TIFF REVIEW – ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is a beautiful contemplation on love and loss

In the realm of animated storytelling, few names evoke as much reverence and anticipation as Studio Ghibli. Their latest offering, The Boy and the Heron, directed by the visionary Hayao Miyazaki, is a masterpiece that transcends conventional narratives to deliver a poignant, visually stunning, and emotionally resonant experience. This film, a blend of fantasy and reality, stands as a testament to Miyazaki’s unparalleled ability to craft worlds that are at once enchanting and profoundly human.

The Boy and the Heron begins with a sense of quiet melancholy, introducing us to Mahito, a young boy grappling with the loss of his mother during World War II. The opening scenes are grounded in a somber reality, with muted colors and a subdued atmosphere that reflect Mahito’s grief. This tonal restraint sets the stage for the film’s gradual shift into a realm of wonder, as Mahito encounters a mysterious heron who leads him into a fantastical world.

Miyazaki’s storytelling shines in his ability to weave complex themes into a narrative that is accessible yet deeply layered. The film explores themes of loss, healing, and the delicate balance between the human world and the natural world. Mahito’s journey is one of self-discovery, as he navigates through his grief and learns to find hope and beauty amidst sorrow. This emotional depth is where The Boy and the Heron truly excels, making it a film that resonates with audiences of all ages.

Visually, The Boy and the Heron is a feast for the eyes. Studio Ghibli’s hallmark attention to detail is evident in every frame, from the lush landscapes to the intricately designed creatures that inhabit Mahito’s journey. The animation is fluid and expressive, capturing the ethereal beauty of the fantastical world Mahito explores. The heron, a central character in the film, is rendered with a grace and elegance that makes it both otherworldly and deeply engaging.

One of the film’s most striking aspects is its use of colour. The transition from the sombre tones of the real world to the vibrant, dreamlike hues of the fantasy realm is handled with exquisite precision. This visual contrast not only enhances the narrative but also underscores the emotional journey of the protagonist. The lush greens, deep blues, and radiant yellows of the fantastical world serve as a visual metaphor for Mahito’s inner transformation, creating a rich, immersive experience for the audience.

Complementing the film’s visual grandeur is Joe Hisaishi’s breathtaking score. Hisaishi, a long-time collaborator with Miyazaki, delivers a soundtrack that is both haunting and uplifting. The music mirrors the film’s emotional arc, with delicate piano melodies and sweeping orchestral arrangements that enhance the narrative’s ebb and flow. Each musical piece is meticulously crafted to evoke the appropriate emotion, whether it’s the sense of wonder as Mahito steps into the new world or the tender moments of reflection as he remembers his mother. Hisaishi’s score is not just an accompaniment but an integral part of the storytelling, elevating the film to new heights.

At the true heart of The Boy and the Heron are its characters, brought to life with depth and nuance. Mahito is a compelling protagonist, whose journey from sorrow to healing is portrayed with sensitivity and realism. His interactions with the heron, who serves as both guide and enigma, are filled with moments of wonder and introspection. The heron, with its cryptic wisdom and occasional mischief, is a fascinating character that adds layers of intrigue to the story.

Supporting characters, too, are richly developed. From Mahito’s father, struggling with his own grief while trying to provide for his son, to the various fantastical beings Mahito encounters, each character is imbued with a distinct personality and purpose. These characters, with their unique quirks and backstories, enhance the film’s narrative complexity and emotional resonance.

The narrative structure of The Boy and the Heron is both traditional and innovative. While it follows the classic hero’s journey, it does so with a level of unpredictability that keeps the audience engaged. Miyazaki masterfully blends elements of Japanese folklore with original storytelling, creating a world that feels timeless yet fresh. The pacing is deliberate, allowing the story to unfold organically and giving the audience time to fully immerse themselves in Mahito’s journey.

The film’s dialogue is sparse yet impactful, with each line carrying significant weight. The interactions between Mahito and the heron are particularly noteworthy, filled with philosophical musings and riddles that invite deeper contemplation. This narrative style, combined with the film’s visual and auditory splendour, creates a holistic cinematic experience that lingers long after the credits roll.

Beyond its aesthetic and narrative achievements, The Boy and the Heron offers a timeless message about the resilience of the human spirit. It reminds us that even in the face of profound loss, there is always the possibility of renewal and hope. The film’s ending, a blend of melancholy and optimism, reinforces this theme, leaving the audience with a sense of closure and inspiration. Only someone like Miyazaki could compose such a beautiful contemplation on love and loss.

Distributor: GKIDS
Cast: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Ko Shibasaki, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Takuya Kimura, Keiko Takeshita, Jun Fubuki, Sawako Agawa
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Editors: Takeshi Seyama, Rie Matsubara, Akane Shiraishi
Music: Joe Hisaishi

Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: 7th December 2023 (Australia)

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