By David Ryan.

Miyazaki moves beyond illustrating simple contrasts by creating relationships in apposition (not opposition), and this interdependency often encourages experiential growth for his younger protagonists.”

Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s films are carefully planned adventures into the realms of innocence and experience. His abstract themes and dense stories have garnered deep admiration from western audiences, for Miyzaki gives prominence to his younger characters by imbuing them with a strong sense of curiosity, stubbornness, and resilience. His popular fantasies have a reputation for being difficult to grasp for adults let alone intrepid children, but his stories do have recognizable patterns, such as settings that depict rural and city life, characters who evince fear and generosity, and narratives that illustrate abundance and modesty, secrecy and openness, conflict and peace.

These commonplace binaries are often expressed through more focused themes, many of which illustrate characters growing toward a stronger moral agency actualized in a world shaped by opportunity, selfishness, isolation, and danger. Love, too, composes the core of Miyazaki’s stories as does the fear of losing important relationships, particularly family. These ordinary fears stir deep waters for Miyazaki, and he brushes from these wells to compose monstrous caricatures for many of his characters as well as ethical crises for his narratives. To complicate matters, Miyazaki moves beyond illustrating simple contrasts by creating relationships in apposition (not opposition), and this interdependency often encourages experiential growth for his younger protagonists.

For this critical framework regarding Miyazaki’s films, what is important to know is that different species with varied life cycles often form symbiotic relationships. For example, living and dead often exist in the same time and space, and creatures and spirits impact human lives. These themes help inform My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001), among others. Because of this engagement, his protagonists grow in insight and agency as they confront issues of dislocation and belonging. To compound these internal and external conflicts, Miyazaki often illustrates a thematic dialogue between dreams and reality to illustrate how one comments on—even modifies—the other, so we understand how dreams help focus the waking lives of people, particularly children. Interestingly, a child’s point of view possesses a more civilized portrait of human wellness than the views often held by their adult counterparts.

Set during WWII Japan, The Boy and the Heron (2023) is an original film inspired by How do You Live?, a book written by Genzaburo Yoshino (the book title serves as the film’s Japanese title) and published in 1937. The boy is 12-year old Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki in Japanese and Luca Padovan in English), and, in the opening scene, Mahito hurriedly departs from his home, concerned for his mother. As he treks through his Tokyo neighborhood, the streets swirl with dark apparitions and living figures. Pelted by soot and fire, Mahito navigates this haunted whirlwind, and as he reaches the hospital where his mother works, he discovers an inferno. Presumably, his mother’s passing begins his personal awareness of death and starts his dislocation due to trauma.

A short time later, Mahito is sent by his industrious father (Takuya Kimura and Christian Bale) to his family’s country estate while his dad resumes work nearby for Japan’s war machine. On the way, Mahito meets Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura and Gemma Chan), his dad’s new wife, and she is the younger sister of Mahito’s deceased mother. Natsuko announces she is expecting soon the birth of Mahito’s cousin-as-half-brother. Without a doubt, this marital strategy of property retention poses adverse knowledge for Mahito, as he grows more aware of how his privileged family remediates itself around his crumbling inner life. 

As he arrives and adjusts to the serene country estate, Mahito is confronted by a grey heron (Masaki Suda and Robert Pattinson). In Mahito’s eyes, this heron is no ordinary bird. The raptor is home to a man who lives inside the being in, as far as we can tell, a symbiotic relationship of doubleness. The heron tells the young boy that his mother is alive and that he can lead him to her. Tempted by the offer, Mahito pursues the trail to an abandoned tower. As he explores this derelict structure, Mahito is warned away by a retinue of his family’s geriatric caretakers.

As stated earlier, we often see dreams and nightmares impacting the waking lives of Miyazaki’s characters. For Mahito, we can try to measure how his dreams influence his resolve when dealing with trauma. After all, the lad is scarcely able to comprehend his mourning let alone express his grief. In this journey, the heron-human functions as a guide into the boy’s dream state, and, more importantly, helps us understand how trauma influences Mahito’s moral development as he constructively learns (from his dreams) to modify his behavior, particularly changing his understandable coldness toward Natsuko.

For an unknown reason, an ill Natsuko disappears from her caretakers and enters the tower to give birth. As Mahito searches for her with the heron’s help, he re-enters the tower and encounters his younger mother and his sequestered great grand uncle. The old man labors in the structure, keeping the metaphysics of the tower (of celestial power) working by using a sort of spherical trigonometry to balance the different time periods that are accessed by the tower’s many doors. As Mahito and his younger mother enter different doorways, we see various creatures, including deadly pelicans and fascist parakeets.

