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.
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.