Genzaburo Yoshino’s novel How Do You Live? has been a staple of young adult literature in Japan since its release in 1937. A treatise on ethics and society, it encourages children to think about the world beyond themselves and their place in it. One of the youths who read the book in the postwar era was Hayao Miyazaki, who was given a copy by his mother. He, of course, went on to become one of the world’s most revered and respected animators as a co-founder of Studio Ghibli. The question “How do you live?” is implicit in many of Miyazaki’s works, from Kikis Delivery Service and its parable about striking out on one’s own to The Wind Rises and its existential anxieties about how humanity’s self-destructiveness can commandeer its creativity. The question becomes titular in his new film, titled How Do You Live? in Japanese, though for its international release, it bears the name The Boy and the Heron

Despite the title, the film is not an adaptation of Yoshino’s book, although the tome does make an appearance within it — significantly, it is gifted to preteen protagonist Mahito by his recently deceased mother. It’s one of several plainly autobiographical elements in the story. Like Miyazaki, Mahito’s father works at a factory that manufactures airplane parts for the Japanese Imperial Army. Also like Miyazaki, Mahito’s family flees Tokyo for the countryside to avoid the US bombing campaign. Struggling to adapt and cope with the loss of his mother, he encounters a gray heron that, like the white rabbit luring Alice down the rabbit hole, leads him on a fantastical adventure.

The movie’s plot mixes autofiction with the themes of Yoshino’s novel and a fabulist sensibility hearkening back to a style of fantasy storytelling that’s all but extinct. Miyazaki takes inspiration not just from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but also The Little Prince and its episodic instructional tales. The Boy and the Heron’s pace is unhurried, and it is unafraid to go on diversions that most films (especially animated family adventures) would strenuously avoid. Most gratifyingly, while it is steeped in folkloric references and conjures a magical world with its own rules and even time-bending aspects, the movie is uninterested in explaining itself. Miyazaki trusts viewers, even young ones, to intuit how things work and, more importantly, what they mean. 

The Boy and the Heron, dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2023

Equally old-fashioned is Miyazaki’s dogged insistence on traditional hand-drawn animation, which in an increasingly computer-generated cinematic landscape has made him stand out. He emphasizes weight, as people stagger under heavy loads and make a rickshaw bounce as they sit in it. (The precise soundscape — including every floorboard creak, every tap of a plate on a table — aids this effect.) And while they do not rely on computers, Miyazaki’s crew utilizes them to brilliant effect, combining hand-drawn and CGI imagery with rare seamlessness and skill.

Perhaps above all he has seldom been content to reiterate the same look, and here he pushes his visuals in unprecedented directions. Notably, he experiments with subjectivity. When Mahito frantically races through a crowd, the people appear as distorted phantoms, reflecting his panicked point of view. At times The Boy and the Heron is downright surrealistic, especially when it enters the other world, where any being or object might abruptly morph into something else.

While never overt in the way that, say, various Marvel films constantly shout each other out, The Boy and the Heron echoes many previous Ghibli films, almost like a celebration of Miyazaki’s career. An endless parade of ships recalls the vision of a line of planes flying into the afterlife from Porco Rosso. A teeming mob of cute little creatures reflect similar beings from Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. A household full of elderly woman caretakers evokes any number of delightful Miyazaki crones, from Howls Moving Castle to Castle in the Sky. 

Still from The Boy and the Heron
The Boy and the Heron, dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2023

In The Boy and the Heron, the question of “How do you live?” is fraught, as both his family tragedy and his nation’s fanatical militarism put Mahito in a precarious emotional position. The other world that he explores can be changed by thought alone, making literal the idea of human creativity shaping reality, and the world is torn between competing forces invoking that power. Mahito is eventually tempted by the power himself, acknowledging the boundless potential children possess and how the future is in their hands. But given the context of war and the cataclysmic consequences of this power he sees around him, the offer also seems laden with darkness. As in The Wind Rises, imagination holds beauty in one hand and destruction in the other. But while The Wind Rises explored such ideas through the life of an engineer, in The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki seems to directly address the artistic mind. This makes the movie feel as deeply personal as do the autobiographical elements. 

The Boy and the Heron, dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2023

The troubling, possibly apocalyptic capacity that the film gives to the act of making art reflects Miyazaki’s oft-professed ambivalence about the worth of his profession. Studio Ghibli has faced trouble in recent years, as the generation that founded it is retiring or passing away and its style of filmmaking no longer gels with the mainstream. Like Yoshino, he has continually answered the question “How do you live?” with an assertion that people must find their place in a community. It’s how endangered people survive and thrive in works like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke, how children make sense of a confusing world in My Neighbor Totoro, Kikis Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and others. In The Boy and the Heron, as in so many other Ghibli movies, it is in awakening to the needs of others that a young protagonist self-actualizes. 

The Boy and the Heron is an old man’s look back at a life spent crafting intricate worlds, now offering the tools to do so — dangerous though they may be — to the next generation. In the end, his answer to “How do you live?” is “Don’t be like me.” It’s haunting to get such a clear-eyed assessment from one of cinema’s great artists.

The Boy and the Heron screens as part of the New York Film Festival at Film at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Square, Manhattan) on October 12 and 14 and opens in theaters nationwide on December 8.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *