Review of The Boy and the Heron (2023)
Seen in 2023.
Seen in the theatre on opening night.
In the middle of WW2, a bomb sets fire to a Japanese hospital. The adolescent Mahito runs to reach it, but loses his mother in the fire. His father’s business, however, continues to prosper. In the last year of the war, the father’s factory—which makes canopies for warplanes—is relocated to the countryside, near the haunted estate of Mahito’s mother’s family. The estate is now run by Mahito’s aunt Natsuko. She has married his father, the profiteer.
Tightly self-controlled and unhappy, Mahito is dropped off at the rural school in his father’s fancy Datsun. He comes home bleeding from a head wound. Not having to go back to school, and irritated by a vicious grey heron, Mahito prepares to walk into a supernatural trap within the estate.
Miyazaki’s love of fairytales and their symbolism is evident throughout his writings. This film, possibly his last, is a surprisingly vigorous application of the logic of fairytales to an original story. It’s a fantasy, that is clearly incompatible with the laws of nature, whether physical or metaphysical. Mahito’s head wound is not a Todorovian-fantastic cop-out to frame the supernatural as a fever dream. Like a good fairytale, the film instead works on multiple levels, in a way I find intuitively accessible to the attentive viewer. I don’t feel that it would be improved by an “explainer” article, but here’s a quick summary anyway.
At the level closest to everyday life under the laws of nature, the story is about Mahito overcoming both his grief at the loss of his mother and the accompanying self-loathing he feels, partly for having failed to save her, partly for being a safe and rich kid in a society of poverty and precarity. A part of that story is Mahito and his new mother getting to know one another, despite the friction resulting from Mahito’s sullen attitude.
Mahito doesn’t necessarily feel guilty about his father’s wealth coming from the unjust war effort, but to the viewer, the money is symbolically tainted. In this frame of reference, Mahito’s mother’s death is symbolic not only of other Japanese civilian deaths, but also of the many millions of civilians killed by Japanese forces in the war. When Mahito gets dirty and sweaty in his supernatural quest, he aligns himself with the agricultural volunteer corps seen at his school, and with other normal children suffering through labour, poverty and famine in the aggressor nation and its target nations.
That realistic story, with symbols referring to real and realistic things, is underpinned by a layer of more suspect Freudian symbolism. It is implicit that Natsuko and the father choose one another despite and because of his previous relationship with Natsuko’s sister. Although Natsuko is the older sister, in her, Mahito still sees a version of his mother—the Freudian ideal partner—with whom the incest taboo is at 50% strength. Her character design is youthful and idealized to portray her as a possible romantic interest, while her servants are grotesquely proportioned to clarify that they are too old for such interests.
The Freudian angle is reinforced by the fact that Natsuko is already pregnant with Mahito’s half-brother. In psychodynamics, and even in Robert Trivers et al.’s evolutionary biology, the half-sibling is a rival for one’s parents’ affections. Appropriately, the friction between Mahito and Natsuko is openly expressed only in the fantasy world beneath the estate, not in a realistic setting where subconscious forces are under control. Specifically, when Natsuko berates Mahito, it is in a room devoted to childbirth. For Mahito to enter this room is explicitly characterized, by the heron, as a transgression breaking a taboo: A central motif of fairytales. It is taboo in part because, in Freud’s purely speculative model of human psychology, Mahito is subconsciously motivated to kill the child, claim Natsuko as his own partner in the manner of Oedipus Rex (ca. 429 BCE), and continue his escape from reality, away from the darker figure of his second great rival: His father.
Continuing to mine this Freudian vein, Miyazaki presents Mahito with Himi, a fire maiden in the fantasy world. Himi is Mahito’s own age, pretty, supernaturally fit, heroic, and not married or pregnant. Like Natsuko, Himi is a possible romantic interest for Mahito, and vice versa. Superficially, this interest seems like it would be stronger, but it too is framed as taboo. Under the supernatural premises of the setting, Himi will become Mahito’s mother, just like the young Lorraine in Back to the Future (1985), who is the literal future mother of that film’s main character. Miyazaki thus doubles up on the Oedipal romances.
Miyazaki also doubles up on the Oedipal father-son conflicts, but through allegory. In the latter half of the film, the villain is the Great King of the Parakeets. He has the confident stride of Mahito’s father. His subjects salute him as “duch”, putting him in the position of il duce, the fascist leader of Japan’s wartime ally, Italy. The Great King corresponds to Mahito’s father, the war profiteer whose authority is a nuisance in Mahito’s life. The Great King also corresponds to the true leaders of Japan. Like Tōjō Hideki, the Great King bets and loses everything on bold aggression.
Coterminous with the realistic and Freudian dimensions of the story, there is a lot more allegory, metaphor, and miscellaneous mutual reinforcement. For example, in the fantasy world, the helper Kiriko has a magical fire stick because, in reality, the servant Kiriko smokes cigarettes. In the delivery room at the base of the tower, Mahito is assaulted by slips of paper, like the shikigami of Spirited Away (2001). Himi saves him by burning the paper, resulting in a visual callback to the opening of the film, where tiny burning flecks of ash rain down on Mahito’s house as his mother—who is Himi—herself burns.
