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Kimitachi wa dô ikiru ka



FEATURING: Voices of Soma Santoki, , , Aimyon, , Shōhei Hino, (Japanese); Luca Padovan, , Gemma Chan, , Karen Fukuhara, (English dub)

PLOT: A Japanese boy who has lost his mother during WWII meets a mysterious heron who guides him into a fantastic netherworld where the living and dead co-exist in a bizarre ecosystem.

Still from The Boy and the Heron (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s got that otherworldly Miyazaki character design, and enigmatic surprises galore. My high hopes were met in an early scene where the heron conjures a choir of fish and a cloak of frogs; once the protagonist enters the tower, the strangeness doesn’t let up.

COMMENTS: The venerable Hayao Miyazaki may be the only man alive still building new Wonderlands, making animated movies that feel like children’s literature. Disney/Pixar has a clear format: pick a clear theme—high fantasy, the four classical elements, Day of the Dead—add clear villain and clear comic relief, along with a clear moral to nod at. Miyazaki’s stories are psychologically complex and character driven, with bespoke worldbuilding that borrows from nothing but his imagination and the story’s demands. His hand-drawn animations are artistic rather than technically dazzling, and although he directs action nearly as well as his Western peers, his spectacles arise naturally rather than in response to script beats. While perhaps not quite up to the exemplary standard set by Spirited Away, The Boy and the Heron is a welcome return to the “big fantasy” genre, and sits comfortably alongside Miyazaki’s best work.

But, it must be said that The Boy and the Heron is oddly paced. The movie spends the first 45 of its 120 minutes in the real world. This drawn-out prologue is not at all unpleasant; we get to know Mahito extremely well, his relationship with his kind but distant father and his polite resentment towards his new stepmother (formerly his aunt). The seven old women who attend on the family at its estate and squabble over rare tobacco provide comic relief; whereas the other characters are drawn naturalistically, these old ladies are kindly caricatures, squat, with trademark features like bulbous red noses or eye-doubling spectacles; their cartoonish co-existence alongside the more elegant characters makes them resemble Snow White‘s seven dwarfs. Most importantly, this section develops Mahito’s relationship with the titular heron. At first, it is a rare and noble bird that takes an unusual interest in the boy. It gradually becomes an annoyance, slowly learning to speak, mocking Mahito while drawing him towards the mysterious sealed tower. The heron’s appearance also grows increasingly grotesque, as he reveals rows of human teeth inside his beak. The bird’s sporadic appearances in the first act drive a sense of mystery, as the rest of the exposition explores Mahito’s internal conflict in accepting the finality of his mother’s death.

As well constructed as this opening is, it’s the second act where Miyazaki opens the floodgates and gets the chance to be Miyazaki. Once Mahito passes the tower threshold into the full-blown world of Miyazaki’s imagination, things get wild. We get an attack by a swarm of tragic pelicans; a species of cute puffballs who float to the sky to be reborn; a fire-maiden; and a race of anthropomorphic, man-eating parakeets. Fanatsy characters are doubled with the real-world characters, a la The Wizard of Oz, but though a different mechanic. Mahito’s relationship with the trickster heron, now appearing as a pudgy middle-aged man in a loose-fitting bird costume, continues; the heron renders assistance, but only reluctantly. And, at the end of Mahito’s journey through this shifting labyrinth, we meet the master of all this mayhem.

The Boy and the Heron soars until this point, but in the third act it begins to waver. At the last minute a new subplot is introduced, involving the Tower Master, the architect of this magical world. As Mahito is a stand-in for young Miyazaki, the aged Master, a worldbuilder in a literal sense, is the alter-ego of the contemporary Miyazaki. Mahito’s reaction to the master’s offer to continue his work—“it’s malicious”—is the exact opposite of what we would expect. (To be fair, Mahito’s complaint only extends to this particular story, which is constructed, metaphorically, from tombstones.) The way the tower, and the entire universe housed inside it, eventually tumbles down is emotionally unsatisfactory; Mahito is allowed to avoid making an important choice, and the resolution destroys any chance of closure for this world’s creator. His achievement simply… crumbles, as he, too, disappears. Fortunately, Mahito’s personal dilemma is fully resolved and his character arc completed; he learns to accept change, to accept the passing of his mother. But there is one additional complaint to be lodged; after a 45-minute prologue in the real world to set up the story, the movie only devotes two minutes at the end to reunions and the return to normalcy—including a final postscript that’s about 30 seconds long! It’s one of the most abrupt endings to a film I can recall—the equivalent of a hasty “and the all lived happily ever after” from an exhausted parent telling a bedtime story—but this minor misstep does nothing to diminish the previous two hours of magic.

The Boy and the Heron arrived in 2023 as a true surprise; the octogenarian Miyazaki unretired from animation for a second time to make it. It is a rare Miyazaki film with a male protagonist, and contains autobiographical elements (the director lost his mother at a young age, and his father was in airplane manufacture during the war). At this writing The Boy and the Heron is still playing in theaters around the country, in your choice of dubbed or subtitled versions, and is certain to be named an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film—with an outside shot to win. We’ll let you know when streaming and physical media dates are announced.


“With its sprawling story and opaque world-building, The Boy and the Heron is hard to summarize. But that diffuseness is part of the charm… This is to say it’s one of [Miyazaki’s] strangest and most ambitious films. It’s reassuring that the filmmaker can still surprise like this”–Kambole Campbell, Reverse Shot (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Anonymous,” although we would have reviewed it anyway. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch The Boy and the Heron


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