’s work with Studio Ghibli, clamoring to be played on repeat upon release.

Where To Watch The Boy and The Heron?

The Boy and the Heron was already released in Japan on July 14, 2023. It is the biggest opening in Studio Ghibli’s history, earning an equivalent of $15.45 million USD. It had its North American premiere on the opening night for the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2023, selling out tickets in record time. The film received a global release on December 8, 2023, with general and IMAX screenings.

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'The Boy and the Heron' Review

'The Boy and the Heron' Review
3.5 5 0 1
3.5 rating
Total Score

The Good

  • Beautiful use of 2D animation
  • Joe Hisaishi's emotive score
  • Miyazaki is back for more!

The Bad

  • Overloaded and complex plot
  • Very slow pacing
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