If you read the title The Boy and the Heron, you would assume it’s a charming romp through the Japanese countryside with a boy and his beloved pet bird. But the truth is, The Boy and the Heron is one of legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s least whimsical productions. Now 82 years old, the filmmaker is grappling with a subject no less weighty than the idea of legacy and the future survival of the world. Its overall narrative structure is a little less tightly written than some of his other films. And young Mahito proves to be at times an emotionally impenetrable hero. However, The Boy and the Heron is nonetheless a compelling, imaginative entry into the Miyazaki canon.

Our story begins in Tokyo in the midst of World War II, after a hospital fire that claims the life of Mahito’s (Soma Santoki) mother. He is sent to a quieter estate in the countryside where he learns that his important factory owner father has remarried. His new wife is his late wife’s younger sister Natsuko and they are expecting a child together.

Mahito does his best to make this his home, but he still struggles with anger and grief over the passing of his mother. The vision of a mysterious grey heron plagues him with continual harassment. The more he learns about the strange history of the estate, the louder the heron’s cries become, eventually speaking to him. It promises Mahito that it can take him to see his mother and assures him that she’s not actually dead. But it’s only after Natsuko’s kidnapping that Mahito gives in to its requests and follows the heron into another world.

As one might expect, creative and imaginative animation defines The Boy and the Heron. The opening sequence with the fire at Mahito’s mother’s hospital is especially vivid. It creates a frenzied, blurred image that looks almost impressionistic in style. The character design lives up to Miyazaki’s reputation, ranging from the gruesome to the adorable, like the Warawara. They are sweet-looking innocent white puffs that go on to become human babies when sent up to the real world. Also, there is no reason a heron needs a full set of human teeth to gnash menacingly except to make it extra-terrifying, right?

The Boy and the Heron Final Studio Ghibli Miyazaki movie trailer still - Mahito and fire creature

Much of the film takes place in a different realm with a large population of the dead. However, there’s a playful sense of humor throughout. For example, the parakeets, with their unexpected homicidal tendencies and sprawling internal hierarchy, provide much of the comic relief.

The film takes quite a while to get to the action. Alice spends mere minutes in the real world before leaving on her adventures in Wonderland, after all. Meanwhile Mahito remains on the country estate for the entire first third. That’s not to say that the first act is a waste. It brims with a quiet sense of foreboding as the boy and the heron size each other up. But it really begins firing on all cylinders once they arrive in the mysterious other realm.

It’s here that Miyazaki reckons with two major sources of anxiety. There’s what he and his generation are leaving behind for the next and what kind of world the new rulers will create once they inherit it. He seemingly views the world as being on the precipice of disaster. To him, it requires careful balance from open-hearted individuals free of malice to save it from complete destruction.

Studio Ghibli

This is Miyazaki at perhaps his most introspective and emotionally vulnerable, as he casts his eye inward. The original Japanese title of The Boy and the Heron is How Do You Live?. And it is indeed a question at the heart of the film. What will you do with the world once it is given to you, when you can become creator, savior, or destroyer? It shares a title with a seminal work on ethics for children by Genzaburo Yoshino. So it seems these thoughts were not far from Miyazaki’s mind when he created the film.

The Boy and the Heron attempts to blend an old man’s worries about the future with the childlike joy of discovering the world for the first time. It packs every inch of the screen with beauty tinged with a taste of the playfully macabre. Mahito is perhaps not an ideal protagonist, though. He is impassive and emotionally numb for most of the film, making it difficult to connect with him. But although the human characters are on the sparsely written side, the rich world that Miyazaki creates compensates for this. This makes The Boy and the Heron an imperfect but truly mesmerizing feat of animation.

The Boy and the Heron will release in the US on December 8.

The Boy and the Heron