Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film is a nested-doll narrative. The Boy and the Heron unfolds as dreams within dreams, with the waking world seamlessly transitioning into the imaginary realm.

The 124-minute movie from Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli company has been released in the original Japanese with subtitles as well as in English. Fire, wind and water are among the elements that create magic as well as turbulence for young Mahito. It is rumoured to be the last one 83-year-old Miyazaki will make – but never say never again.

The setting is World War II, a period of senseless loss and forced adjustment. Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki) loses his beloved mother in a blaze. His father remarries Mahito’s sister Natsuko (voiced by Yoshino Kimura) and relocates to the countryside.

A grey heron that turns up appears to be a crow-like messenger of departed spirits. That is, until the enchanted bird (voiced by Masaki Suda) begins to mess with Mahito’s head and draw him into an unsettling tour of the Great Beyond.

The adventure is metaphorical as well as metaphysical, sloshing in themes related to death, mortality and acceptance. The tone is sober and elegiac; the handling of grown-up material tinged with ambivalence. The sense of giddy adventure present even in Miyazaki’s more serious works, including Princess Mononoke and The Wind Rises, is haunted by the brooding fear of irreparable loss.

The Boy and the Heron (2023). Courtesy Studio Ghibli.

While perhaps an apt project for 83-year-old Miyazaki, The Boy and the Heron doesn’t always match up to his previous feats. Rather than an autumnal blooming of long-standing concerns, Miyazaki’s 12th feature feels in texture like a retread of previous productions.

The minutely detailed backgrounds, colour schemes and sweeping movements carry echoes of older titles, from Princess Mononoke to Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro to Howl’s Moving Castle. The balloon-like Warawara creatures look like plumper cousins of the kodama tree spirits from Princess Mononoke. The cute crones who fuss over Mahito’s family are iterations of the grandmothers from the Ghibli back catalogue.

Miyazaki’s storytelling style, which includes abrupt shifts in plot and locations, takes its time to kick in. Once Mahito’s tour of the netherworld begins, Miyazaki rolls out a host of memorable creations, from a fire-breathing young woman to a chatter of parakeets.

The inevitability of change that leads to an unlikely rejuvenation of the spirit – another of the filmmaker’s persistent themes – thrums through Mahito’s coming-of-age experience. In his 12th feature, Miyazaki seeks comfort in the familiar, assured by the knowledge that even a mildly underwhelming movie from an animation genius has no shortage of enchantment or emotional payoffs.

The Boy and the Heron (2023).

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