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.