How Animation Lives: Hayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron"

The beloved Japanese animator's ten-years-in-the-making film is a gorgeous and personal reflection on life, memory, and creativity.
Jennifer Lynde Barker

The Animated World is a regular feature spotlighting animation from around the globe.

The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023).

“And what about you? What will you create? You take many things from the world, but I wonder what you will give back in return?”

—Genzaburo Yoshino, How Do You Live? 

Part of the genius of Hayao Miyazaki is his ability to captivate his audience so deeply with his films that they don’t realize he is asking an essential question: how do you live? Yet, his films do. Each of them demands that we think, reflect, and change. Visually, they burst like a star in our mind’s eye while the stories slowly lead us toward realization. They warm our hearts while showing us how complex and contradictory people are—by turns selfish and selfless. From Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984) to The Wind Rises (2013), Miyazaki’s stunning, hand-drawn aesthetic and stirring, whimsical, and absorbing visions have given generations something to ponder and love—making him one of the most popular and influential animators in film history. This influence is lucky for us all, as his idiosyncratic approach nourishes both audiences and the art of filmmaking by placing artistic vision and self-reflection front and center.

His first feature film in ten years, The Boy and the Heron is a beautiful, poignant addition to Miyazaki’s legacy. A culmination of themes, characters, concepts, and images from his oeuvre, it offers a blueprint for how to make movies. It is also a reminder of the power of hand-drawn animation and an homage to animation and animators. Released in Japan as Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka, it asks, more insistently and purposefully than his previous films: How Do You Live? This question is a translation of the film's Japanese title, as well as that of Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel. Variously reported as a favorite book from Miyazaki’s youth, it is certainly deeply sympathetic with his ideals. And while the film is not a literal adaptation, the book provides crucial paradigms for understanding it. Beyond the surface similarities—both are coming-of-age tales featuring a young boy’s struggles to live a worthwhile life after a parent dies—there is an essential correspondence about how to live thoughtfully with others in the world. The Boy and the Heron gives us Miyazaki’s ways of seeing this world, living with it, and creating something for it, offering this to us as a gift for the future. 

That Miyazaki is a great artist is undeniable, and his latest film confirms that, doing so with an elegiac self-referentiality that is fitting for what is likely his last film. Various images in it bring to mind his past work: the hedge tunnel of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the wind stirring grasses in Princess Mononoke (1997), a hostile paper attack in Spirited Away (2001), the intricate aquatics of Ponyo (2008), the healing light of Nausicaä. These moments are not pastiche or repetition but function rather as precious memories or old friends. By gathering together these images from various films, a fuller sense of Miyazaki’s universe emerges—distinctive stories though they are, they are networked with each other through his imagination, and their presence here underscores his coherent vision of the world as a place of subtle beauty, implicit violence, and potential transformation. He highlights a further lineage of animation as well. Studio Ghibli released two films in 1988: Totoro and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. The wartime scenes in The Boy and the Heron feel like homages to a friend: the intense pain of Takahata’s vision united now with Miyazaki’s characteristic light shining in the darkness. And while his professional and artistic relationship with Disney has been critical, the presence of a fragile rose and ballroom recalling Beauty and the Beast (1991) and a glass coffin evoking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) suggest Miyazaki is acknowledging the importance of animation as a joint endeavor with global influence—one that exists outside of studio politics. 

Yoshino’s novel, which came out the same year as Snow White,  is not a fairy tale, but combines an earnest coming-of-age story with a mixture of essayistic reflections on ethical conduct, friendship, class difference, and knowledge. A dialogue between a boy named Copper (after Copernicus) and his uncle, the book explores what it means to be a good person. The novel, like the film, is thoughtful, emotionally resonant, and eloquent in its observations. But the film is entirely fluid, fully embedding references, allusions, and ideas into a riveting storyline featuring adventure, danger, fantasy, self-realization, and loss. Like Copper, the boy in the film, Mahito Maki, is not a hero, but a human being searching for an answer to the question, “How do you live?” in both of its senses. Unlike Copper, he explores this question primarily through imaginative fantasy rather than everyday interactions. Firstly, he approaches it as an urgent inquiry about grief. Having lost his mother in a hospital fire during World War II, he is haunted by her image and the need to save her. He must also find a way to relate to his father’s new bride (and expectant mother), Natsuko, his mother’s sister. Mahito explores the question on a more existential level as well: what does he value and how should he live his life? 

The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023).

In its thematic undercurrents, the film struggles with surviving grief, and at first Mahito resists moving past his memories. Even when he encounters a cantankerous (and magical) heron haunting the house, he rejects interacting with him. But after discovering a book his mother left for him (in fact, Yoshino’s How Do You Live?), he has an emotional awakening and follows the heron into a fantastical realm, sensing he can help his mother by following the heron’s advice. Provocative and funny, the heron helps develop Mahito’s budding ability to see things differently—not only hidden or surreal images, but also the interconnectedness of the social world. In How Do You Live?, Copper learns the same lessons, imagining a crowd below him transformed first into beetles, then cells in a larger organism. This fantastical way of looking at things perfectly encapsulates a typical Miyazaki film as well. Always playing with perspective and representation, he lures us into an enchanted world. Once through the portal of the film itself, we seldom question the logic of the magical place we find within. Cute creatures might transform into a chain of DNA floating in the sky, but such fantastical events always feel fresh, lucid, and entirely real.

