Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Miyazaki’s Return to Fantasy

The Boy and the Heron stands out as an unparalleled embodiment of dream logic within film, capturing the essence of fantastical and surreal experiences. Miyazaki masterfully guides the audience through a seamless transition from the tangible reality into the enigmatic dreams of the protagonist, Mahito. Without any prelude or indication, viewers find themselves immersed in Mahito’s subconscious, mirroring the unfiltered way a child navigates life’s complexities. The film delicately portrays the blurred boundaries between reality and dreams, akin to the fleeting moments when one succumbs to slumber in unexpected places–be it the back seat of a car or sprawled out on the floor before a mesmerizing TV screen–only to awaken in the familiarity of their bed. Mahito, grappling with profound trauma, becomes a conduit for the audience to traverse the haunting landscapes of his nightmares, awakening to a reality that he reluctantly embraces.

In a remarkable return to the world of fantasy, The Boy and the Heron marks Hayao Miyazaki’s first foray into feature-length storytelling since the enchanting Ponyo—yet this cinematic creation takes a more mature and contemplative turn, appealing not only to older kids but also to the discerning sensibilities of adults. From the very outset, the film grapples with profound themes of mourning, irreversible transformation, and the omnipresent specter of death, setting a tone that resonates throughout the narrative. With its tumultuous impact on society, the backdrop of World War II forms the historical canvas against which Mahito Maki’s personal journey unfolds. The film opens against the backdrop of a war that has been raging for years, and the tragedy strikes close to home as Mahito loses his mother in a devastating fire. Merely a year later, his father Shoichi uproots their lives, relocating to the countryside to be closer to the family factory and to start a new chapter with Natsuko, Mahito’s aunt-turned-stepmother, who is eagerly anticipating the arrival of a new sibling for Mahito.

Amidst this backdrop of societal upheaval and personal loss, Mahito grapples with emotions that transcend the facade of a polite, calm exterior. Deep-seated fury, grief, and haunting dreams of his mother’s demise weigh heavily on the young boy’s heart. Miyazaki crafts a narrative that explores the complexities of familial relationships and delves into the turbulent emotional landscape of a child coming to terms with the irrevocable changes that life thrusts upon him. Furthermore, Mahito finds himself tormented by the enigmatic presence of the Grey Heron, cynically referred to as “that nosy heron” in the subtitled version, which appears to be an ever-watchful observer of his actions. The Heron, defying the typical boundaries between the natural world and Mahito’s domestic space, boldly enters his home to confront him directly. In these confrontations, the Heron assumes a mocking demeanor, challenging the very persona Mahito carefully maintains for the benefit of those around him.

Emotional Barriers and Distant Persona

The Heron’s audacious behavior takes a more disconcerting turn when it utters human words, insisting with an unsettling conviction that Mahito’s mother is still alive. This revelation is pivotal for Mahito, forcing him to grapple with an internal conflict. Will he succumb to the Heron’s coaxing and venture into the unknown, risking potential danger to ascertain the truth about his mother’s fate? Alternatively, could this bizarre encounter be a manifestation of a dreamscape, a subconscious projection of a boy unwilling to accept the harsh reality of loss and embrace the transformative journey toward a new life? Mahito, in stark contrast to the archetypal Miyazaki characters characterized by pluckiness, nobility, or endearing innocence, emerges as a rather complex and somewhat prickly protagonist in The Boy and the Heron. His demeanor is not that of the typical charming youth or a cute, slightly sullen child who merely needs a reminder of the magic inherent in the world. Instead, Mahito is a character steeped in turmoil, grappling with troubles, heartache, and the profound grief accompanying loss. Despite the kindness extended to him by others, he remains distant and cold, choosing to erect emotional barriers even in the face of genuine attempts to connect.

