Portals to enchanted realms: Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron

Chama Al Houari (f. 2002) is an aspiring filmmaker from Morocco. She is currently studying at NSKI in Oslo, and is passionate about film history and how movies reflects the world.


In the realm of cinematic farewells, The Boy and the Heron stands as a poignant adieu from the masterful hand of Hayao Miyazaki, a luminary whose creations have woven the fabric of our childhood dreams. Miyazaki’s films are portals to enchanted realms, an escape from the mundane.

The story unfolds as Miyazaki bids farewell through the lens of Mahito, the film’s protagonist, born into a world scarred by the flames of destruction. The parallels with Miyazaki’s own life, born at the close of World War II to an ill mother, are evident. Mahito, mirroring the director, seeks solace in the countryside, driven by disillusionment and the yearning for the magic stolen by war from his childhood.

The symbolic heron taunts Mahito with memories of his mother, setting the stage for a journey into a forbidden tower – a portal to a realm where magic and mystery abound. Here, the thematic landscape diverges from Miyazaki’s dreamlands; it is explicit, prophetic, unveiling the origins and destinations of human souls. Wisdom and death intertwine, revealing the delicate balance that shields the world from destruction.

At the heart of this mystical world stands the grand master – a portrayal of Miyazaki himself. As Mahito reaches this liminal space, a choice emerges. Stay in this magical haven, succeeding the great uncle at the top of the tower, or return to the real world with its suffering and sin. The characters, echoes of Miyazaki’s own persona, transform the scene into an encounter between a younger and older self, resulting in a heart-wrenching decision. In the final moments, Mahito opts to return, rejecting escapism. As he re-enters the real world, he carries reminders of the unimaginable wonder of dreams – a protective figurine and a toy block.

Miyazaki’s final message is clear: take your dreams as armor as you courageously navigate the perils of an unbalanced world. The Boy and the Heron is a testament to Miyazaki’s mastery, a profound exploration of life’s complexities, and a heartfelt farewell.

In the Japanese rendition, the film carries the title «How Do You Live?» – borrowed from Genzaburo Yoshino‘s novel of the same name. Yoshino’s book delves into the philosophical questions of the meaning of life, urging readers to ponder the essence of existence and what it truly means to be alive. The narrative, framed as a conversation between a grandfather and his grandson, explores the fundamental principles that guide our actions.

Inextricably linked to the movie’s plot, the contextual depth provided by Yoshino’s work invites viewers to introspect, asking them to reflect on the delicate balance in their own lives and discern what holds genuine importance. Miyazaki offers a profound message similar to Yoshino’s contemplative inquiry. By posing a fundamental question – how do you live? – Miyazaki implores the audience to consider their own values, priorities, and the pursuit of a balanced existence. A balanced existence somewhere between dreams and reality.

The Boy and the Heron becomes a vibrant canvas on which Miyazaki paints not only a farewell to his career but also a call to the audience to embark on their own introspective journeys, exploring the tapestry of their lives and determining what truly matters. In this fusion of cinematic and literary introspection, Miyazaki leaves his audience with a resonant and timeless question that transcends the confines of the screen.

The Boy and The Heron also comes off as Miyazaki’s least “Ghibli-esque” film. Ironic, since it is arguably also his most personal work. Seeing the film with friends, avid studio Ghibli enthusiasts who had grown up religiously watching the likes of  Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Spirited Away (2001), all left the theater with an empty stomach, as though something formulaic and fundamental was missing from our beloved director’s final film. We settled on the idea that the film lacked a certain escapist element that permeated the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography – it felt all too real. A sort of gut punch that even a film as emotionally loaded as The Wind Rises (2013) did not deliver. Less like a bedtime story, and more like a heavy final utterance.

As artists produce works, they quickly become associated with a certain aesthetic or thematic vision. Though originally their own, the interpretive space that belongs to the audience quickly leads to a certain confinement. Roland Barthes, in his influential essay «Death of the Author,» argues that once a work is released, it takes on a life of its own, and the audience becomes a co-creator in the meaning-making process.

The meaning of a work is not fixed; it is negotiated between the text and the audience. Over time, as audiences build expectations based on an artist’s earlier works, this negotiation can become more complex, potentially limiting the artist’s ability to break away from established patterns. Similarly, French-Argentinian director Gaspar Noé’s film Vortex, subverts the audience’s expectations in order to convey a personal experience. Instead of the usual explicit sexuality, graphic violence, unconventional narrative structures and disorienting visual style, he delivers a slow paced descent into despair, mirroring his real life close encounter with death, after surviving severe illness.

As a director’s career progresses through time, so does their personal journey and understanding of the world around them. Their works morph, warp and differ from the universe that the audience has come to expect from them, and so in time, in order for the artist to authentically express themself, they must somehow betray a pre-established image of their work.

Bridging back to The Boy and The Heron, a younger Miyazaki representing a freshness of perspective comes to challenge an established world, the artist confronts his own work. The fruit of this confrontation is an expansion into new creative territory, where the director’s lived life informs their art with wisdom that is sometimes contradictory to their own escapism.

In Miyazaki’s creative journey, deeply influenced by Jungian psychology, his enchanting universes serve as a response to the challenging circumstances of his formative years. Drawing upon Jung’s theory that the unconscious employs symbols and archetypes to navigate reality, Miyazaki’s intricate narratives and fantastical worlds can be interpreted as his subconscious way of grappling with the harsh realities he faced. However, as Miyazaki matured, his perspective on escapism underwent a shift, aligning with Jung’s concept of individuation. This evolution in his thinking suggests a realization that dreams, while providing solace, must in fact go beyond the realm of imagination to enforce substantial change in the external world.

The commitment to a greater good, emphasized in this narrative, means that true loyalty to one’s dreams extends beyond individual aspirations, but the responsibility of contributing positively to the outside world. Miyazaki’s legacy becomes a call for the fusion of creativity and action, inspiring the younger generation to be architects of positive change in the world they inhabit.

In a world stripped of fantasy and dreams, where an obsessive pursuit of rationality and material outcomes reigns supreme, life descends into a stern, harsh, and ultimately meaningless existence. The vitality of human spirit diminishes, and the vibrancy of imagination fades away, leaving a desolate landscape marked by the monotony of routine. However, excessive escapism, fantasy, and dreams can also in turn neglect the stark realities that form the foundation of our existence. By veering too far into the ethereal, we may create an alarming gap between the dreamscape and the tangible challenges of reality. This undermines the urgency of addressing real-world problems, creating a disconnection that threatens to widen the already existing gap between aspiration and actuality.

Therefore, the crucial call is for balance—a delicate equilibrium that harmonizes dreams and visions with the wisdom to confront the truths before us. It is this consolidation between the fantastical and the pragmatic that creates a world neither too stern, suffocating under the weight of cold rationality, nor too detached, lost in the abstract realms of fantasy.

In The Boy and The Heron this delicate balance becomes not just a choice but a necessity – a bridge that unites the allure of dreams with the grounding force of reality, creating a world where the beauty of imagination coexists with the responsibility to address the challenges of the present.

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