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Looking for Meaning in 'The Boy and the Heron', by Ethan K. Poole

DISCLAIMER: This article contains spoilers for The Boy and the Heron (2023).

Hayao Miyazaki is, without exaggeration, perhaps the best filmmaker alive. I am far from the first person to make this claim; journalists and film critics worldwide have been singing his praises since the 70’s and 80’s. And he deserves it: From Spirited Away to Howl’s Moving Castle to Ponyo, his filmography comprises several classics.

What most of his movies are not, though, is simple. The “Miyazaki style” is filled to the brim with surrealist imagery, weird or otherwise abstract creature designs, and, at times, a dream-like logic with the narrative motion being odd and difficult to understand.

A wizard’s teleporting home or a bathhouse for spirits are already strange settings to begin with, and his stories thrive on never quite explaining the rules of his worlds to you. They operate on an emotional level instead of a logical one, so perhaps no explanation is needed for you to feel immersed in these other worlds anyway.

His most recent film, The Boy and the Heron, is a phenomenal example of Miyazaki’s style. It would be hard to call a movie that ends with a half-insane elderly wizard trying to hold together the world’s least stable Jenga tower to prevent an entire universe he created from collapsing anything but “otherworldly.”

While the film's localized title is indeed charming, it is not a direct translation. In its home country, the film's title is closer to “How Do You Live?”, a more open-ended and philosophical title, which fits the film's tone quite well and begs you to start looking for answers.

This film’s imagery appears incredibly meaningful, but the exact meaning is difficult to parse. The intended interpretation of the three different bird species prominently featured throughout the film (parakeets, pelicans, and, of course, the Heron) is not immediately apparent. You could interpret the symbols in various ways, deriving different messages and themes from each one. You could do the same with any of the prominent symbols in the movie. The film is a work of surrealism. It invites you to interpret but does not guide you through the interpretation process.

The parakeets could be a warning about humanity’s interference in nature getting out of control. Or, they could be about the dangers of charismatic personalities dominating entire societies and leading to their downfall through their own ego. They could be a symbol for something completely different. Maybe they have no meaning at all. You can use them to ask many different questions, therefore getting many different answers. A more solid way to guide yourself toward those answers is to look at the film’s emotional core.

Feelings of loss and grief permeate through each of the principal characters in different ways. Mahito, the titular “Boy,” loses his mother in an air raid during the Second World War in the opening scene of the movie. His mother is engulfed by fire in a gorgeously animated moment, which is nonetheless hard to watch. The grief he feels over this loss and the damage it causes him when trying to form a relationship with his new stepmother (who is also his aunt) is central to his character. Even as a young boy, he has been touched by “malice,” as he puts it near the end. He views himself as flawed and broken.

His family flees the city to his mother and aunt’s family home. In the middle of this incredibly difficult adjustment period, a talking Heron offers to take him to another world where his mother is still alive. Mahito initially responds angrily and refuses, but after losing a second maternal figure, his stepmother, to this mysterious place, he follows his avian guide to the other world.

Throughout his journey, he clashes with the Heron several times before they learn to trust each other. Mahito meets altered versions of people he knew in the real world (including a fire witch version of his dead mom) and goes on a quest that I couldn’t possibly do justice in a brief recap. It is an absolutely incredible film, which is worth watching for yourself if you can.

It is easy, as some have done, to look for the answer to the meaning of the story in its director’s past. Just skimming through the early life section of Miyazaki’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see that, like the Boy, he was also forced to flee to a family manor in the countryside during his childhood because of the dangers of the war. You’ll even notice that his father worked in airplane manufacturing during the war, the same as Mahito’s father in the film. Projecting Miyazaki as Mahito, the wizard granduncle, or both is incredibly enticing. It makes the story seem much simpler and much easier to parse.

While that interpretation is valid, I don’t think it is the only way to view the movie. It is a story about grief, about losing family. It is also a story about gaining family and making new bonds even after the old ones are gone. It is particularly touching when Mahito begins to refer to his stepmother as “mother” instead of by her name.

To place ideas like that in only the context of one man’s life, rather than using that context as just one lens through which to understand the film, limits their potential greatly. It is to say that the meaning of the story is static, that it does not have a life of its own and instead lives solely and wholly in the past. Miyazaki’s life shouldn’t be prescriptive in how you view his work. Great stories are informed by the past, not imprisoned in it.

At the end of the film, with these ideas of grief, trauma, and the belief that sometimes it is better to let legacies fade away and die, there is yet another message. The story leaves you with the reassurance that even when you’re in the depths of grief, you have to keep living and continue to feel love as well as pain. That is a good life philosophy, something to live by, but it does not exactly answer the question: how do you live? Rather, it is the first step to finding your own way to try and live as best you can.

Hayao Miyazaki is not a god capable of delivering a perfect message to us mere mortals that will answer all our questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it. His work is not scripture; it is art. And in some ways, that is more valuable.

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