Adventure Animation

Through the Looking Glass: A TIFF Review of ‘The Boy and the Heron’

September 15, 2023Ben MK

With an illustrious career spanning six decades and an impressive filmography that boasts such timeless classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki has proven time and time again that he's one of the world's greatest filmmakers. A master storyteller whose eagerly anticipated works have touched the hearts of animation fans and general audiences alike, Miyazaki doesn't just make movies — he makes event movies. And with his 12th feature film, The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki has done it yet again, this time with a fantasy-infused, wartime drama about an adolescent boy struggling to cope with the death of his mother.

Based on Genzaburo Yoshino's 1937 novel "How Do You Live?," the story follows 12-year-old Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki), a once-carefree boy whose heart was hardened when, three years into World War II, his mother was killed in a Tokyo hospital fire. Moving from the big city to the Japanese countryside with his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) one year later, Mahito finds himself meeting his new mom, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), who also happens to be his mother's younger sister and who's pregnant with his new baby brother. But although it's an adjustment for Mahito — who, being the outsider, becomes the target of bullies at his new school — what he never expected was to encounter a magical, talking grey heron (Masaki Suda). Beckoned by his new feathered friend to an ominous tower long rumored to be the place where his great-uncle vanished years earlier, Mahito soon embarks on an adventure beyond his wildest imagination, to a realm far removed from space and time, where he'll come face to face with strange creatures and familiar allies. But once his escapades in this fantastical land are over, will Mahito choose to stay? Or will he feel compelled to return home to his father and his new family?

In true Studio Ghibli fashion, the result is a beautifully drawn and breathtakingly animated tale that has absolutely no trouble enthralling viewers from the very first frame to the moment the credits start to roll. Rich with symbolism and overflowing with densely layered thematic mythology, The Boy and the Heron is a worthy addition to Miyazaki's acclaimed body of work. And considering the recent news that the 82-year-old filmmaker isn't quite done with making movies yet, perhaps it won't be the final chapter in his remarkable legacy.

The Boy and the Heron screens under the Gala Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 4 min.

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