Confronted with the prospect of a challenging new beginning, Mahito takes an unconventional path by deliberately exacerbating his predicament. Rather than embracing the potential for positive change, he seemingly opts for self-sabotage, adding a layer of complexity to his character that challenges conventional narratives of resilience and growth. In a departure from the usual adorable and whimsical companions in Miyazaki’s films, the animal guide accompanying Mahito is far from cuddly. Unlike the lovable Totoro or the sarcastic cat often present in Miyazaki’s works, the Heron asserts that it is neither Mahito’s friend nor ally. In a moment of stark intensity, the Heron even goes so far as to issue a chilling threat, explicitly mentioning the possibility of tearing Mahito’s heart out. This unconventional dynamic between protagonist and guide adds a palpable tension to the narrative, pushing the boundaries of the traditional mentor-protégé relationship in fantasy tales.

Divergence from Mythological Rendition

The Boy and the Heron unfolds as a dark and mature cinematic masterpiece, starkly contrasting with the narrative of Princess Mononoke. At the same time, the storyline may not share similarities with the epic sweep of the film above; its emotional depth rivals that of the Miyazaki classic. Rather than delving into a profound mythological rendition of Japanese history, this work plunges unapologetically into the labyrinthine recesses of the subconscious mind belonging to a grieving boy. The result is a Lewis Carroll-esque alternate universe with its own enigmatic set of rules and structures. In a departure from traditional storytelling, the film immerses the audience in a realm governed by dream logic, where the narrative weaves an intricate tapestry of shifting realities and unspoken nuances. The emotional complexity mirrors the intricacy of a dreamscape, inviting viewers to surrender to the film’s unique cadence and allow it to resonate on a profound level. Its narrative layers reveal a profound sense, creating a connection that transcends the surface-level plot.

This Lewis Carroll-ish alternate universe unfolds with an unpredictable ebb and flow, challenging the audience’s expectations as the world continually shifts around them. Characters casually discuss rules and taboos that seemingly materialize out of thin air, urging viewers to accept these sudden changes and seamlessly integrate them into the evolving narrative. In this acceptance of the unexpected and the willingness to navigate the uncharted territories of the subconscious, the true brilliance of the film’s dream logic emerges. Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live? initially graced the literary world in 1937 as a poignant addition to a series of books for young readers. This literary gem comprises a collection of letters and reflections between a young boy and his cherished uncle. Readers widely acknowledge this engaging exchange of thoughts and emotions as a unique and compelling narrative. Within the pages of this correspondence, the duo engages in a profound exploration of life’s intricacies and the essence of existence.

Beyond Traditional Classifications

In a cinematic nod to the profound themes in Yoshino’s work, the movie adaptation borrows its title, How Do You Live? a deliberate choice that serves as a thematic anchor for the unfolding narrative. The film ingeniously incorporates a pivotal moment where a tangible copy of How Do You Live? materializes, taking on a symbolic role of great significance. This occurrence transpires precisely when Mahito, the protagonist, finds himself at a crossroads, confronted with the weighty decision of determining the course his life will take. The book’s presence within the movie serves as more than a mere prop; it becomes a literary compass guiding Mahito through the labyrinth of his existential dilemmas. The exchange of ideas and perspectives, mirrored in the original letters of Yoshino’s work, becomes a subtle yet powerful undercurrent in Mahito’s journey, influencing his choices and shaping the trajectory of his personal growth.

What is captivating about the film is its departure from the source material, Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live? Suppose, indeed, this literary work served as Miyazaki’s initial inspiration. In that case, the movie takes a daring leap, veering away from the book’s detailed exploration of daily life, Japanese culture, and school dynamics. Instead, it plunges headlong into a fantastical realm, replete with symbols and enigmatic rules, shaping a landscape that becomes Mahito’s unconventional guide on understanding how to live. The film deftly transitions from the minutiae of everyday existence to a realm where the extraordinary serves as a metaphorical compass for Mahito’s journey. Reflecting on the film, much like a harmonious piece of music, unfolds with a sense of inevitability. Mahito’s odyssey seamlessly integrates fantastical elements, imparting a feeling of natural progression. Each challenge and creature encountered appears predestined, creating a narrative symphony that resonates with a deep and intrinsic sense of understanding.

