In 1944, when the future anime master Hayao Miyazaki was 3, his family fled Tokyo for the countryside, where they remained through his earliest schooling. Miyazaki’s father worked in a fighter plane factory, and young Hayao’s earliest memories, he’s said in interviews, involved war and fear.
Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki), the protagonist of the director’s new film, “The Boy and the Heron,” was born about a decade before his creator, but there are clear links between their lives. Three years into World War II, Mahito’s mother dies in the bombing of a Tokyo hospital, an event rendered impressionistically, as if glimpsed through a recurring nightmare. The following year, Mahito and his father — whose factory makes fighter planes — move to the countryside, where the widower has married Mahito’s mother’s sister, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura).
In the grand tradition of literary children sent away during wars, Mahito is bored and miserable in his idyllic new home, occupied by a cluster of chattering grannies who tend to the house. He’s haunted by the sense that he could have rescued his mother. Grief fogs the glass between dreams and real life.
That blurred distinction is a hallmark of Miyazaki, whose films (among them “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away”) are windows into the subconscious. In interviews collected in the book “Starting Point: 1979-1996,” Miyazaki referred to a universal “yearning for a lost world” he refused to call nostalgia, since even children experience it. We long not for what we remember, but what we’ve never experienced at all, only sensed beneath reality’s surface. In dreams, yearnings break free, and Miyazaki’s films capture that exhilarating terror. “Those who join in the work of animation,” he said, “are people who dream more than others and who wish to convey these dreams to others.”
Elements of “The Boy and the Heron” are familiar to Miyazaki devotees: a lonely child, the threat of violence (reminiscent of “Princess Mononoke”) and a bevy of fantastical, only sometimes cuddly creatures that externalize some part of the protagonist’s desires. Arriving at the house with Natsuko, Mahito spots a giant heron. “How rare,” she remarks. “It’s never flown inside before.” Something isn’t right out here. The grannies warn him away from a tower on the property with an apocryphal-sounding tale about his missing granduncle. But that heron (voiced by Masaki Suda) keeps appearing, luring him toward the tower, taunting him with forbidden knowledge. (Robert Pattinson voices the heron in an English-language version that features Christian Bale, Gemma Chan and many others.) Mahito’s mother, the heron claims, isn’t dead at all. After all, did he see her corpse?
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