By Alissa Wilkinson
In 1944, when the future anime master Hayao Miyazaki was 3, his family fled Tokyo for the countryside, where they remained through his earliest schooling. Miyazaki’s father worked in a fighter plane factory, and young Hayao’s earliest memories, he’s said in interviews, involved war and fear.
Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki), the protagonist of the director’s new film, “The Boy and the Heron,” was born about a decade before his creator, but there are clear links between their lives. Three years into World War II, Mahito’s mother dies in the bombing of a Tokyo hospital, an event rendered impressionistically, as if glimpsed through a recurring nightmare. The following year, Mahito and his father — whose factory makes fighter planes — move to the countryside, where the widower has married Mahito’s mother’s sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura).
In the grand tradition of literary children sent away during wars, Mahito is bored and miserable in his idyllic new home, occupied by a cluster of chattering grannies who tend to the house. He’s haunted by the sense that he could have rescued his mother. Grief fogs the glass between dreams and real life.
That blurred distinction is a hallmark of Miyazaki, whose films (among them “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away”) are windows into the subconscious. In interviews collected in the book “Starting Point: 1979-1996,” Miyazaki referred to a universal “yearning for a lost world” he refused to call nostalgia, since even children experience it. We long not for what we remember, but what we’ve never experienced at all, only sensed beneath reality’s surface. In dreams, yearnings break free, and Miyazaki’s films capture that exhilarating terror. “Those who join in the work of animation,” he said, “are people who dream more than others and who wish to convey these dreams to others.”
Elements of “The Boy and the Heron” are familiar to Miyazaki devotees: a lonely child, the threat of violence (reminiscent of “Princess Mononoke”) and a bevy of fantastical, only sometimes cuddly creatures that externalize some part of the protagonist’s desires. Arriving at the house with Natsuko, Mahito spots a giant heron. “How rare,” she remarks. “It’s never flown inside before.” Something isn’t right out here. The grannies warn him away from a tower on the property with an apocryphal-sounding tale about his missing granduncle. But that heron (voiced by Masaki Suda) keeps appearing, luring him toward the tower, taunting him with forbidden knowledge. (Robert Pattinson voices the heron in an English-language version that features Christian Bale, Gemma Chan and many others.) Mahito’s mother, the heron claims, isn’t dead at all. After all, did he see her corpse?
Mahito’s grief is a focal point for a child’s anxiety in chaos, stability wrecked by the adults who are supposed to be in charge. Safety is not part of Miyazaki’s dreamworlds. The film is set before the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the feeling of a world flying to pieces is destabilizing to Mahito. His terror manifests in his sleep.
Now 82, Miyazaki is so universally beloved that Studio Ghibli, the director’s animation home, didn’t bother advertising the film before its opening in Japan last summer. A brand unto himself, he retired with his 2013 film, “The Wind Rises” — then, changing his mind, returned. Magical, beautiful and uneasy, his films are beloved by children, but are certainly not just for children. With Miyazaki, the draw is subliminal, tapping an unsettling emotional well that seals over as we age.
Even by his standards, though, “The Boy and the Heron” is enigmatic, at least regarding plot. Better to watch as an exercise in contemplation than storytelling; this is the work of a man pondering life from its endpoint. It’s confounding, meandering through worlds that melt into one another. Magical fires rage, souls of the preborn and the dead mingle, and the fate of the universe is determined in ways unclear.
To tell a straightforward narrative, though, is not really the point. The Japanese title of the film is “How Do You Live?,” which it shares with a 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino. The writer had been imprisoned for socialist thinking by a branch of the Tokyo police tasked with eradicating anti-authoritarian thought in music, literature and art. Upon release, he was invited to contribute to a series of books for young people, and intended to publish an ethics textbook to help youths live principled, freethinking lives. Knowing the dangers of such forthrightness, the series’ editor suggested Yoshino write a novel instead.
Thus “How Do You Live?” is more elliptical than bluntly instructive. Considered a classic today, it’s about a teenage boy named Koperu (a reference to the astronomer Copernicus) who struggles with change in the wake of his father’s death, while his uncle writes letters offering advice on the challenges his nephew encounters. The novel concludes with the narrator posing the title’s provocative question to the reader, making us a part of the story, instead of just an onlooker.
Although the film isn’t explicitly based on the novel, elements of Yoshino’s story surface throughout, including a rather Copernican-looking character late in the film. But the clearest link comes early, when Mahito finds a copy of “How Do You Live?” in a stack of books. He discovers a note on the flyleaf from his mother, addressed to him. He reads the book and weeps before setting out on his journey.
The references give the serpentine plot fresh meaning. “The Boy and the Heron” has few straightforward lessons to teach. Mahito learns he cannot save the world single-handedly, and shouldn’t try. Love and art, balanced together, are how a person can manage to exist without malice or fear. With that, it’s easy to imagine Miyazaki, whose life and work have spanned so many decades, implicitly turning to his audience, a single question in mind: How do you live?
‘The Boy and the Heron’: Rated PG-13. Sharp teeth, sharp terror and even the cuddliest creatures menace. In Japanese with subtitles, or dubbed in English. Running time: 2 hour 4 minutes. In theaters.