In contemplating where The Boy and the Heron fits within Miyazaki’s extensive work, the film, reminiscent of the timeless charm of My Neighbor Totoro, exudes an air of inevitability that transcends traditional classifications. With each twist in Mahito’s journey, there is a palpable click in the mind, acknowledging that every challenge or creature introduced is necessary and irreplaceable. The film’s ability to seamlessly shift its rules and dynamics mirrors the inherent logic of dreams, where the changes feel intrinsically sensible while immersed in the experience. The Boy and the Heron weaves a rich tapestry of magical elements that draws inspiration from Miyazaki’s iconic works while taking these familiar motifs in unique and unexpected directions. A mesmerizing fire spirit emerges within the fantastical landscape, reminiscent of the beloved Calcifer. However, unlike Calcifer’s lighthearted charm, this spirit takes a divergent and compelling trajectory, adding complexity to the narrative. Notably, the inclusion of Howl in the English voice cast introduces a sense of continuity with Miyazaki’s earlier creation, infusing the film with a subtle nod to the beloved character from Howl’s Moving Castle.

Spirited Away Theme and Emotional Resonance

The film unfolds against the backdrop of a magical structure akin to the Moving Castle, whose doors lead to diverse times and lands, evoking a sense of wonder reminiscent of the Castle of Cagliostro. A robust magical structure, echoing the ethereal presence of Laputa, hovers above the ground, offering another nod to Miyazaki’s repertoire. The WaraWara creatures appear, drawing parallels with the Kodama from Princess Mononoke and the Soot Sprites from My Neighbor Totoro. However, true to the film’s distinctive approach, these creatures take a more severe and profound turn, deviating from the whimsical nature of their predecessors. A theme reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away surfaces as a sullen child embarks on a journey to rescue a parental figure, adding an emotional resonance that echoes through the film. Additionally, the presence of a magical arrow with the uncanny ability to find its mark evokes memories of Prince Ashitaka’s arrows in Princess Mononoke, creating a thematic thread that connects the narratives of these two distinct films.

Recognizing familiar elements in The Boy and the Heron from Miyazaki’s earlier works is not intended to imply repetition; quite the contrary, each of these elements undergoes a transformative evolution, steering the narrative in novel and surprising directions. Miyazaki exhibits an unparalleled ability to recontextualize and redefine his creations, infusing them with newfound depth and complexity, thereby ensuring that the film is a unique and distinct contribution to his cinematic oeuvre. What adds an intriguing layer to this creative process is the evident influence of the Miyazaki family’s admiration for Ursula K. Le Guin, a literary luminary whose impact on the family’s artistic sensibilities is palpable. The film briefly unfolds as a captivating homage to Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, a homage that spans approximately five minutes but resonates profoundly. During this period, The Boy and the Heron becomes an exquisite adaptation, capturing the essence of Le Guin’s narrative in a cinematic tapestry that, while fleeting, stands as an unparalleled realization of her seminal work.

The Boy and the Heron, at first glance, presents itself as a journey into escapism, guiding the audience into a Wonderland-like realm that transcends the bounds of reality. However, beneath the surface of this fantastical adventure lies a profound exploration of some of the most fundamental and challenging questions that humanity grapples with. It utilizes the peculiar logic of its wonderland to pose inquiries that strike at the core of the human experience: How does one go about constructing a just world? What motivates the innate human desire to create? Given the inescapable fate of eventual collapse into ruin and death, is there an inherent purpose in creation? In the hands of Miyazaki, however, The Boy and the Heron refrains from offering facile solutions or tidy resolutions to these existential queries. Instead, the film catalyzes contemplation, pushing its audience to confront these weighty questions head-on. By employing the dreamlike and symbolic nature of its fantastical setting, the movie compels viewers to grapple with the ambiguity and complexity inherent in the human pursuit of justice, creation, and the inevitable entwining of life and decay.


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