The Boy and the Heron (2023) by Hayao Miyazaki

When his mother is killed in a firebombing that destroys the hospital she was in, Mahito (Soma Santoki) and his father (Takuya Kimura) move from Tokyo to live with Mahito’s aunt Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). While the Second World War continues, and despite his father’s work at a factory producing parts for fighter planes, and the recruitment drives in the local town, Mahito finds himself in a tranquil, rural paradise, grieving his mother’s death. Things are interupted when a grey heron (Masaki Suda) that lives on the estate begins talking to him and he discovers a mysterious tower in the grounds, overgrown and hidden by forest. He learns that his great-uncle (Shohei Hino), involved in dark magic, created the building that has since been sealed off. When his aunt goes missing in the vicinity of the tower, Mahito sets of to find her and is transported to a paralell world, where his great-uncle is the creator and anthropomorphic and militaristic parakeets rule the realm. Aided by a woman named Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki) and the heron, Mahito also finds a younger version of his mother (Aimyon), and tries to rescue them and return to his own world.

Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film features many of the elements we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli, with the war-time setting reminiscent of “The Wind Rises” and a fantastical world akin to “Spirited Away”. The Japanese title “How do You Live?” is taken from a 1937 novel of that name by Genzaburo Yoshino. The novel appears briefly in the film, but the film’s plot is distinct from it. In essence the film is a simple tale of a boy attempting to come to terms with the death of his mother, while embodying the values and characteristics of a traditional hero in his unwavering attempts to save his family: bravery, compassion, and intelligence. The film has darker moments too, with the heron’s appearance being often accompanied by sinister proclamations, and a sequence in which Mahito is swarmed with frogs that completely engulf him. In short it is not a film for very young children, but those on the cusp of adolecence, with its messages about growth and coming-to-terms with the darker aspects of humanity. The animation is spellbinding, from the aforementioned frogs, to the magical creatures known as wara-wara and flocks of birds, the film has a vibrancy and kineticism that is exciting to see. The opening sequence, seen in flashback throughout, has an impressionistic feel, that perfectly captures the horror and confusion of the firebombing, perhaps mixed with Mahito’s own memories of this traumatic event. The score, by longterm collaborator Joe Hisaishi, of sparse, plaintive piano further heightens the sense of loss and loneliness of Mahito’s journey. The film’s more surreal moments, the otherworld being a place that often defies logic, give the sense that the whole alternate reality is a place of metaphor and meaning, less fantastical and more meta-physcal or psychological in aspect.

An incredible example of simple yet effective storytelling that balances comedy and tragedy, whimsy and dark emotional drama. The film leaves it to the audience to find their way through this often confusing mix of tones and styles, with elements such as the wara-wara being unborn children in the ‘real’ world, and the relationships between people Mahito has met and their doppelgangers in the otherworld. Similarly, while the references to war are minimal, they are clearly important as we see the fighter-plane cabins being lined up at Natsuko’s house. Whether there is a connection between the parakeet king and his army, or the anthropomorphic inhabitants of the magical world’s insatiable appetites, and the militarism of this period in Japanese history, again is left for the audience to puzzle out. “The Boy and the Heron” is a wonderful example of what films can do best, leave you with stunning visuals that provoke a deep emotional response without necessariliy explaining to you the whole meaning. As with the best art, it allows you to be carried along by the mystique and grandeur of the creation, raising questions about life, loss and spiritual growth.

The Legend and Butterfly (2023) by Keishi Otomo

A historical epic detailing the relationship between Nobunaga Oda (Takuya Kimura) and his wife Nohime (Haruka Ayase). Oda is a figure who looms large over Japan’s warring states period, one of the most recognizable names of the time with a reputation as a ferocious military commander. “The Legend and Butterfly” begins with the lord as a young man; immature, inexperienced, and spoiled by his position. He is married to the daughter of a neighbouring lord in an attempt to broker a truce between their two regions. The woman, Nohime, is more than a match for the precocious young man; fiercely intelligent and beautiful there is a suggestion she has been sent there as an assassin by her father. Despite a mutual distrust and even hatred between the two, as the years go by they learn to work together and come to love one another, with Oda’s victories in part due to the tactical brilliance of Nohime. The film spans several decades and documents Oda’s rise to great power, becoming the recognizable warlord of historical record.