The film touches on reality in other ways, and is advertised as semi-autobiographical in the press release. Miyazaki seems to converse with himself in this film: his past, present, and future selves interact with each other as the granduncle, heron, and boy. The image of the boy rushing through a firestorm from the beginning of the film surely stems from Miyazaki’s childhood experience of incendiary bombing in Utsunomiya, which likely haunted him the way it does Mahito. His spirit further infuses the duality of the heron, who is an elegant bird on the outside and grumpy man on the inside, mirroring comments Miyazaki has made about himself. He is also Mahito’s granduncle, who says he is too old and tired to maintain the world he has created (yet who sparks with electrical zest). Like Miyazaki, who has spoken widely on the same subjects, he seeks to pass on his work to a younger generation. This play with multiple selves mimics Copper’s epiphany about self-awareness in the book, and provides a unique focus for the film. When standing atop a building in Tokyo, Copper feels strange picturing the “watching self, the self being watched, and furthermore the self becoming conscious of all this, the self observing itself by itself, from afar, all those various selves overlapped in his heart.” He feels like there is a wave rolling and tossing inside of him. Mahito also experiences this in the film. His changing perspective is conveyed through floating in water, being covered in frogs, and other physical disturbances as he makes his way to the otherworld.

The striking image of Mahito rushing forward through fire aptly conveys not only his initial trauma, but also how confusing and painful human life can be, and how the self is distorted by time speeding by. While the female characters in the film are predictably strong, funny, and captivating, the male characters are especially conflicted—another example of self-reflection. They signify the self struggling toward insight while running out of time. Aging has been a pressing concern for Miyazaki, and the film is infused with an acute awareness of the passage of time. Characters exist in multiple timelines and double each other, yet time is a fact, not an opportunity. One can seek out advice from those who have passed on (his mother doubles as a younger self, Lady Himi), but one cannot change outcomes. Yet time, like other dualities in the film, is both creative and destructive. It forces Granduncle to give up his work, but it also creates the bustling synergetic world of the elderly maids, whose wisdom protects, comforts, and teaches Mahito.

The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023).

Through his trials, Mahito, like Copper, learns important aspects of being human—the value of self-awareness, honesty, perseverance, and taking responsibility for his actions. At first he faults external forces for his pain, but eventually realizes that internally motivated choices are to blame. In fact, it is surprising how much the inside wants out in this film. The desire to reveal can be seen from viscera spilling forth (and beautifully at that) as Mahito guts a giant fish in order to feed the cute little Warawara (embryonic spirits destined to be born in the real world), to faces pushing their way out of other faces, to Mahito notably bearing the scar of his mistakes on his scalp. Each image embodies larger metaphorical truths about life—something we can feel in our guts, so to speak. Despite its prominence, however, Mahito takes time to accept it. He suffers through maelstroms of animosity from paper, water, stone, and fire without truly looking inward. His reluctance is understandable, but when he takes responsibility for his actions and owns up to his imperfections, he heals both himself and his relationship to others. This act of bravery ultimately makes him a worthy being, one capable of accepting Granduncle’s legacy (as a creator of worlds—or animator), a role he had rejected because he feels unworthy. Though his path forward is unknown, the fact that the film ends with a hai! (yes!) suggests an encouraging and creative future.

But what will that be? In the 2016 documentary Never-Ending Man, Miyazaki called himself a consumer of talent, accusing himself of devouring his successors: “I ate them all.” This might be too harsh, as consuming is a fundamental human activity, but it is an admission that syncs closely with the film. Part of the greatness of The Boy and the Heron is how it acknowledges that perfection engenders its own casualties. The birds in its otherworld are not there by choice and have developed brutal habits. But they are given a voice, which seems targeted at Granduncle. When he asks Mahito to rule the world, it is a parakeet who hijacks the handover of power. While he and his troops smack of fascism, they also have a point about Granduncle’s myopic leadership, and Miyazaki allows it. Despite his world being destroyed as a child, Miyazaki flourished. Mahito can also rise from the ashes. Something is passed on in the end—something essential to Miyazaki which we definitely do not want to lose. He has given us essential building blocks for creating harmony: recording the “beauty otherwise unnoticed” (as he calls it) and an intentional animation that is hand-drawn and encompasses the full human being, even the painful parts. His is a realism with purpose, combined with thoughtful introspection and joyful imagination. These things must not be lost. 

And they are always in danger of being lost—especially in a market obsessed with generating profits, not art, with marketing instead of making meaning, with investing in new technologies rather than people, all ending with something that feels perfectly empty. But Miyazaki asks the right questions (both inside of the film, and outside of it): How should we create, and why? In fact, the film suggests that all creators should continually question their motives in order to produce something worthwhile. Both Miyazaki and Yoshino further argue that making things, with intention and attention, makes people truly human—and this requires a slow pace. It is seldom observed that Miyazaki is not only a great director, but an outstanding editor; this is the key to his brilliance as a creator. He builds films organically, image by image, mark by mark, tracing and (re)thinking, shaping each personal detail (putting on a shoe, the design of a duvet) into a unique moment that becomes real through his life force and love. There is nothing like it.

Miyazaki’s films have always defied the norms and expectations of Hollywood, and have done so successfully. The Boy and the Heron was released in Japan with no advanced marketing or hype, creating a nostalgic film experience that allowed millions to sit down in the dark and be surprised, watching a world unfold for their pleasure and edification—unimagined, but gratefully and joyfully received. Miyazaki’s films remind us that we need not heed the mantra of industry and capitalism claiming that what is new, innovative, and costlier is also better. This is especially true when considering the supposed juggernaut of digital animation demolishing traditional 2D handcrafting. Instead, we can see for ourselves what Miyazaki has proven again with his insistence on old-fashioned animating—that what is old, worn-out, humble, and familiar, like the Velveteen Rabbit, is especially beloved.

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