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  • Writer's pictureVariant Magazine

"The Boy and the Heron’s" harrowing themes and symbolism

By Renae Hefty

Despite seeming whimsical and childlike, The Boy and the Heron is not an easy watch. The world it takes place in is surreal, and only starts to make sense when everything is thought of as a metaphor for something else. What exactly is being represented is up to the individual viewer’s interpretation.

The story takes place in Japan during the early 40s. It follows a young boy named Mahito as he and his father move from Tokyo to the country. They move a year after his mother died in a hospital fire caused by a bombing raid. Mahito is introduced to his new stepmother, Natsuko who is already pregnant with his new sibling. Natsuko, who was his mother’s younger sister, treats him with gentleness and kindness. She implies that she wants to be his new mother.

The Boy and the Heron is the perfect final film from the director, Hayao Miyazaki, even though it has been said many times that he is retiring, only for him to make another movie. It makes callbacks to past successful Studio Ghibli films. The design of the environment and characters look directly inspired by movies like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. Expansive ocean horizons with illusions of ships sailing on the waves echo the flying airplanes in Porco Rosso. Mahito and his granduncle walking through a serene grass field with cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon is similar to another student and mentor from The Wind Rises. The composition in the scene when Mahito and the old lady, Kiriko, are crawling through the tunnel is identical to a scene from My Neighbor Totoro. This seems to go beyond sharing the style of these movies and is actually referencing them.

The narrative of the movie contains elements with an autobiographical resonance. The main character, Mahito, shares some similarities with the director. It is likely that Miyazaki drew some of the inspiration for Mahito’s character and the setting from his childhood. Like Mahito, Miyazaki’s father ran a factory that made airplane parts, and his family fled Tokyo during the war when he was a child. Besides all these coincidences, the most important is the plot's reflection of Miyazaki’s animation career. More on that later.

About an hour into the story, we start to slide into the bizarre, heralded by the appearance of the titular Grey Heron. The Grey Heron leads Mahito to the tower on the grounds of the estate where Mahito’s mother and her sister grew up. Within the tower is a whole other world outside of time and space. This is really where the imagery gets breathtaking. 

Throughout the first half of the story, the Grey Heron gradually morphs into something monstrous and we begin to realize that the Grey Heron is not just a heron. The scene where we finally see the Grey Heron transform into his real form, a pathetic little man, is appropriately disturbing and impressively animated. There’s been a lot of debate online on what the heron represents. It’s possible he represents the producer of the movie, Toshio Suzuki, a needling presence that urges the main character forward. Another possibility is the Grey Heron representing Mahito’s psychological response to trauma, specifically because the Grey Heron tells Mahito at the end of the movie he should forget everything that happened, the way people’s memories of traumatic events get muddled as a defense mechanism.

Spoilers ahead!

Mahito’s great-granduncle is revealed to be the creator of this world. He keeps the world in the tower stable by tediously stacking thirteen blocks every day. When Mahito meets his granduncle, he implores him to succeed him as the master who keeps the tower from crumbling. Mahito chooses instead to live in the imperfect real world because that is where his family is. The tower represents all art, and the granduncle is the artist. The granduncle says he cannot continue to keep his art alive because he is growing old and cannot think of any new ways to stack the blocks. This is a metaphor for the creative process; since you cannot continuously create new ideas out of your own imagination, you need to draw inspiration from the real world. An artist hiding themself away from reality, burying themself in books like the granduncle, does not make good art. That is why the tower falls when the Parakeet King tries to build the tower because the Parakeet is an imagination and cannot sustain himself.

Specifically, the blocks that compose the tower have to be handled without malice. This further drives home the metaphor because the critical audience can tell when art has been made for profit or hatefulness. This rule for creation provides Mahito with another reason why he can’t become the creator. He touches the scar on his head and explains that because he hurt himself, he has the capacity to be malicious. Mahito is flawed, like the world he comes from, and this is not entirely good or bad. Even art being made with ulterior motives deserves to be made because it is a product of reality, and reality is worth living in.

Mahito never came to the world to have fun; he came to accomplish a goal, but he learned to have fun along the way. Maybe when we escape into a story, we are looking for something, too. Mahito initially wanted to go to this magic world to find his mother, who he believed to be alive. But his stepmother, Natsuko, has also been taken to that world, so he has to find her, too. He doesn’t find his mother as he remembers her, but he meets a version of her as a girl named Lady Himi. On his journey, his goals to save his mother and Natsuko become one, as he accepts Natsuko as his new mother. Mahito changing his goals represents accepting that he has to move past his grief. He goes from living for the dead to living for the people he still has. At the end of the movie, Mahito still doesn’t get to say goodbye as the tower is crumbling too fast.

This is symbolically portrayed in one of the most emotional scenes of the movie. Mahito enters Natsuko’s “delivery room” and tries to take her home. He can’t even reach her because ribbons keep tangling him up and forcing him back until he is wrapped in them like a mummy. He gets more and more desperate and calls out to her, then calls out to her as mother. When Natsuko wakes up, she doesn’t seem to recognize him. She yells at him like she’s possessed and screams, “I hate you!” This is probably not supposed to be reflective of Natsuko’s own feelings but of Mahito’s fear of abandonment projected onto her.

After they’ve both passed out, Himi catches Mahito and pleads with the master of this world to “let this boy leave with the woman who will be his mother.” It’s indirect – because this Himi is not Mahito’s mother yet – but this could be seen as Mahito’s mother consenting to her sister raising her son.

The original translation of the Japanese title is actually “How do you live?” which teases the movie’s strong themes. Also, it was the name of the 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino that greatly influenced Miyazaki. Mahito finds a book called “How Do You Live?” that was signed and left for him by his mother. The Japanese title makes more sense because, though the Grey Heron is an important character, he is just one part of the broader theme. The original title acknowledges the theme of living in the real world and being able to come back to worlds like Miyazaki’s whenever we forget how to live.

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