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The Boy and the Heron is an enigmatic swan song for Hayao Miyazaki: despite the dynamic animation and vibrant character designs the movie struggles to find a clear, engrossing theme.

82-year-old Hayao Miyazaki has stated that the only reason he came out of retirement was to leave his grandson one final movie to prepare him for the inevitable moment when his granddad would no longer be there. It's a noble, heartfelt endeavour - befitting of the humanist animation maestro - but not one that delivers a final crown jewel in Miyazaki's enviable oeuvre.

There are artistic pleasure to be found in The Boy and the Heron, sure, none more than the opening sequence which sees the young Masato run towards the billowing flames engulfing the hospital his mom is working in. The animation bleeds out the edges of the boy's face and his surroundings to simulate both the heat of the flames and the abrupt heartbreak of helplessly watching your loved ones perish. Here Miyazaki does what he has always excelled at: merging story and emotion into poignant, dynamic animation.

The rest of the picture builds on the grief the young boy cannot shake off, as he encounters an array of intriguing characters and magical creatures, like a heron harbouring a taunting man in its beak. Visually Miyazaki plucks freely from his own catalogue of movies to flesh out this world, but there is no real innovation, no surprise in the execution, which takes away much of the wonder.

More troublesome though is the lack of clear thematic propulsion. The director remains very vague about the message he wants to convey and he doesn't help things by often jumping jarringly between tonally very different scenes. Miyazaki has never been one for spoonfeeding the audience answers but in The Boy and the Heron the sustained nuance borders on frustration.

Yet while the film is unlikely to ever top anyone's list of Studio Ghibli favourites, the truth is that I still walked out of the cinema with a fuzzy feeling in my heart: gratitude for the fact that Miyazaki-san didn't just leave one final goodbye gift for his grandson, but for us - his adoring audience - as well.

release: 2023

director: Hayao Miyazaki

starring: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Takuya Kimura


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