Little is known of Nohime and Nobunaga Oda’s relationship and writer Ryota Kosawa therefore takes certain liberties with their story. It is exciting to see the characterisations of these historical figures and both Takuya Kimura and Haruka Ayase give moving performances with great chemistry together. It is far from a traditional love story, even with the film-maker’s attempts to make things more romantic and fitting to modern sensibilities. Instead the film retains a sense of reality in showing that these matches were often more political alliances than passionate affairs. The fantastic production value is evidenced in everything from the large casts and sets, the colourful costumes that bring the period to vivid life, and the occasional action sequences (director Keishi Otomo previously worked on the Rurouni Kenshin series and his skill as an action director shows here). Naoki Sato’s score further adds to this sense of a lavish epic. The main failing of the film is in a lack of a unifying narrative; told over such a long period it often feels more like a beautifully rendered docu-drama than a love-story or historical epic. There are many spectacular sequences, but they feel a little disjointed. The story of Oda and Nohime is interesting, but the subtlety of their relationship and adherence to historical accuracy (they are often apart and moments of romance between them are sparse) may leave some viewers cold, especially if you are expecting something more melodramatic. The second strand to the story, that of Oda’s transformation from an inept young lord to the fearsome and merciless commander, is likewise interesting, but often omits the why and how of him becoming this dispassionate leader. In attempting to balance these two strands the film falls somewhere between an out-and-out romance and historical action film. Early on we see a hint that perhaps the relationship between the two will have some relevance to how his military career developed, but this connection becomes more tenuous as the film progresses.

“The Legend and Butterfly” is an impressive historical epic, with incredible set-piece moments and two standout performances from its leads. The tragedy of both characters seems to be the time in which they were born. Both express an interest in foreign musicians they see at a fair, and in a dream sequence towards the end of the film, Oda imagines a possible alternate future for the two where they set sail from Japan to travel together as a peaceful, loving couple. In other ages this might have been possible, but their fates were set by being born in a militaristic society that prided prowess in battle above all else and often denigrated women to the role of child-bearers. The unconventional story, awkwardly balancing facts with a more romanticised fiction, can seem strange at times, but there is so much to enjoy here, from the fantastic sets and costumes, excellently choreographed fight-sequences, and two stand-out performances from the charismatic leads.

Blade of the Immortal (2017)

Takashi Miike’s previous forays into the samurai genre, in the shape of “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri” show a reverence for the genre which is also evidenced here in “Blade of the Immortal”. The film is based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura and follows the story of a man cursed with eternal life. In the opening scenes we are introduced to Manji, played by Takuya Kimura. He is on the run from the law after killing several constables and taking care of his sister, Machi. Manji’s immortality comes from a bloodworm given to him by a witch and it also gives him the power to recover from any injury. He also gains the less heralded ability to produce any number of weapons at will from beneath his robes. Later he comes across a young girl, Rin, played by Hana Sugisaki, who reminds him of his sister. Her own parents have been killed and Manji agrees to take on her mission of revenge.

Miike clearly has a love of samurai and swordplay and there are some beautifully choreographed fight-sequences. Both large scale battles and one-on-one duels between the protagonist and the swordsmen of the Itto clan. The cinematography is as good as any classic samurai film. The opening sequences use the chiaroscuro to great effect and the use of shadows throughout evokes an atmosphere of the clash between right and wrong. There is also great use of colour, in the vibrant red of Rin’s kimono and purple of Makie’s gown (another of the Itto clan) contrasting with the black and white of Manji’s robes. Everything about the film shows a quality and attention to detail, with excellent set-design and costumes. The tone of the film flits between serious drama but also includes flashes of Miike’s black humour. In large part these are off-hand remarks, or unbelievable moments such as when a character is impaled on a number of weapons at once. The film is long and perhaps suffers a little from an attempt to replicate a manga structure. The screenplay by Tetsuya Oishi does a good job of getting a lot of information across, but could have done with a less loyal adaptation of the source material. It becomes a little formulaic when Manji is taking on the third or fourth villain to appear. However, the final triumphant fight sequence, itself an incredible feat running to almost half an hour of uninterrupted action, brings the film to a thrilling close. The fights are bloodsoaked and brutal and there is enough variety in the opponents, locations or impetus of the sequences to keep you interested, but it is clear that they are attempting to rush through several important characters without giving too much time to develop any one in particular. The relationship between Rin and Manji is poignant and enjoyable to watch, with both giving exceptional performances.

The film discusses the rights and wrongs of revenge as well as the idea of the cycle of violence. In many ways Manji is the embodiment of this notion. He is trapped in life that is never ending, forced not only to relive his own mistakes, but in taking on Rin’s mission he is possibly beginning the same pattern again. He yearns for death, having grown tired of living, but is unable to achieve it. In his determination we also see his character go through a change of heart as he moves from being apathetic and wishing to end his life, to rediscovering a meaning to fight. This cyclical nature of violence is something that the film is somewhat ambivalent about. Later in the film the villain tells Rin that whether he lives or dies men like him will return, time and again. Humanity can never walk away from its fundamentally violent nature. But there is the hope that there will always be heroes who rise up to fight on the side of justice. An enjoyable swordplay epic with a heartwarming central relationship and exceptional action sequences.