Studio Ghibli has often been accused of being stuck in the past. An animation giant built on the back of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces, it has struggled to develop past his imagination. Miyazaki set up a succession plan as early as the 1990s, with Yoshifumi Kondo expected to take over. He tragically died at 47. Then, Miyazaki had hoped for his son, Goro, to take over, but his films under the Ghibli banner have been poorly received. Another factor that doesn’t help is that Hayao Miyazaki loves to create, however much he condemns the process while enduring it. His latest film was touted for many years as his last. The moment he finished production, his imagination went wild again, and he is already on the way towards his next animation. But for now, we have The Boy and the Heron, which is a curious combination of so many themes that have dominated Miyazaki’s career.
It is a story about a young boy, Mahito Maki, who had lost his mum and had moved away to the country with his father. There, he meets a curious heron that tricks him into a world of chaos and disorder, a tricky retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which he is largely a spectator. This very much is a film of two (remarkably long) halves – a story of wartime Japan and grief, and the fantastical nonsense of this other world. The former is far stronger, as it tackles the pain of losing someone as a tortuous one, and one that inspires young people to violence as a means of ending their endless hate at the world. With how long these films take to make, it felt that Miyazaki fearfully retreated in the second half to more comfortable ground, a world where logic is abandoned, and chaos runs rampant. It is very much the world of Spirited Away, but with less time spent committing to the fantasy. That said, the first half does help the second, as it allows us to be invested in the young impetuousness of a boy who wants his mum.
This very much is a film of two (remarkably long) halves – a story of wartime Japan and grief, and the fantastical nonsense of this other world.
Family is what Miyazaki understands best in his art. My Neighbour Totoro works because two sisters become separated, Ponyo flourishes because Sosuke misses his mum. So long as Miyazaki continues to focus on the themes of family and attachment, we will forever be blessed to receive more of his art (which, and I haven’t mentioned this yet, is breathtakingly beautiful throughout).