Several critics have asserted that The Boy and the Heron is Hayao Miyazaki’s most “personal” film to date. There may be some merit to that argument; it is, after all, a coming-of-age story set during a particularly turbulent period of World War II, when the director would have been a very young child. The quality that stood out to me as I watched the movie, however, was its patience. The narrative is in no great hurry, unfolding at a rather leisurely pace; the plot is nearly halfway done by the time the protagonist has entered the obligatory Wonderland du jour, and the few fleeting glimpses of supernatural phenomena preceding this crossing-of-the-threshold might easily be attributed to dreams, delusions, and hallucinations. Withholding the typical fairytale tropes allows Miyazaki to more fully develop the comparatively mundane conflicts, fleshing out the all-too-human flaws that the title character must overcome by the conclusion of his fantastical journey.
Of course, Studio Ghibli productions rarely benefit from being analyzed in terms of traditional structures; such a clinical approach is far too reductive. The Boy and the Heron’s substance instead lies in its style—and Miyazaki certainly delivers in that regard, drenching the frame in impressionistic landscapes that dazzle the senses. Consider, for example, the haunting prologue: as our hero sprints through the crowded streets, desperate to reach the blazing inferno that has claimed his mother’s life, the surrounding pedestrians are rendered as vague, sketchy silhouettes, barely distinguishable from the smoke and smoldering ash that choke the air—thus immersing the viewer in the lad’s psyche, elegantly conveying his single-minded determination and unwavering resolve amidst the chaos.
Indeed, the magnificence of Miyazaki’s imagery is precisely what makes writing about his work so challenging. His appeal is inherently, innately, fundamentally visual. Mere words cannot adequately articulate such excellence and splendor; the spectacle speaks for itself—and is therefore best experienced firsthand.