Greetings again from the darkness. Fast approaching his 83rd birthday, legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki claims this is the final film of his illustrious career. In 2015, he was presented with an honorary Oscar, and he has had three films nominated for Best Animated Feature: THE WIND RISES (2013), HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2005), and Oscar winner SPIRITED AWAY (2002). His career in animation dates back to the early 1960’s and this latest, which took six-plus years to complete, proves he is still amongst the best.
A young boy’s mother dies in a hospital fire during WWII. Mahito arrives to witness her become part of the flames – the first example of Miyazaki’s method of creating occurrences that are outside the norm. Many of his films include childhood trauma, and a few years after the fire, Mahito and his father move to a new home where his mother’s younger sister, Nutsuko, is to become his stepmother, while expecting a new child. Dad’s factory, which produces fighter jet parts, is booming during the war, and Mahito rebels a bit due to grief and all the changes … and has no appreciation for the titular gray Heron that’s obsessed with him.
A mystical tower on the grounds leads Mahito to an alternate world delicately balanced between the living and the dead. The intrusive Heron follows him, seemingly offering bad advice at most every step. On this journey, Mahito meets Kiriko, a great adventurer who takes him under her wing as he crosses paths with large hungry parakeets who sharpen their giant knives, and the Warawara, who are funny little creatures headed to life in another dimension – at least those that escape the pelicans. We understand who Kiriko represents, but it takes Mahito a while to catch on.
Spirit animals and mysticism follow Mahito along the way, and the themes of life and death are mixed in throughout. Miyazaki offers a world teetering and with an uncertain future. The stories are inspired by his own life and the 1937 childhood book, “How Do You Live?” by Genzaburo Yoshino. Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli, and he remains a true artist with his stunning and beautiful hand-drawn animation blended into a multi-faceted story. We learn Mahito means “sincere one”, and his lesson here is that life is worth living and fighting through.
Opening in theaters December 8, 2023