Miyazaki and Ghibli are coming out of retirement one last time. Or so they said, because word is that Miyazaki is already looking for a new film to direct. Whether The Boy and the Heron [Kimitachi wa Dô Ikiru Ka] will be Miyazaki's true swan song is impossible to predict, but one thing is certain: Ghibli and Miyazaki fans will find exactly what they've been craving this past decade. It's another worthy Ghibli production, though not one that has many surprises hidden inside. It's a film that retraces Miyazaki's oeuvre rather than adds to it.
Miyazaki and Ghibli are virtually synonymous, even though Miyazaki co-founded the studio with his mentor, Isao Takahata. Takahata directed some of the studio's more adventurous and challenging projects, while Miyazaki stuck to his trademark style and preferred genres. He would give the studio its legendary status, which would eventually bring it international recognition, making it the flagship studio for people who wanted to prove there was more to anime than just gore and action. Ghibli stands for quality animation and children's films with a more serious undertone, and that's exactly what you can expect from The Boy and the Heron.
Miyazaki's The Wind Rises was supposed to be his final film, but it may just have been a little too divisive as a farewell film for one of the most lauded and respected animation directors in the world. The Boy and the Heron is a much safer choice, a film that aligns with people's expectations of what a good Miyazaki film is supposed to be. A young protagonist finds himself drawn to a fantasy world on the brink of extinction, an ideal setup for the usual Ghibli magic to flourish. The only real question here is whether that's enough after all these years.
Mahito is a young boy who moves to the countryside after his mother dies in the Tokyo bombings. There he is stalked by a heron, who pushes him to explore a strange tower nearby. The tower is invariably linked to the boy's past, but there doesn't seem to be an entrance and the place is shunned by the locals. Mahito suspects that the tower can reunite him with his mother, and with the help of the heron he manages to open a secret gate. The inside of the tower houses a mysterious world governed by birds, who don't appreciate Mahito's arrival.
Ghibli is best known for its adherence to oldskool 2D animation, though even Miyazaki's films have been incorporating 3D elements quite consistently. The water for example is clearly computer-generated, but it blends in so well with the rest of the film you won't even notice unless you're actively looking for it. As is the norm, the quality of the animation is pretty much flawless, with incredible detail going into the movement of the characters, lots of fun and smart camera angles, impressive locations, and inspired designs. As for the art style, I feel it's time for an update there, though realistically it's not going to come from someone like Miyazaki, who has spent his entire career refining this one particular style. It's not that it looks bad, it has just become a little too iterative and there's nowhere new to take it.
Joe Hisaishi is once again present to handle the music. While he is an established name and has earned a lot of accolades for his Ghibli scores, I'm always a little disappointed by how they turn out. It's not that the music is bad, it sounds appropriately majestic and wondrous and it never annoys or detracts. But looking at the impact Hisaishi's music had on Takeshi Kitano's films, you just know he's capable of so much more. So while the score of The Boy and the Heron is perfectly fine, there's not a single defining piece of music here, which is a little disappointing. As for the dub, this being a Ghibli film there will no doubt be many dub options available. The original Japanese one is perfect though, with lots of individuality present in the various characters, so unless you're watching this with kids who can't read (who might be a little too young for this film anyway), there's no need to look beyond the original dub.
Miyazaki's work always feels cozy and comfortable, but this one may just be a little too familiar, especially for people who have seen most (or all) films in his oeuvre. From literal story cues to camera angles, character designs, and animation techniques, I got the feeling there were a few too many references to Miyazaki's previous films. As a way to say farewell to a lifelong career, you could argue it would make sense to somehow summarize the entirety of one's oeuvre in one final film, but I lack the nostalgia gene to fully appreciate such an undertaking. That's not to say the film is a hacky cut-and-paste job of Miyazaki's earlier films, it just doesn't quite add enough to everything he has done before.
What saves the film is Ghibli's incredibly high level of competence. I may have sounded a little negative throughout, but that's only because the bar is all the way up there for them. The animation is wondrous and detailed, the dub is powerful, the fantasy world feels exciting and adventurous and the finale is appropriately overwhelming. It's a film Miyazaki fans will love, but my guess is few will place it at the top of the ladder. There's always Hayao's next one though, if health permits him. Until then, let's just treasure this film for what it is: another sprawling Ghibli fantasy.