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Boy Afraid

Hayao Miyazaki’s grief-soaked kingdom of boyhood dreams
A young boy with brown hair shown with a bandage on his forehead.

Boyhood’s litany of cracks and crevices lead to nightmare worlds. One wrong Reddit tunnel and the alt-right’s signature frog appears. Long corridors lead to support groups for incels, lonely toxic rivers, or Wikipedia worm holes. Sometimes these caverns are benign: special interest groups focused on birding or camping. Creating an alternative vision of boyhood in our patriarchal world requires vision. Hayao Miyazaki’s most recent film makes a strong attempt, a first considering how many of his films center on the trials of girlhood.

Miyazaki likes to work. His newest film is How Do You Live? retitled The Boy and the Heron in the United States. It’s his first in ten years, after at least three failed retirements. Known as the gruff director who makes happy films like My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, Miyazaki’s work is often associated with a weeaboo (that is, sexless nerd) fandom that loves kawaii (that is, endearingly cute) characters. He’s also known as a Luddite—he likened the use of iPads to jacking off. This grossly simplifies his political aims. He didn’t attend the Academy Awards due to the Iraq War in 2003. He condemned right-wing prime minister Shinzo Abe. Films like Porco Rosso specifically take on the role of fascism during World War II. His eleventh film, The Wind Rises, was critiqued in Japan for being too overtly leftist and antiwar; the film is Miyazaki’s most naturalistic—more or less a biography of Jiro Horikoshi, an engineer who designed many fighters during World War II but who Miyazaki portrays as having been against the war. His twelfth film doubles back to expand on this historical time period while incorporating the fantastical elements he’s known for to offer a wild, thrilling vision that threads the past and future.

As a child, I saw as a child but now I struggle to see through the glass lightly. When I was younger, I forced my parents to find a DVD of My Neighbor Totoro and watched it over and over in the original Japanese (the Fanning sisters screamed too much in the dub). I wanted to visit the model of the house from Totoro and walk around the Japanese countryside like Satsuki and Mei. Maybe I coveted their girlhood. As a supposedly lighthearted film, Totoro isn’t without its clouds. The film is soaked in grief as much as it is in joy. The girls’ mother is in a hospital; Miyazaki’s own mother was often very sick. Vegetables can be magic or carnivorous; forests can provide shelter and swallow you whole. Miyazaki understands the haunted logic that rules children, the melancholia and adventure that ebb and flow with the promise of tomorrow. Art made for children depends on that promise: As forests burn and the earth short-circuits from the inside-out, what optimistic spells can we cast?

I am not a Disney adult. I was not even a Disney kid. But much of the U.S. fervor over Miyazaki can be attributed to Disney-Pixar wunderkind John Lasseter, who claims Miyazaki as a major influence and has overseen the dubbing and release of many Studio Ghibli movies stateside. This fall I went with my friend’s child to Disneyland. Everywhere I looked there was something tilting, whirling, flying, or stampeding. Even in line to meet Mickey, vicious short cartoons played on multiple screens around us. Buildings were privileged over nature, and there was almost no shade. Flat caricatures of every race try to hide the fact that Disney cynically relies on this fetishistic consumption of race to break into new markets. Disney princesses are barely rebranded from their patriarchal roots to work as girlbosses. Pocahontas is empowered, Disney says. She has agency. This hardly obscures the quite profitable modes of production. There’s a relentless cheeriness to Disney cartoons that belies the nationalistic and racist fantasies on which they were based (see Mickey Mouse’s roots in the minstrel show, Dumbo, Song of the South, and so on). The rebranded Mickey looks like a washed-up raver on Ozempic whose pants no longer fit.

The inability to boil a film down to a reductive “meaning” is an essential part of the extended Miyazaki cosmos.

In comparison, Miyazaki’s movies are meandering and contemplative. Real violence brushes up against the fantasy of safety. Chihiro in Spirited Away is exposed to the witch Yubaba’s greed and a giant magical baby who can’t seem to grow up. Only Chihiro is able to confront the illusion of childhood by confronting the aged sorceress and in so doing regain her parents, name, and future. In The Boy and the Heron, the cost of living in a fantasy is equally high. A young boy named Mahito struggles to escape a chaotic dream world after his mother perishes in a bombing during World War II. Miyazaki has claimed the film is his most autobiographical—while his mother Yoshiko did not die during the war, she certainly suffered. She was in the hospital for many years with spinal tuberculosis, a theme that recurs in My Neighbor Totoro. Miyazaki has attributed his many female protagonists to his strong relationship with his mother.

