The Boy and the Heron review: Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki makes a grand, beautiful, tortured return

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron contains multitudes. It is beautiful, tortured, whimsical, and stoic. Not unlike his 2001 classic Spirited Away, it blends traditional Japanese constructs with Lewis Carroll’s wit. An angry but vulnerable young boy, Mahito (Soma Santoki), is brought out to the countryside after his mother’s death, only to be tempted into following a gravelly voiced, repugnant man-heron (Masaki Suda) into an underland of endless hallways, dictatorial parakeets and bulbous sprites called “warawara”.

It marks the impassioned return of one of cinema’s most oft-retired directors, whose last “final film”, 2013’s The Wind Rises, saw him struggle with the perceived futility of his legacy. This film also serves as a tribute to Miyazaki’s mentor, and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata, who died in 2018 at the age of 82. A Takahata stand-in arrives in the form of Mahito’s missing grand-uncle, said to be a great wizard who read so many books he went mad. When we finally meet him, he talks obsessively of the next generation.

The film, too, borrows from Takahata’s own 1988 work, Grave of the Fireflies, in its depiction of the 1943 firebombing of Tokyo, as we first meet Mahito sprinting through the city, trying to reach his mother, after he learns she’s become trapped in a burning hospital. People move as shadows, their forms blurred – an impression of misery. Miyazaki, and Studio Ghibli at large, have always blissfully intermixed the personal, cultural and historical. And, here, his script not only nods to the possible future of animation, but of Japan itself.

At one point, Mahito hits himself with a rock and lets the blood pulse like an ocean wave – all because he’s at a loss with what to do with all his grief. He travels to an outer realm, where the Western world pounds at its doors (Stonehenge and Wiltshire’s Temple of Apollo, famously featured in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, make unexpected cameos). Whispers of Japan’s imperialist past disrupt its sense of sanctuary, and Mahito is left to question whether, on top of all this death and cruelty, it might still be possible to establish “a kingdom free from malice”.

Here, Miyazaki dares to imagine that a better world might stretch out beyond him. Perhaps that’s an unusually optimistic stance for Miyazaki, a man who is often labelled a traditionalist, but it would explain, too, why he’s found such renewed investment in telling stories. He achieves this in a way only he knows how – with no concern that the cute and the morbid should not mix. The film’s most dangerous characters, the clan of oversized parakeets, are also its goofiest, with blank, curious expressions and knives behind their backs.

The Heron, too, is both ally and monster, stretching back its beak and feathers to reveal the wizened features of a human-ish man who could easily be an accountant. Suda’s performance, meanwhile, is so perfectly mimicked by Robert Pattinson in the English dub that it’s hard to believe the latter actor was ever known for playing a sparkly, immortal heartthrob. He’s accompanied by a starry cast that features both Ghibli newcomers, like Florence Pugh and Karen Fukuhara, and returning favourites, Christian Bale and Willem Dafoe. If this really is Miyazaki’s final word, then it’s a conclusion worthy of his legacy. At the same time, his imagination remains so vast, it feels like he could keep creating forever.

Dir: Hayao Miyazaki. Starring: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki, Takuya Kimura. 12A, 124 minutes.

‘The Boy and the Heron’ is in cinemas from 26 December