It’s been eight months since my mom died, and to be perfectly honest, I haven’t been able to move past it yet. I thought it would be easier, as we had time to prepare for it. She was diagnosed with dementia three years ago, and we had to place her in a nursing home. The medical and social workers even gave us ample warnings about how this finality was going to play out. She would deteriorate and eventually stop eating. She would become paranoid as she failed to recognize new faces minute to minute. She would eventually forget me and my sister. I watched it all unfold through bi-weekly Zoom meetings to check up on her and keep her spirits up. When I had the opportunity to visit, we made sure to spend time as a real family, letting her coo over my nephew and proceeding as if everything was normal.
And yet, when the moment came, I still wasn’t ready for it. The first whammy came last August, the last time I saw her in person. My sister, nephew, and I went to visit, just to have a pleasant afternoon with her. When she saw me, rather than the excited hug I always got from a mom who missed her son dearly, she merely extended her hand and asked, “Have we met?” I was devastated, and did my best to hide it, probably failing miserably. She played with the then three-year-old Teddy, but you could tell there wasn’t the association that this was her grandson. She chatted with my sister, only vaguely connecting that she was her daughter. She constantly brought me up in conversation, wondering how I was doing, never recognizing that I was sitting right there, no matter how many times my sister and nephew reminded her. After we left, we went to her house, loaded up some of her — and my — belongings, and took them to our storage unit. At that point I embraced my sister and broke down sobbing for several minutes. Thank God Teddy was asleep in the car, or else he would have started crying just because he saw Uncle Bill crying.
When she passed in April, I sincerely thought it would be a relief, a cathartic sigh and moment of clarity that all of our suffering in this regard was finally over, and that we’d get to heal and move on at last. But it hasn’t. Over the last eight months I find myself constantly dreaming about unresolved emotional issues, confronting her as if she was still alive, projecting anger and despair because so much was left unfinished, and filling my head with self-loathing because I wasn’t able to save her. I know that last part sounds silly, but it’s a complex and neurosis that I’ve always had. Growing up, I saw mom’s Sisyphean attempts to use her intellect, skills, and work ethic to get herself — and us — off the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, with some outside influence cutting her down every time. Whether it was her industry moving the goalposts so that her Associate’s Degree and decades of experience in her field no longer qualified her for any kind of career advancement, a freak infection that cost her three of her toes and eventually her ability to work at all, or the brain damage that ultimately ended her, all of her efforts were for naught. And as I grew, watching all of this happen to a flawed but truly wonderful person, I resolved to be the one to get the family out, to work tirelessly to achieve my dreams and extend my success to lift the rest of them up. I do well in my work, and I make decent money, but bad luck and worse timing often leaves me just hanging on by a thread, and the reason for my initial commitment can no longer be aided by my accomplishments.
I apologize for the personal nature of this preamble, as I know none of you clicked on this review looking for a one-sided therapy session, but it’s necessary to explain the headspace I was in while watching The Boy and the Heron. If you’ve been keeping up with the blog this year, you know mom died while I was watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and that Suzume was my portal back into some semblance of a normal life. This latest masterpiece by Studio Ghibli auteur Hayao Miyazaki is, to me, the next step in the healing process, because it serves as a continuation of the recovery from grief that I’ve been working through. With Mario, it was the shock of the event, the realization that I was not where I thought I was emotionally, and a crucial turning point where I had to commit to honoring her legacy, while Suzume told me it was okay to be confused and angry, but that the memory of what was lost must be preserved. Now, The Boy and the Heron is here to reinforce the idea that she’ll never truly be gone, and that we all have permission to move on.
The Japanese title is shared with a book that’s featured in the film ( How Do You Live?), but the two are not related. This is an original story from Miyazaki, once again coming out of retirement, and is deeply autobiographical, tinged with his signature visual style and narrative wonder. Filled with subtle references to his other opuses (you’ll definitely see shades of Spirited Away, The Wind Rises, and Castle in the Sky, for example), but definitely forging its own path, this is yet another piece of unequaled art that is sure to stand as a classic.
During World War II, young Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki in Japanese and Luca Padovan in English) is awoken in the middle of the night by news that the hospital where his mother works is on fire. Despite being ordered by his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale) to stay in the house, he rushes out the door to the scene, only to find that it’s too late, and his mother is gone.
A year later, still consumed by grief (it’s notable that he hardly talks beyond single-word replies for much of the first act), he moves to a country estate, where Shoichi has married and impregnated his late wife’s sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan; the English cast is full of A-listers). Mahito is doted on by Natsuko and a cadre of elderly maids, known collectively as “The Grandmas,” who have been maintaining the home since the time of Natsuko’s granduncle (Shōhei Hino/Mark Hamill), an architect who vanished suddenly several years ago, never to return. Upon arriving, Mahito is startled by the approach of a grey heron, with Natsuko cheerfully laughing that the heron hardly ever comes up to people. Shoichi, a manager at a munitions factory for the war, leaves Mahito in everyone else’s care, seemingly unaware of the boy’s morose demeanor.
But really, this is the first element of the film that I truly adore, and I would even if Mahito’s feelings didn’t mirror my own. You see a ton of stories about step-parents and half-siblings in pop culture, and usually the childhood angst is represented by temper tantrums and melodrama, the whole, “You’re not my real mom” trope. Here, however, in one of the most beautiful touches I’ve seen in a long time, Mahito’s pain is expressed more through silence and a contrast with those around him. No one is forcing him to accept the new normal, rather we see how everyone else has coped in different and equally valid ways. Natsuko mourns her big sister’s loss, but she also sees an opportunity to carry on her legacy through Mahito and aspires to be as loving a mother as she was. She’s empathetic with the young man, but lets him go at his own pace, never crossing a boundary or insisting upon anything. In Mahito she sees a wonderful practice run for what awaits her when the baby is due. As for Shoichi, he’s taken a new wife, and a familiar one, mostly for the sake of stability and comfort. That’s not to say that he doesn’t love Natsuko with all his heart, just that he knows that in the long run it’s better for him, and for his son, that he not be alone. He finds solace in his work, even though he’s largely against the war itself, given what it took from him. He’s a textbook example of carrying on for the very sake of keeping oneself going.