Much too much is juggled to accurately summarize, but as the old man asks Mahito to take on his work, the boy quickly declines—preferring to stay in his world. Though this familial fracture isn’t what causes the tower to crumble, we understand the larger points—that one’s work is one’s own, and living beings belong to a specific phenomenology of time. We presume the old man represents the world Miyazaki cares most about, the world of work, so we understand that though legacies are established and traditions inherited, artists must labor on their own passions. Though this labor is costly, one must explore these visions to their exceptional ends. As far as the film is concerned, the old man’s experiential knowledge was developed and maintained outside of Japan’s imperialist war ideology, so his knowledge will be lost after Mahito’s spurning.

More importantly to the story, Mahito rejects the temptation to lose himself in the grand but recessed work of his great grand uncle; instead, he chooses visionary if not adaptive responses (over mimetic learning) to stay in his world—trauma and all—by letting go of his mother and accepting his aunt’s role as his step mother. An interesting part of Miyazaki’s use of symbiosis is that the film is not always clear about what is a dream and what is a non-dream as Mahito enters the tower for the second time. Though these scenes can be parsed into semi-discernable segments, little is spelled out in the tower. What we surmise is that this construct is a sort of symbiome of reality, dreams, and fantasy, a structure where the old man uses extraterrestrial technology to impact animal and human life. What is certain is that many things happen in the tower, and the aggregate, holistic effects help Mahito accept Natsuko and turn his sights toward the future.

The Boy and the Heron is full of visual pleasures: the colorful vistas, the rich composition of groups and individuals, and the dynamic blending of vertical movement on a steady horizon. Colors and textures, too, evoke a majesty that shows a compelling composition of nature and civilization, particularly when we see western artifacts and architecture populating a Japanese countryside. There are many visual references to Miyazaki’s previous films, and these references suggest a narratological recursiveness where one gets to invent (and reinvent) the self through storytelling.

My earlier point regarding Mahito’s dreams is that—though we are less than certain when his dreams begin and end in the film—these conscious and unconscious visions strengthen Mahito’s resolve and agency.”

For Miyazaki, an active and vibrant imagination is not just the wellspring from which art flows; it is also the source of human wellness. The imagination is a place sourced by conscious and unconscious acts and is responsible for creating artistic representations of fantasy and reality. As for the plurality of beauty in his films, there is an aggressiveness in Miyazaki’s vision and a serratedness to his style, one where the lushness of his compositions is also delivered with rigid, sharpened stabs—those that shock and wound yet ultimately soothe. His work excitedly shows an idealism that labors between the self-pleasing expressions of his art and its significant social uses as popular, commercial narratives. His efforts have created mesmerizing stories in Spirited Away (2001) to more recent treatments of difficult childhood themes in the entertaining Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), the winsome but paltry Ponyo (2008), and the interesting failure of The Wind Rises (2013).

But what about The Boy and the Heron? The critical praise has been Everest in scale, and the reception has exuded a warm enthusiasm based mostly on dazzled befuddlement. To be fair, the film does well on its own terms. It is an allegory of ideas, one in which storytelling, psychology, and the sociology of belief systems (family, in particular) converge to help Mahito re-discover his locus. In Miyazaki’s metaphoric estate, the tower represents the unconscious—a hidden, ill-defined place of alogical dreams, analogical visions, and semi-coherent activities. The tower is an energy center, a catalytic structure where Mahito’s trauma finds expression and is processed into more relatable tropes (some quite tyrannical), all of which, in some way, connect to his life. Because Mahito is unable to work out his trauma consciously, the unconscious is where Mahito uncovers some of his repressed, unresolved issues—a place where the fragments of his thoughts and feelings are recomposed—and he emerges from this kinetic process embracing his world and family.

This interpretive act begets others, and the more perceptive critics allude to Miyazaki’s strategic use of quiet intervals (what he calls ma 間) in his scenes. Many of his most striking compositions are variations on these intervals, the ones where characters speak little while traveling, or when characters are wholly occupied by a simple activity (such as eating, exploring or dreaming) before engaging a task or objective that moves the plot along (such as when Mei encounters forest spirits in a trek that leads to discovering Totoro).