Air raids announce the beginning of The Boy and the Heron. Miyazaki comes not to bring peace but a sword: the Allies are bombing Tokyo during the Pacific War. The warping strangeness of Mahito, rendered with hallucinatory fury through rotoscoping, running toward his dying mother in the blaze is breathtaking. In the daylight after her death, tanks roll through the city. Mahito’s father Shoichi remarries his wife’s younger sister Natsuko and moves to the countryside. Natsuko is pregnant with a child who will become Mahito’s stepsibling, something that seems to quietly unnerve him.

Mahito’s journey winds through the tunnels of boyhood. Miyazaki’s protagonists are usually young girls: Nausicaä, Kiki, Chihiro, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke. Men are outliers. Miyazaki’s women are tenacious, even vicious, in their ability to choose goodness over ease. Mahito is often sullen, stubborn, and quiet. He doesn’t say what’s on his mind and often retreats into his grief. His first few days in the house are difficult. Mahito’s rich father drives him to the stately, wooden school in a car, and the boys beat him badly, though apparently not badly enough to satisfy his masochism. On the walk home, as the piano strikes chaotic discordant notes, Mahito picks up a stone and hits himself in the head. Blood gushes down his head like rain. It’s more disturbing than the goriest scenes of Princess Mononoke. The familiar country fields seen in My Neighbor Totoro no longer look tranquil—they’re the harsh mark of class, trauma, and isolation.

While her new husband works in an air munitions factory, Natsuko shows Mahito around the grounds of the grand country house. A gaggle of old grannies scurry around welcoming the rare arrival of sugar, canned fish, and cigarettes that has come with the young boy. A gray heron appears in the distance and nearly swipes Mahito before roosting in a beautiful green lake. Dissonant piano chords play as the heron’s eyes gleam back at the boy. The film finally sighs with silent relief when Natsuko leaves Mahito in his new room. He curls up on top of his propeller-patterned covers only to wake up from a nightmare in tears at the solitude of boyhood. He cannot escape the fact his mother is gone.

Convalescing after his self-inflicted head wound, Mahito’s father demands to know who hurt him, correctly surmising someone bullied his child but failing to understand the pain is more than skin-deep. The heron continues to badger Mahito, squealing, “Save me,” jeering at him from the roof, and shitting on the floor (Joe Hisaishi’s eerie melancholic score underscores the tension well before the movie dives with the heron into the fantastical). The heron lures the boy to the lake and summons a swarm of fish and frogs. It’s only when Natsuko skillfully shoots an arrow at the horde that Mahito is saved. When he wakes up, he visits his dad as he supervises the transportation of airplane parts. His father tells him to greet his stepmother who is in bed with morning sickness. She worries about his mental well-being, but Mahito can hardly summon any good feeling for his stepmother. He only cries later when he discovers his late mother left him a copy of How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, a book that Miyazaki himself loved as a child. The thematic thread was one of the original inspirations for the film—how does one make a life during wartime? How does a boy become a man?

What seems at first to be a fairly realistic film drifts into dream logic before following the white rabbit outright. Or in this case, the heron, which, it turns out, is actually a small man with a large nose wearing a heron suit. After Natsuko disappears, Mahito and the grannies start a search party. In a magical tower created by Natsuko’s grand-uncle, Mahito and granny Kiriko spar with the magical gray bird-man. Darkness falls on the tower as the heron creates a vision of Mahito’s mother. When he tries to touch the woman, she turns into goo in a dazzling feat of animation. But Mahito is both clever and industrious—he’s made arrows out of the heron’s own feathers, creating a magical weapon in the process.

Combining the anti-fascism and historical setting of The Wind Rises with the bubbliness of Spirited Away, The Boy and the Heron shimmers with cute creatures and antiwar sentiment. Many of Miyazaki’s influences are authors like Ursula K. Le Guin rather than his contemporaries. (He’s infamous for walking out on his son’s first film premiere.) It’s a looser film than those that precede it. The first section is disarmingly worldly. The second, while ostensibly about Mahito’s search for Natsuko, is a nonlinear passage through portals, visions, and islands full of pelicans. Birds are an essential throughline for The Boy and the Heron. From the fearsome bird of the title to the fascist parakeet realm seen later on, the creatures of the sea and the sky blend together. As above, so below. “Those who seek my knowledge shall die,” a gate on one island says. Fantasy is a destructive blessing. 

What follows is a fisherwoman—who we discover is a younger Kiriko—with a firewhip, a dense world of giant hungry parakeets, and the ghoulish, smoky undead. The two capture a many-eyed green fish and take it back to Kiriko’s giant, swampy home. Gutting the fish is gruesome; the flesh looks like fresh sushi before the guts spill out like bloated balloons. Miyazaki’s vision of childhood doesn’t shy away from the cycle of life. A leftist boyhood may not be cruel but it still requires work. “Don’t lose the guts,” Kiriko says. “The warawara eat those.”