For Mahito, he’s just not there yet. He’s 12 years old, he’s in a totally new environment after watching his world get destroyed, and he doesn’t know how to react to anything. You can see the mental conflict swirling in his brain through just his face, as grief and hormones interact in ways he simply doesn’t understand. He doesn’t lash out at anyone, but he is hesitant to embrace this new life, because it requires hitting a massive reset button, and it’s all happened so fast that he’s still trying to catch up. When he finds a copy of the book that gives the film its title, he cries consciously for the first time (he has heartbreaking nightmares on a nightly basis), because a note from his mother inside shows that it was meant as a gift for when he got older. That moment of weighty realization that this is a memory he’ll never get to have allows the rest of his body to vent what he’s been trying to make sense of for a year, and it’s as gorgeous as it is crippling.
On his first day at a new school, Mahito is bullied mercilessly, and in his rage, on the way home he picks up a rock and dashes it across his own temple, opening up a gash and eventually developing a fever. Natsuko as well falls ill, a combination of the stress of her pregnancy and in trying to form a bond with Mahito. The only real conflict they have is when Mahito discovers an odd stone tower on the property, one that’s been sealed up from the outside, and which has stairs that lead nowhere, sort of like the Winchester House. As Mahito recovers, he spies Natsuko walking in the woods towards the tower, and is confronted once again by the Heron, this time sporting some humanoid features like teeth. Fashioning a bow and arrow out of twigs, a nail, and one of the Heron’s own molted feathers, he resolves to go after Natsuko, especially when the Heron appears again and speaks to him (voiced by Masaki Suda and Robert Pattinson), claiming that his mother is still alive and that he can take Mahito to her.
Accompanied by one of the oldest maids, Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki/Florence Pugh), Mahito chases the Heron to a heretofore unseen entrance to the tower, where his mother is seen lying on a sofa unconscious, much like Snow White. However, when Mahito reaches out to her, it turns out to be an illusory trap. In his anger, Mahito shoots his arrow at the Heron, piercing its beak, and revealing it to be a half human creature. The Heron is then tasked by a mysterious Lord of the Tower to guide Mahito through a test, and the pair, along with Kiriko, are transported to a magical underworld. From then on, an odyssey ensues where Mahito must learn the nature of life and death, with the aid of the Heron, a much younger Kiriko, and a witch-like teenage girl named Himi (Japanese mononym singer Aimyon/Karen Fukuhara). He must find Natsuko, survive hordes of murderous birds, and discover whether he is worthy to bring balance to a world succumbing to malice.
Every second of this film is awash in style and imagination, overseen by the greatest to ever do it. Miyazaki never wastes a single frame in this epic, making sure that every moment is as dazzling as it is poetic while keeping to the 2D animation artistry that made him a household name. There’s an ideal mix of serious emotional stakes and good humor, contrasting the dire situation for Natsuko with the objectively funny absurdity of giant man-eating parakeets (led by a “king” voiced by Jun Kunimura and Dave Bautista). There’s nuance in most of the major plot points, from Shoichi juggling the existential concerns of his home and work life, to the ease with which Mahito is able to mourn and honor a pelican (Kaoru Kobayashi/Willem Dafoe) once he learns its unfair fate in the world compared to his inability to process the loss of his mother. Hell, given the circumstances of the climax, Miyazaki seemingly does a better homage to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice than Disney just did.
This is because despite all the fantastical scenes and radiant designs, Miyazaki keeps the story and the characters relatively grounded. He makes a concrete determination that this a magical story, not magical realism or some middle ground that’s open to interpretation. He gives equal weight to the wants and needs of every major character while still keeping this as definitively Mahito’s journey. He allows for different perspectives without condescending or patronizing, distilling complex emotions and real-life scenarios into situations that are both deeply consequential and openly comedic, while still being translatable to even the youngest viewer. When you see a late scene between Mahito and Natsuko where their emotional states are laid bare, your kid won’t have to ask why you’re crying, because you’ll both have your own reasons to, and you’ll understand each other when it happens.
This comes back to the title question: how do you live? How do you go on after the worst loss possible? How do you navigate a world where everyone else has moved forward and you can’t? How do you make peace with what you can’t change? This film gives you the most important answer there is, that there is no easy answer. It will happen, but you can’t force it. You will heal when you heal. You won’t even know it when it happens, but merely recognize after the fact that it has. And once it does, all that will be left will be the love given to you, that you can now put back into the world.
That’s the crucial and essential takeaway from this, and the exact message I needed. I haven’t gotten there yet. I thought I would have by now, but I haven’t. Even as dementia destroyed my mother’s mind and robbed her of everything that made her the person she was, the one constant in every conversation we had, whether she recognized me or not, was wanting to be assured that I and everyone else would be okay. I even promised her in the eulogy I gave at her funeral that I didn’t know when it would happen, but eventually I would be. The beauty of The Boy and the Heron is the knowledge that if you’re not okay yet, you’re not alone. We will all come to it in our own time, as long as there’s love and support. And when it finally comes, and you find that you really are alright once more, you’re all the more grateful for what led you there.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Miyazaki movie? Will you be eyeing the next parakeet you see with suspicion? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!