The Boy and the Heron and a Life Worth Living

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The Boy and the Heron is the latest release from the acclaimed Studio Ghibli and possibly the final film from director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away; Howl’s Moving Castle). It has been a surprise box office hit, especially as it is a PG-13, 2D animated film centered on grief. Both the popularity and the subject make it a film Christians should take note of. In fact, the film is titled How Do We Live? in Japan, a title that better frames the movie as engaging with pertinent questions. Throughout the film, Miyazaki wrestles with the theme of grief as well as purpose but never truly settles on satisfying answers. The Christian worldview, however, ultimately has the answers that Miyazaki is unable to fully provide.

The Boy and the Heron

The Boy and the Heron feels like a classic Miyazaki film. Mahito (“true human”), the 12-year-old main character, is struggling with grief and upheaval in his life. He is eerily invited to another world, where he learns about his past and himself. Whimsical and sometimes frightening characters, like the heron, murderous parakeets, a fire-wielder, a protector of the unborn souls of humans, and spirit creatures are intricately woven into the storyscape. It’s a visual feast that clearly demonstrates that 2D animation is still a powerful and meaningful art form.

The backdrop of World War II is present but not overstated. The world is full of malice. Even Mahito, struggling with loneliness and grief, takes his malice out on himself. Throughout the movie we learn that everyone is tinged with malice, a flaw that impacts both the individual and society. Despite being a movie steeped in mythological folklore, the theme of malice recalls the doctrine of original sin and the ongoing effects of the fall.

Miyazaki’s Life

The message and theme draws heavily from the life of Hayao Miyazaki, making his life an important subject to study in light of the film. While Miyazaki shuns organized religion, classical Christian values such as beauty, hope, and love can be found abundantly in his work. Hayao Miyazaki’s life has influenced his work greatly, but, at the same time, his work has a richness and fullness that his real life never had. The complicated themes and story of The Boy and the Heron encapsulates this tension in his life clearer than any of his previous films.

His films are marked with a love for the small and the intricate and filled with a childlike wonder. Life is not only defined by the grand gestures, the big moves, or prestigious careers, he says; life is also meaningful in the way the sun sparkles on water, the fantastical dreams of children, and the glimmerings of hope against a backdrop of death. It’s tragic that Miyazaki, while portraying so much of the beauty of life in film, missed out on that beauty in his own life.

The Christian worldview, however, ultimately has the answers that Miyazaki is unable to fully provide.

Miyazaki’s homelife was marked with disappointment. He spent every waking hour at work, neglecting his health and his family. His wife, a successful animator in her own right, gave up her job to support Miyazaki and their children so he could work, a request that she was never able to forgive him for making.[1] His son, Goro, drew as a child, which Miyazaki encouraged, but Goro never fully satisfied the high expectations of his father in his filmmaking attempts. Goro has said about his father, “Hayao Miyazaki, to me, is ‘Zero Marks as a Father, Full Marks as a Director,’” a tragic reflection on Miyazaki’s priorities.[2]

How Do We Live?

Miyazaki’s last film tackles the tension between his creative and real life, revealing sorrow for life wasted and affirmation for a life well lived. In the film, we meet a worldmaker, who, at the end of his life, feels the burden of creating. He is capable of creating worlds and fostering life, but his creation corrupts over time. He seeks to find balance and a material that is clean of malice, but he keeps failing. With The Boy and the Heron being semi-autobiographical, this worldmaker reflects Miyazaki who has a legacy of producing beautiful works of film, creating worlds as vivid as they are imaginative. Both Miyazaki and the worldmaker fall short in their efforts to create and lead good lives on their strength alone. Christians affirm living not on individual strength but through God’s redeeming grace, ultimately being able to answer the question, “How do we live?”

Miyazaki asks if we will ever find balance and harmony or a world unstained by malice. Some critics have noted the meandering story and lost plot points. I believe Miyazaki does not know how to resolve his questions either, and his unknowingness creeps into the film. Yet, Christians have the ability to pick up where Miyazaki fails and answer with the hope of a world made new.

The Boy and the Heron‘s success should be taken note of by Christians for two reasons. First, it shows there is a demand for well-crafted art. Each frame is beautifully detailed and the music is poignant. Christians should be inspired to create thought-provoking art that is both beautiful and meaningful. Second, it shows that there is a broad audience willing to grapple with questions like “How do we live?” Miyazaki’s goodbye film, both an apology and a plea for others to think about how they live, is a fitting conclusion to Miyazaki’s work and life. The Boy and the Heron is an excellent jumping off place for Christians to engage with popular culture because the film’s themes will resonate with a Christian worldview.

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[1] Ligaya Mishan, “Hayao Miyazaki Prepares to Cast One Last Spell” November 23, 2021.

[2] Kevin T. Rodriguez, “The Heartbreaking Reason Hayao Miyazaki’s Son Watches His Movies” September 30, 2023.

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Jessica Hessler

Jessica Hessler

Jessi Hessler is an English major at The College at Southeastern. When she’s not reading good books and watching good films, she can be found discussing culture, theology, and politics with friends over a cup of coffee.

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