Many of the superficially absurd details of the plot have such possible interpretations. The fantasy world that Mahito sinks into through the mosaic floor is the netherworld of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), though for Buddhist reasons, it is simultaneously the source of new life. Perhaps the shadowy starving masses there, who cannot themselves catch fish but get it from Kiriko, are the starving masses of wartime Asia, as suggested by the junk rigging of their “illusory” ships. Perhaps the pelicans who eat the wara-wara are thereby causing miscarriages, which were especially common in those years of famine. The old pelican who dies in Kiriko’s garden provides not only a morally grey exposition, placed there in the script to soften Mahito’s attitudes about his own moral taint, but also an opportunity for Mahito to show his changing character, burying the foetus-killer with honour instead of smashing its brains. The variety of birds all have the traditional symbolic value of birds, being more able to travel between the realms.
In a 2023-12-06 documentary for NHK, Miyazaki suggested a layer of concrete personal correspondences. In this scheme, the wizard/great-uncle is Miyazaki’s mentor Takahata Isao, the heron is his nagging producer Suzuki Toshio, and Kiriko is Yasuda Michiyo, who worked with Miyazaki all the way from The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun (1968) to The Wind Rises (2013), as a colour designer. Miyazaki himself would then be Mahito. Mahito’s father resembles Miyazaki’s own father in the details that he was relatively rich and remarried shortly after the death of his first wife, but it was the man’s second wife who became Miyazaki’s biological mother, unlike Natsuko, the second wife in the film. Indeed, the personal correspondences are not the definitive key to the film, as they would be in a roman à clef. They are just another layer of symbolism among many.
“Mahito” is an unusal name. It can refer to the Daoist concept of zhēnrén, an enlightened spiritual master, which is what the hero becomes in Campbell’s monomyth. The more literal meaning of “Mahito”, as it is openly interpreted in the film, is a person of truth. In Mahito’s case, he’s more blunt than expected in Japanese culture, and uncommonly aware of what he’s getting into. The ma in his name (真) has two popular homonyms: 魔 for evil and 間 for an empty space or pause. Both fit. Mahito struggles under his perceived taint of evil and puts his life on hold in more ways than one. This is a more formal literary symbolism not always found in fairytales.
In the script’s deepest exposition, the meteor that struck the land of the estate resembles an atomic bomb. If you were to apply a reading like Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (2005), this too would be symbolic. The meteor struck near the Meiji Restoration, when Japan acquired the imperial envy and ambition that led to the Pacific War. Mahito’s sulleness would then correspond to the subordinate political position of postwar Japan, mirroring his position as a little boy under his father. Indeed, the wizard/great-uncle character carefully wields the power of the meteorite in a manner roughly analogous to the more open nuclear allegory of Castle in the Sky (1986). However, I do not mean to suggest that the plot is a puzzle where every element can be fitted into one internally consistent narrative. The plot is not such a puzzle, just as the dramatis personae cannot be fitted into one consistent map of correspondences with real people. Instead, the ontology is deliberately blurred, the magic soft. The focus remains on the fairytale: Mahito’s coming of age as an image of everyone’s coming of age. His supernatural trials, like his trial at school, all serve that general purpose. For example, Mahito cutting too deep into the belly of the fish and spilling its guts is just a sign that Mahito is still a child at that point. I don’t think there really is a nuclear dimension.
There are details that don’t make sense to me. The young Kiriko, for example, has a scar like Mahito’s, but I don’t know why. Perhaps she blames herself for having once lost Mahito’s mother to the tower for a year, but that isn’t stated. Perhaps Kiriko is scarred because, as Yasuda, she has suffered alongside Miyazaki, in his career of making as many films as the great-uncle has white stones in his stack. She saves Mahito from the pelicans at a dolmen, but I don’t know who is buried there, or why there is another dolmen (the same one?) later in the film. Intradiegetically, you could say that such mysteries—great and small—are explained by the wizard, who says that his control over the meteorite is out of balance, but that would be a cop-out. Instead, part of the enjoyment I had was to appreciate the gorgeous visuals. The orcish parakeets are funny, the wara-wara are cute, and so on. I enjoy some features as possible allusions to the history of Ghibli: The young Kiriko lives in a ruined hulk like that in The Journey of Shuna (1983); the fish on her hook resembles the ancient sea creatures of Ponyo (2008), and the wizard is like the old man Nishi in Whisper of the Heart (1995), complete with “magical” stones like Castle in the Sky’s uncle Pom.
The Boy and the Heron has the filth of Earwig and the Witch (2020), but it also has all the psychological and symbolic depth that is missing from that earlier film. I was surprised and delighted that even at age 81, Miyazaki Hayao could still operate at this level of art by using his intimate knowledge of fairytale logic. This film is his Dreams (1990), but unlike Kurosawa’s Dreams, The Boy and the Heron is coherent, dreamlike, and animated, as it should be.
References here: Ghibli movie titles.