Anime, often categorized as any Japanese animated film, has steadily grown in popularity in the past 10 to 15 years and typically grosses millions upon millions of dollars at the box office globally. Animation studios have saturated the Asian markets and companies, such as Studio Ghibli, have reached the pinnacles of animated filmmaking having won an Academy Award in 2003 for the film Spirited Away. The movie's director, Hayao Miyazaki, who also co-founded Studio Ghibli, is considered to be one of the top anime filmmakers ever. Though originally retired in 2010, he wrote and directed this month's anime release, The Boy and the Heron.
The year was 1943 and Japan was at war. After twelve-year-old Mahito Maki's mother was killed in a fire at the hospital, Mahito's father married his first wife's younger sister, Natsuko. Two years later a pregnant Natsuko goes to live at her country estate and is soon followed by Mahito and his father, Shoichi. Still grieving the loss of his mother, Mahito has a hard time adjusting to his new surroundings. Despite Natsuko's best efforts, Mahito and she have a strained relationship, Mahito is bullied at school and he is "stalked" by a grey heron who lives at the estate.
However, when the heron starts talking to Mahito, he initially tries to kill it but eventually follows the large bird to an old, round building in the forest. After he is shooed away from the abandoned home by the old maids that live on the estate, Mahito finds himself drawn to the mysterious place. Then one day when Natsuko goes missing, Mahito instinctively knows she made her way to the home the heron first showed him. Once inside, enticed by the heron's lies that Mahito's mother is still alive, Mahito finds himself on a dark and dangerous adventure that leads him to a different dimension. Once there, Mahito has 2 goals - to find Natsuko and to find a way to get them both home again.
Quite a bit of anime deals in fantasy fiction and often has an element of danger. Miyazaki, being a master of his craft, knows how to draw these concepts out while balancing them with lighter moments and ideas. His style reflects the fluidity of the strokes in the drawings and computer-generated scenes. He plays with lines and colors which adds depth to the pictures while he concurrently weaves a story that blurs the edges between reality and fantasy.
Watching the film as intended - with an Asian cast and Japanese dialogue with subtitles - there is poetry to it. The movie that it wouldn't otherwise have. However, as with many globally released anime films, there is also an English-speaking cast that dubs the dialogue so as to not need the subtitles. In The Boy and The Heron, this cast is largely made up of recognizable, seasoned actors including Robert Pattinson (The Batman), Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), Florence Pugh (Oppenheimer), Mark Hamill (Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi), etc. This powerful vocal talent only adds to the strong writing and directing that Miyazaki brings to the project.
Considered to be semi-autobiographical, The Boy and The Heron evokes strong emotions even while the viewer is left uncertain as to where the adventure is taking them. This fact is highlighted towards the end of the film when standing at a metaphorical crossroads, Mahito must choose between an alternate reality and the altered reality in which he now lives. Ultimately, either choice has its merits and perhaps the lesson is the idea of simply making a choice and following through.
This is another Miyazaki masterpiece that reminds us why the man, though he may want to, should not retire. At least not for many years to come.