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LFF 2023: The Boy and the Heron Is a Surreal Fever Dream

Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

Hayao Miyazaki is my favorite filmmaker. To varying extents, I love every one of his films and some of them rank among my favorite films of all-time. So, you can imagine the excitement I felt upon hearing he was coming out of retirement for (so far) one last film, even more so as I sat down in the cinema to watch it. Now that I have finally seen The Boy and the Heron, …w…wha…j…j…what was that?!

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of The Boy and the Heron, a selection of the 2023 London Film Festival, but you’d think that in his old age Miyazaki would mellow, exploring more mature, grounded and meditative stories, stories like The Wind Rises. But no, with The Boy and the Heron Miyazaki has made his most surreal, grotesque, unfocused, disjointed, audacious, experimental, horrifying and hilarious fever dream to date. Watching The Boy and the Heron is the Miyazaki movie his other movies would be as you half- remembered them the morning after staying up all night with the flu watching them. It’s insane. It feels in some ways like a victory lap for Miyazaki, with moments that feel straight out of Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, or My Neighbour Totoro, there’s also a lot of Goro Miyazaki’s messiness in there too. However tonally, what this most reminded me of was no anime, but Jan Svankmajer’s truly, truly off the wall Alice. This movie is absolutely buck wild and I hardly know where to start summarizing it because so, so much happens in this film!

It starts small enough, with the first act (which believe me, feels like a distant, far off land by the climax), establishing the boy: Mahito, who loses his mother in the fire-bombing of Tokyo before he and his father retreat to the countryside to live with his future step-mother (echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth there). Mahito has a hard time adjusting to his new home, with its strange chattering harem of doting old ladies, mysterious crumbling tower in the surrounding forest, and oddly aggressive Grey Heron living in the nearby pond. Then things get weird and…I mean weird. 

A bloodied pelican
Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival.

The Boy and the Heron has moments that are closer to horror than any other of Miyazaki’s films. He’s often had scary imagery dotted throughout his oeuvre, but the first act of this film is genuinely disturbing and grotesque in a way he has rarely made his films feel. You can see how a setup like My Neighbour Totoro could’ve gone in more of a horror direction, and this is the fulfilment of that “what if”. The Heron (Masaki Suda) starts talking to Mahito and promises to reunite him with his dead mother. Rather than credulous, Mahito is more understandably hostile to this ghoulish creature and makes ready to defend himself against it, but when his pregnant soon-to-be stepmother (Yoshino Kimura) goes missing, Mahito must take the heron up on its offer to be reunited with her. 

It sounds like a film about grief and coming of age, which it is… sort of. It’s also about the creative process and seemingly how much of a burden it can be, there’s a character who acts as a self insert in much the same way that James Halliday does for Spielberg in his Ready Player One. In some ways, it does feel like one of those not-quite there Miyazaki imitations like Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Tales From Earthsea or The Boy and the Beast, with a disjointed, illogical world that literally collapses under the weight of its own emotional whiplash. It is undoubtedly the messiest Miyazaki film, dethroning Howl’s Moving Castle by a factor of at least two or three. 

Kiriko sails at sea
Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival.

However, it is also, by a comparable degree, the funniest Miyazaki film. And in places the darkest. It’s such a case of extremes which makes it hard to conceptualize. It feels like Miyazaki changed his mind about what he wanted to do several times during the production, painting himself into corners and falling down narrative tangents that are enchanting but contribute little to the overall story. It’s closest relative really is Alice in Wonderland, it has that same kind of “…and now for something completely different” structure, with moments of wonder and hilarity coexisting with extremely thorny and intense emotions that aren’t fully explored or fleshed out.

When Mahito is pulled into the fantasy realm—because of course he gets pulled into a fantasy realm—the tone changes drastically, and then soon afterwards it changes again. It’s actually kind of brilliant. The film slowly introduces you to a character in a fairly realistic setting, then introduces increasing elements of surrealism and nightmarish imagery. Then, it inverts that imagery, rendering it absurd and comedic, like casting the “ridiculous” spell on it. Then, the tone turns yet darker in a more epic, loose and transcendent fashion. Then, in its second half it starts dovetailing the sublime and the preposterous. It doesn’t quite work.

The sublime stuff loses some of its power although the absurdities certainly get funnier when they are erupting into a more straight-faced fantasy story. The realistic gets left far behind, and with it the realist emotions we started at. It’s as easy as ever to get lost in the world Miyazaki creates, but tough to stay lost in it. The film is always moving on somewhere else, shifting beneath your feet, you’re never sure quite where you are with it. Perhaps more viewings will dispel that impression and it’ll be easier to stand back from The Boy and the Heron and appreciate it for what it is, but even then, I think it may be more “one for the fans” than for the casual viewer. But for this fan, I was delighted by most of The Boy and the Heron, bemused, confused, confounded and swept away by it.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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