Miyazaki’s ‘The Boy and the Heron’ First Reactions Applaud ‘Astounding’ Hand-Drawn Animation

Hayao Miyazaki released his first film in 10 years and Japanese critics are calling the animated feature well worth the wait.

Studio Ghibli co-founder Miyazaki came out of retirement to helm “The Boy and the Heron,” also titled “How Do You Live?” in Japan, which opened in the country July 14. The film will be released internationally in late 2023.

“The Boy and the Heron” is an original story inspired by Yoshino Genzaburo’s 1937 story about a young boy who comes of age while living with his uncle after the death of his father. Miyazaki dedicated the film to his own grandson.

Miyazaki last directed 2013’s “The Wind Rises” and has become a vocal champion for hand-drawn animation over CGI. While Studio Ghibli opted to not promote “The Boy and the Heron,” Miyazaki’s studio co-founder Toshio Suzuki told Japanese broadcaster NHK (via Deadline) that the film’s lack of marketing harks back to another generation, much like its marketing campaign.

Mark Ruffalo at 2023 Tribeca

The Holdovers

“A poster and a title, that’s all we got when we were children,” Suzuki said. “I enjoyed trying to imagine what a movie was about, and I wanted to bring that feeling back.”

Taichiro Yoshino, the grandson of “How Do You Live?” author Genzaburo Yoshino, published an article detailing a preview Studio Ghibli screening earlier this year during which Miyazaki announced the film as his last.

“The moment the end credits were over, the lights were turned on, and comments from Hayao Miyazaki were read out,” Yoshino wrote, recalling Miyazaki saying, “Perhaps you didn’t understand it. I myself don’t understand it.”

Yoshino recalled a 2017 meeting with Miyazaki at the Studio Ghibli headquarters in which the director explained his vision for the inspired project a parallel to novel “How Do You Live?,” calling the lead character “more like me.”

“I’ve been avoiding it for a long time, but I have to make [a film] that’s more like me,” Miyazaki told Yoshino at the time. “I made several works about boys who were cheerful, bright, and positive, but that’s not the way many boys really are. I myself was a person who was really hesitant, so I always thought that boys are actually less pure and swirling with all kinds of things. Let’s be open about the fact that we live in conflict. So I thought I’d create a hero who is slow to run and has a lot of embarrassing things inside that he can’t share with others. When you overcome something with all of your strength, then you become the version of yourself who can accept such problems.”

Early reviews for the film have noted “The Boy and the Heron” was “worth the wait” to showcase Miyazaki’s fully-realized vision. A BBC review detailed how the film features “Miyazaki’s signature obsessions, quirks and thematic concerns” as “visual treats” in the vein of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Spirited Away.”

A Time Out Japan critic observed that “The Boy and the Heron” has a “markedly more mature tone and provides more unsettling moments” and is a “mature, complex masterpiece.”

A critic for Anime News Network wrote, “Every frame of this film feels like a separate work of art — one that only becomes grander when put together as part of the greater whole. It’s a film you could watch a hundred times and still discover new things in the background of any given scene. It cannot be understated how the little visual details take the film from real to surreal — like a heron flashing a toothy grin or wooden dolls vibrating as if in sympathetic laughter. It’s an animation tour de force unlike anything seen in the past decade.”

Cinemas+ called “The Boy and the Heron” a “culmination” of Miyazaki’s career and personal life, writing, “To understand the setting and story deeply, you need to commit to watching it repeatedly while ruminating on the various scenes — and analyzing Hayao Miyazaki as a person.”

Japanese film site Eiga Channel added, “It is no exaggeration to say that this film is among the best of Ghibli’s works in terms of visuals and story. On the other hand, those who are not Ghibli fans may be confused by the dizzying pace of scene development. Ghibli, which has produced fantasy works that are easily understandable by children, has finally released a work that requires time and consideration to understand, so it is natural that there will be reactions of confusion. And there must be many viewers who were simply overwhelmed by the visual beauty.”

GKIDS will debut “The Boy and the Heron” internationally later this year.

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