Still from "The Boy and the Heron" showing Mahito and Lady Himi.

‘The Boy and the Heron’ Review: Time, Birds, Death, and Life

By Najya S. Gause, Crimson Staff Writer
Still from "The Boy and the Heron" showing Mahito and Lady Himi. By Courtesy of © 2023 Studio Ghibli

Legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki broke records with his newest film, “The Boy and the Heron,” which became the first original anime title in history to top the North American box office chart at a whopping $12.8 million opening. The film also earned him his first Golden Globe Award nomination for best-animated motion picture alongside “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” “Elemental,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Suzume,” and “Wish.”

“The Boy and the Heron” is 82-year-old Tokyo native Miyazaki’s 12th film, and comes 10 years after his last work, “The Wind Rises.” The Studio Ghibli film premiered in Japan on July 14, with no publicity or trailer — a daring marketing strategy that speaks to Miyazaki’s prior success and ability to captivate audiences without relying on traditional promotional methods. Many of his previous films, including “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” are considered anime classics and have robust fan bases across the globe. Ahead of the release of the film, Miyazaki announced that it would be his last. However, many fans are critical of this announcement, as the old master has announced his retirement three times already: in 1997, 2001, and once again in 2013.

“The Boy and the Heron” is the ultimate Miyazaki film, full of his signature color, magic, beauty, and sadness. It follows the story of a young boy, Mahito, who after the death of his mother, flees 1940s Tokyo for an estate in the countryside. Once there, he struggles to adjust to his new life with his father, his new stepmother (his mother’s younger sister), and several elderly ladies. As Mahito attempts to deal with his trauma and grief, he encounters a talking heron who leads him to an abandoned tower, promising that he will find his mother inside. From this point forward, the film takes a fantastical turn, showing us a timeless world full of evil parakeets, and adorable cuddly creatures named Warawara.

The original version of the film is voiced by Soma Santoki as Mahito, Masaki Suda as Gray Heron, Shohei Hino as Grand Uncle, and Jun Kinimura as Parakeet King, among others. The English-dubbed version of the film boasts a star-studded cast, with appearances from household names like Robert Pattinson, Gemma Chan, Christian Bale, Florence Pugh, Mark Hamill, and Willem Dafoe.

“The Boy and the Heron” is semi-autobiographical, pulling inspiration from both Hayao Miyazaki’s past and present. Mahito’s life story parallels Miyazaki’s as they both fled Tokyo during the final years of World War II and settled in the countryside as young boys. Miyazaki’s father was a warplane mechanic, much like Mahito’s father Shoichi. Finally, Miyazaki almost lost his mother to tuberculosis at a young age, similar to how Mahito lost his mother in a hospital fire. Although these parallels may not seem obvious upon first viewing the film, the intimacy between creator and creation is palpable, adding a layer of personal depth and connection that enriches the narrative.

This feeling of intimacy is only elevated through the film’s beautiful hand-drawn animation. This traditional technique, called “cel animation,” is Studio Ghibli’s signature — and it never seems to go out of style. Each frame evokes emotion, finding the perfect balance between beauty and gore, magic and harsh reality.

The score for the film was written and performed by fan favorite and Miyazaki’s long-time collaborator, Joe Hisaishi. Most of the tracks feature a piano melody, beautiful in its simplicity, allowing for the focus to remain on the film’s breathtaking visuals and compelling storyline.

In order to fully understand the film, however, it is important to consider the original title of the film. Although the English version of the film has been released as “The Boy and the Heron”, the Japanese release is best translated as “How Do You Live?,” — referencing a 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino. The novel revolves around a 15-year-old boy named Koperu as he learns about growth, grief, and the human experience. The novel appears in the film as a gift to Mahito from his late mother and inspires him to set off on his journey with the heron.

“The Boy and the Heron” is not just a coming-of-age story. Rather, it is a call to action. To grieve. To yearn. To continue. To live. It poses a question: This is how Mahito lived — how do you? How will you?

If this is truly Miyazaki’s last film, it is the swan song of all swan songs. If not, it stands as a testament to his enduring creative spirit and leaves us eagerly anticipating the next masterpiece from this cinematic maestro.

—Staff writer Najya S. Gause can be reached at