The Boy and the Heron

During a WWII air raid, a horrified 11 year-old watches as the hospital where his mother works is engulfed in flames.  Mahito (voice of Soma Santoki) becomes angry and isolated when his father Shoichi (voice of Takuya Kimura) moves them to Gray Heron Mansion in the countryside.  He resents his new stepmother Natsuko (voice of Yoshino Kimura), his late mother’s younger sister, despite her patient kindness and care after he dashes a rock against his forehead.  But one day, as he convalesces, a great gray heron (voice of Masaki Suda) arrives to show him the way to a parallel world where he just might find his mother in “The Boy and the Heron.”

Laura's Review: B+

After announcing his retirement 10 years ago with “The Wind Rises,” writer/director Hayao Miyazaki (“Howl’s Moving Castle,” "Spirited Away”) has not only returned, but has announced he isn’t retiring after all, already conceptualizing a new film.  His latest, “The Boy and the Heron,” may be his most personal, relating such experiences as having lost his mother as depicted in the film.  It is a beautiful piece of work and unmistakably Miyazaki, but as with many personal films, some may find it more difficult to relate to, this one’s narrative stranger than usual with an overstuffed narrative.

We can see many prior Miyazaki motifs like Mahito’s robe from “The Wind Rises,” along with propeller motifs in his room, the old crones who keep Gray Heron Mansion recalling “Spirited Away,” the fishing of “Ponyo” and more.  The angry boy who doesn’t fit in at his new school begins to make discoveries around the country estate, like a tower he learns was built by his granduncle (Shohei Hino).   The Gray Heron, which is actually part human, its bill opening to reveal a large-nosed man, will lead him to an alternate reality with a fisherwoman, Kiriko (voice of Ko Shibasaki), a Parakeet King leading multitudes of his kind and cheerful small rotund white Warawara signifying unborn souls.  He will become fast friends with Lady Himi (voice of Aimyon), a sweet young woman with a cozy home who will turn out to be someone quite unexpected.  Mahito will also learn to appreciate Natsuko, who must be saved herself after concern for him lands her in this other world and he will meet his deceased granduncle, who will give him sage advice before stacking the stones which will allow his nephew to return home.

With its restless protagonist stepping into a fantastical other world where he will find transfigured elements of his own before happily accepting his reality, “The Boy and the Heron” has similarities to “The Wizard of Oz,” which was animated at Ghibli in 1982.  Miyazaki goes deeper though, exploring themes of life, grief, death and eternity.   It’s a pleasure to have him back.

“The Boy and the Heron” was reviewed via the subtitled Japanese version.  A dubbed English language version features the voices of Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Gemma Chan, Willem Dafoe, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh, Mamoudou Athie, Tony Revolori, Dan Stevens and Robert Pattinson as The Gray Heron.

Robin's Review: B

By 1943, the Empire of Japan was losing the war and their American enemy is devastating the country by firebombing its cities. A young boy loses his mother to the all-consuming flames and his father moves to the safety of the south to start a new life in “The Boy and the Heron.”

This is by 82-year old animation master Hayao Miyazaki and, to some, may be his last. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that it, within about five seconds, I can recognize a work by the maestro. There are many elements of his past films and, watching “The Boy and the Heron,” that should be obvious to even the most casual viewer of Miyazaki’s many works.

Told through the eyes of young Mahito, we follow the boy from the devastation of the incendiary bombs dropped by the American B-29s and the loss of his mother to fires they sparked. His father takes the boy to the relative safety far away from Tokyo. There, dad introduces Mahito to Natsuko, a beautiful woman the spitting image of his mom and is to be his new mother.

He also encounters the Grey Heron, a creature that appears to be a normal big bird, but soon we know that the heron is really a demon, hiding inside. Mahito learns that his mother is alive, but in another world, and he vows to find her. He finds a strange structure in the nearby woods and it is a portal between worlds. He sets off on a mission to find his mom.

The portal opens to a world where life and death exist together and equally, here death transforms into rebirth and life. It is an examination of both loss and hope seen through Mahito’s point of view in a world strange to the boy. It is not the most original of Miyazaki’s films but it is like putting on a warm and comfy sweater on a cold winter’s day – it makes you feel good.

GKIDS releases "The Boy and the Heron" in theaters on 12/8/23.