Only Miyazaki can fully comprehend these intervals, but I gather his characters travel these liminal planes to discover some part of themselves on their journey from innocence to experience. These travels are composed of short, middle, and long distances, some of it too elongated in this film for my tastes because my sense of proportion and duration is different from Miyazaki’s. But in practical and metaphorical terms, what we can partially understand is that making Miyazaki’s films is a time consuming, intensely difficult process (as seen in the NHK documentary series, 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki), so his characters mirror this work by traveling some distance before engaging the plot-focused objectives. For Miyazaki, we are placed in these intervals with great affection for the creative process because this authorial journey requires thought, preparation, rest, and work.

Because these transitional journeys are often about transformations, this critical dialogue [1] regarding Miyazaki and ma (間) deserves some additional contours. Martial artists often learn important compounds on ma, such as maai (or 間合い), or, simply stated, engagement distance. In this martialized syntax, one studies distance and timing when measuring the shifting movements of an opponent, such as chikama (short distance), chūma (middle distance) and toma (long distance). In the parry and thrust of practicing, sparring and fighting in order to evade, block, and strike an opponent, one must cognitively measure the distance and instinctively account for the timing to creatively engage the self. In these contact or engagement zones, these measurements apply to practitioners who carry weapons and those who engage with empty (kara) hands (te) or karate.

In Miyazaki’s films, ma defines the time and space that occupy a character’s interval state before the character engages the story’s plot objectives, and I offer these three additions to measure the variedness of the intervals. With Miyazaki, these intervals are important and their effects are subjective. In The Boy and the Heron, as we measure Mahito’s life on the estate—where he befriends a combative but helpful heron, explores a dangerous tower, encounters his younger mother, meets his great grand uncle, answers a life-changing question, and exits with a commitment to live his life—he emerges more prepared to understand the loss of his mother and better equipped to accept his role in his changing family.

Measuring our own symbiotic experience with the film means we can see the few years Mahito spends at the estate as a (depending on your perspective) short two hours for us but may be a longer engagement for Mahito as his family departs for Tokyo to live under an American occupation. Thematically, the film contextualizes Mahito’s experiences on the estate as a liminal interval within the broader spectrum of his emerging life. Meaning, the film suggests that as Mahito gets older, the time spent on the estate will perceptively get shorter, and, eventually, much of it forgotten, and for these reasons, the film ends abruptly as his family stands at a threshold about to embark on a new journey.

The estate interval also raises an important sub-theme related to trauma, such as the damage done by self-inflicted wounds, as when Mahito strikes himself in the temple with a rock to avoid school bullies. This act neither suggests the bushido resolve of seppuku nor the beginning of his dream state but alludes to two important things: first, in a broader sense, this act suggests Japan’s own imperialistic choices that lead to its social destruction, effecting an occupation and corresponding acculturation. In post-WWII, a new age of economic and social reforms takes over where Japan is institutionally and culturally reshaped—an era in which Miyazaki is born, grows as an artist, and develops as an organizational leader. Second, Mahito’s act indicates unresolved trauma, one where his physical injury also represents a moral confusion due to his loss and dislocation.

My earlier point regarding Mahito’s dreams is that—though we are less than certain when his dreams begin and end in the film—these conscious and unconscious visions strengthen Mahito’s resolve and agency. Miyazaki illustrates this agency by creating a thematic dialogue between Mahito’s practical goodness and the greater social virtues that this goodness serves, especially his family. And on this level, the film does well in its messaging. More broadly, the protagonist’s agency stems from one-part familial shaping and other parts inspiration and aspiration. This synthesis suggests Shinto, Buddhist and western practices in Mahito’s character growth, a development contained by nature and affirmed by human nurturing, such as the care provided by the push and pull of Mahito’s caretakers and family.

This creative gravity is about being grounded by friends and family but is also about experiencing the pull of the universe, of being attracted to ideas, fantasy, history, films, and life—and understanding that external and internal conflicts (imagined and real, conscious and unconscious) are a part of this experiential journey of personal growth in Mahito’s hopeful commitment to move closer to his family on his path to wellness.


[1]What about Mahito’s name? Ma-hito means “true human” while “Ma-ki” carries various meanings based on the kind of kanji used, including “real hope” or “true spirit.” Here, Miyazaki encourages the belief that character names should mirror the meaning of the person being named—and viewers should account for authorial intent.

David Ryan is Academic Director and Faculty Chair of the Master of Arts in Professional Communication at the University of San Francisco. He’s published widely on rhetoric and film studies and is the co-editor of David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (FDU Press, 2022).

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