Cue the warawara, cute little white puff balls that resemble an albino version of the soot sprites of Totoro. We meet many such strange figures in the sea world: a younger Natsuko who goes by Himi continually saves Mahito from trouble, a fascist Parakeet King seeks totalitarian rule, and a dying pelican spouts exposition. The beast, with blood pooling from his beak, tells Mahito that the birds have nothing left to eat in the world of the dead, so they’ve turned to chomping on the warawara. But like all Miyazaki protagonists, the boy believes that every creature in the cycle of life deserves death with dignity—even vicious pelicans with beady eyes. Mahito spends all night burying the bird pelican even when the heron shows up and mocks him. Meanwhile, in the real world, Mahito’s dad is furiously looking for Mahito, Natsuko, and Kirko. The grannies explain the cosmic origin of the tower—a meteorite that fell during the end of the Meiji Era. The tower was built around the mysterious stone until it was abandoned and boarded up. Only the grand-uncle’s descendants—Mahito, his mother, and her sister Natsuko can hear the voice of the tower. Boys would do well to listen to the women in their lives, Miyazaki seems to suggest.

The logic connecting one alcove to the next is obscure, but the stones spark with taboo. Mahito eventually finds his slumbering stepmother Natsuko under a threatening paper mobile, eludes an army of parakeet stormtroopers, and walks through a tunnel of light to meet his grand-uncle, the spiky-haired master of the tower. Grand-uncle fiddles with a Jenga-like tower of white blocks, resetting the blocks every three days so that they balance. “Now this world will last another day,” he says. Each dream world seems to have its own set of rules. Do this, don’t do that, without much explanation. When the careful balance of the world is destroyed, Mahito must save Natsuko and escape the sea world as a biblical flood nearly annihilates them. When they finally escape the tower back into the world of the living, a flock of birds streams behind them, no longer in possession of the gift of speech. Mahito’s father embraces his son and wife as the heron sneaks past them flying into the afternoon sky.

If we want to make sense of this movie, we’ll have to do without recourse to the usually reliable hype machine; little promotion occurred before the film was released in Japan, and Miyazaki had few clarifying comments during a private Studio Ghibli screening: “Perhaps you didn’t understand it. I myself don’t understand it,” is what Taichiro Yoshino (grandson of the author of How Do You Live?) recalled Miyazaki as saying. The film is an obelisk, ambivalent about whether or not we decode its secret language.

Miyazaki never churns out a fluffy, moralistic cartoon.

The inability to boil a film down to a reductive “meaning” is an essential part of the extended Miyazaki cosmos. It’s curious then that the anti-capitalist director has approved a theme park based on his most hyper-commercialized creations. The Ghibli theme park—with its Valley of Witches, Dondoko Forest, and Mononoke Village—sounds like fun, but Miyazaki’s joy is in the space he leaves empty to fill with our own dreams. The lessons Miyazaki gives to children are essential tenets for living with integrity today. That’s why so many adults can gravitate toward his work—he offers a way out of mind-numbing capital into the delightful magic of everyday living. The Boy and The Heron is one of his most elusive open worlds. Boyhood provides a contradictory vessel. Fighting is both celebrated and admonished, love is both exhilarating and taboo. The world Mahito navigates is as dense and magical as childhood gets. But he still learns how to move with grace.

Integrity gets a bad rep. It’s been deployed as a politic of respectability on both the right and the left. Mahito—and Miyazaki himself—offer a counter point to the inane idea that men on the left are weak. Both flaunt the acceptance of the outer world in favor of holding strong to conviction, courage, creativity, and ingenuity. It is difficult to explore the tender wounds of boyhood, but Miyazaki’s revisitation of childhood under siege presents a compelling picture of collective responsibility. Mahito can’t save his stepmom through his own hard-headed actions; he must first accept the world as it is and then accept the help he’s been offered.

Boyhood hinges on these dichotomies: softness and hardness, joy and despair, community and isolation. Miyazaki never churns out a fluffy, moralistic cartoon—the stepmom here isn’t wicked. Miyazkai’s workaholic tendencies also hide his openness. He’s stated he never knows where a film is going to go. He comes to each encounter with a blank slate, hoping to be surprised. This is the skill Mahito must generate. To be open is to be changed. Building coalition on the left means acting with integrity and at the same time maintaining a beginner’s mind. Shun the Oscars but be ready to find an unlikely ally in a former enemy—even if he’s a grotesque heron. When faced with destruction, we must move through the kingdom of dreams “with eyes unclouded by hate.”