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Drawing Out Fear: Mastery, Legacy, and Service in The Boy and The Heron

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and Heron is a mesmerizing film. It’s brimming with charm and fantasy yet somehow remains meditative, leaning well on its many layers of symbolism to feel more like a grand parable than a fairytale. Miyazaki’s themes are skillfully painted into three main characters, balancing the four-part story structure of Japanese Kishotenketsu with elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. What is likely Miyazaki’s last feature is easily his most personal. Acting as both a coda and a source of reflection, he sketches himself into his protagonists across the stages of his life. When their journeys culminate, the resulting tapestry leaves us with a spiritual sewing kit if you will, as if Miyazaki is saying to us, “I have woven through my own darkness and now I offer the lessons of my years to you.” 

© Studio Ghibli

Fabric: The Thematic Backdrop of The Boy and The Heron

The film opens with tragedy. Air raid sirens fill the night, blanketing a Tokyo under attack during the Second World War. The protagonist, a young boy named Mahito, awakens to witness a great fire consuming the hospital where his mother is a patient. He and those around him race to douse the flames. The scene is brief, with the animation taking on the stylistic wisps of the smoke while the borders around characters smear to impart chaos. Unfortunately, the fire proves too strong, and Mahito’s mother dies in the blaze.

In the aftermath of their loss and to distance themselves from the war, Mahito and his father evacuate to a family-owned estate in the heart of rural Japan. Although his father tries to piece back together a happy life for him, Mahito is still haunted by dreams of the fire. He spends his days wandering the estate grounds, dodging his step mother, whose courtesies seem shallow. His despondency grows to such a point that he inflicts a wound on himself, gashing the side of his head with a rock just to avoid going to school.

Growing increasingly detached from the people around him, Mahito’s only distraction from grief is a gray heron that occupies the wilderness around the estate. Initially the bird is an annoyance. But as the supernatural swells within the film, their interactions become more confrontational, and it is made clear the heron is luring Mahito somewhere. 

“In life, we all look for… someone to help see us through the unfamiliar and to reassure us through companionship in the midst of trial. Rarely, though, do we recognize such relationships for what they are, and more often than not we are closed off to their reception.”

As the lines between realism and the mystical blur, the bird begins to taunt Mahito with promises that his mother is still alive and waiting to be rescued. Although he is skeptical, Mahito longs for it to be true, eventually following the heron to a nearby tower overtaken by foliage and time. He enters through a hallway lined with books, led under an archway inscribed with a phrase from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”: fecemi la divina potestate—divine power made me. 

Reaching the foyer of the tower, Mahito approaches what appears to be his resting mother, but upon a single touch her visage melts away. The heron cackles with amusement as Mahito becomes agitated. An enigmatic old man garbed in a cloak observes this cruel trick from floors above, intervening with orders. He commands the bird to guide Mahito through the realm below as he searches for his mother. They both sink through the floor, and the heron begins his sentence as Mahito’s escort through this odd land filled with the dead. Together they venture a cursed sea, meet a shepherd of spirits, elude famished pelicans, and are rescued from militaristic parakeets by a girl with the power to harness fire. But their quest ultimately brings them back to an audience with the mysterious elder.

With a melancholic pace to his speech, he explains to Mahito that he is actually the boy’s great uncle, said to have disappeared long ago after discovering an ancient power from the heavens that granted him the ability to create worlds. Tired of his labors and tainted by Malice, he brought Mahito to this moment as his intended successor—one that must be of their lineage. He presents him with a gift, tools to start anew; thirteen pure, untainted stones to construct with. The small tokens act as the literal building blocks to this bizarre place. He hands them to Mahito with an understanding that they come with a choice: become the magical world’s next overseer or return home to his family. Granduncle imparts the cost of the latter: “This world that we’re in . . . it will only last one more day.”

