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In 'The Boy and the Heron,' Miyazaki asks: How do we go on in the midst of grief?

A still from an animated movie shows a young boy and an older man with an oversized nose looking at each other with irritation while sitting at a table with mugs in front of them.
Studio Ghibli
In "The Boy and the Heron," 12-year-old Mahito journeys into an otherworldly realm.

Those of us who love the work of anime master Hayao Miyazaki have happily learned not to take his retirement announcements too seriously. In 1997, he claimed Princess Mononoke would be his final animated feature; in 2001, he said the same about his future Oscar winner, Spirited Away. Still, there was a greater air of finality in 2013 around The Wind Rises, a mournful drama of love and loss that felt like a fitting swan song.

But Miyazaki clearly had more to say. A decade after The Wind Rises, he returns with The Boy and the Heron, which combines the excitement of a child's grand adventure and the weight of an older man's reflection.

The boy of the title is 12-year-old Mahito, whom we first meet on a fateful night in 1943. Bombs are falling on Tokyo, and his mother dies tragically in a fire at a hospital. A year later, a still-grieving Mahito moves to the countryside with his father, who's about to marry a woman named Natsuko.

Some but not all of this is drawn from Miyazaki's own life. While his parents both survived the war and lived for decades afterward, Miyazaki has spoken of his memories of fleeing Tokyo during the war when he was just a child. His father ran a company that manufactured airplane parts, a backstory Mahito's father shares as well. But that's about as close to reality as the movie gets.

If this is a partial self-portrait, it's also a beguiling fantasy, in which Miyazaki's flair for wondrous characters, bewildering plot turns and gorgeous and grotesque imagery is on inventive display.

As he explores his new home, Mahito gets to know his stepmother-to-be and a gaggle of gossipy grannies who help look after him and the house. In time, he also crosses paths with a mysterious gray heron that keeps trying to get his attention, at one point poking its head in through his bedroom window: "Your presence is requested," it says.

The heron is voiced byRobert Pattinson in the English-dubbed version, which also features actors including Christian Bale, Gemma Chan and Florence Pugh. If you can, though, I recommend seeking out the subtitled Japanese-language version. Better yet, see them both; Miyazaki's story is too rich and strange to be digested in a single viewing.

In one of those bizarre transformations all too common in the filmmaker's work, the heron soon reveals itself to be a man in avian disguise. He becomes a prickly companion of sorts to Mahito as they journey into an otherworldly realm that could be located at the center of the Earth or perhaps just at the core of Miyazaki's subconscious.

At one point, Mahito meets a girl whom he gradually realizes is a younger version of his mother. He comes across a group of smiling, floating little puffballs known as warawara, who are so adorable they made my 7-year-old daughter squeal in delight. Along the way, he's pursued by a menacing army of giant green parakeets; if there's one ground rule in The Boy and the Heron, it's that birds are clearly not to be trusted.

I confess that I found much of this mystifying when I first saw it — and that I couldn't have minded less. Miyazaki has never been bound by narrative logic, and his imagery here exerts its own hypnotic, hallucinatory pull. But there's a clue to the movie's meaning in its original Japanese-language title: How Do You Live? It shares that title with a famous 1937 coming-of-age novel by Genzaburo Yoshino, a copy of which surfaces in the story as a gift to Mahito from his late mother.

The question "How do you live?" is one Mahito must confront as he deals with wartime trauma and loss, and also as he forges a bond with his future stepmother. But Miyazaki is also asking us how we live, how we push past our own despair and find balance in the instability of life.

Over the years, his movies have provided their own hopeful answers: Set in worlds ravaged by greed, conflict and environmental destruction, they remind us there's redemption in acts of kindness and love. It's that sincere belief in the possibility of goodness that draws me back to Miyazaki's work again and again — and that makes The Boy and the Heron such a powerfully affecting addition to his legacy.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.