© Studio Ghibli

Needle: A Story Woven From Miyazaki’s Life

Like Mahito, Miyazaki was raised during the height of the Second World War. Some of his earliest memories included the devastation of aerial bombings. He grew up carrying a sense of shame, one he never really shirked, coming from a family of means able to escape the war in the countryside while still contributing to the destruction. His father was an engineer and director of the Miyazaki Airplane firm, which helped build the Zero Fighter plane. And although he never lost his mother in youth, he held constant worry of such a catastrophe coming to pass. She was sickly for years, having suffered spinal tuberculosis—a fire of its own, in a sense.

Never fully escaping the shadows of his childhood, Miyazaki developed a pessimistic outlook on life, with special regard to his work. As is the case with many great artists, he was a staunch critic and had trouble seeing anything but the flaws in his portfolio. 

Now, much like Grand Uncle, Miyazaki is an old master jaded by time, reaching for perfection but never obtaining it. He has locked himself in a high tower, taking on the mantle of astronomer—a harvester of dreams and knowledge from above—but one who forgoes the responsibilities of reality. Miyazaki’s thirteen blocks, offered to the world, are his filmography. They lay a foundation for future artists to take up his mantle, but with no actual instruction or guidance. The price of becoming a marvelous storyteller was not being present to mentor a worthy heir, leaving others to imitate rather than understand his style.

In the end, Mahito rejects Grand Uncle’s offer to take his place as steward of the flawed but beautiful world he has made. Echoing Dante’s poem, Mahito has descended through the abyss of his suffering. He accepts the life he has been given and the role that grief has to play. 

The scar upon his head is healed, an outward sign of his growth and his desire to chart his own course. The earth beneath them begins to crumble away. As Mahito flees, Grand Uncle remains amid the end of his creation. In this one interaction, the two projections of Miyazaki’s psyche make peace and overcome their singular fear of moving beyond the haze of uncertainty. This great collapse of the ego is a death to Grand Uncle’s legacy with the hope that, someday elsewhere, a new master may write a better story on their own terms.

© Studio Ghibli

Thread: The Tapestry We Become

In folklore, the heron is sometimes depicted as a messenger between the material and spiritual planes, acting as a graceful guide to the otherworldly. In life, we all look for such a person—someone to help see us through the unfamiliar and to reassure us through companionship in the midst of trial. Rarely, though, do we recognize such relationships for what they are, and more often than not we are closed off to their reception. 

Miyazaki’s depiction of this titular character doesn’t always fit with the elegance seen in myth. At times, the heron is drawn as grotesque and crass, lashing out like a child or even scowling like a villain. Its dual nature is emblematic of how we wrestle with our call to serve—and how we are hesitant to cooperate with those serving us.

Nevertheless, the lesson to embrace others’ help is arguably the most important lesson Mahito learns. He narrowly escapes the world’s sundering, returning home thanks to the heron, who carries him to safety at the cost of a few feathers. Once adversaries, by journey’s end the two have become reliant on each other—even friends. Through it all, the heron is a reluctant yet ever-loyal servant to both Mahito and Grand Uncle, and its connection to both of them assists in their mending. 

When we pour ourselves into others, or into work that will ultimately help others, we are serving in such a way as to find our own purpose. It is a paradoxical operation, yet there is majesty to be found in it—much like the flight of a great heron. We need the motion of the wing and the wind to soar, to find the harmony between our own effort and how we respond to things outside our control. Improving at both makes the difference between avoiding trials and moving through them. 

Once a boy, now an old man, Miyazaki hopes to leave us a guide in The Boy and the Heron, showing us that a servant’s heart binds together the pieces of our lives. True mastery is like passing on a vibrant quilt—wrapping others in the warmth and texture of what we have striven to make well.  

When Mahito returns to Tokyo, he carries a book left to him by his late mother. Inside, she has written an inscription, instructing him that the wisdom on the pages will serve as a tool in times of doubt. Its title is a parting question and gift: “How Do You Live?”

A born and raised Appalachian, Elliott is a software engineer by day and wannabe game designer by night. A WVU alumni, he co-founded Parable Game Studios in 2016 with a mission to create small and meaningful digital experiences and to use game design as a teaching mechanism for youth in his area. When not working or playing video games, he enjoys running, strumming the guitar, and reading. Elliott is also a big fan of Star Wars puns.

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