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Miyazaki's The Boy & The Heron Shows Fantasy Films Aren't Just a Form Of Escape

Hayao Miyazaki's 'The Boy and The Heron' is currently running in cinemas in India. 

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(This article contains spoilers)

Miyazaki’s latest project, The Boy and The Heron, was largely a successful venture – heaped with accolades from across the globe and even receiving an Academy Award. At 83 years old, one would presume that the celebrated filmmaker would lose his touch or at the very least, his style would be a little wobbly. But his art perhaps goes beyond the limitations of age. Forgoing his retirement, Miyazaki came back for his last hurrah to tell his “life’s story.” Or that’s what Toshio Suzuki, president of Japan-based Studio Ghibli, told The Hollywood Reporter. 

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Suzuki suspected that the film would be “epically pessimistic”. Yet a conversation with the celebrated director brushed away his worries. The ‘balance’ that the film provides won Suzuki over. “If the story is getting very dark, he knew that he had to bring something brighter, positive into the film too,” he added. 

Hayao Miyazaki's 'The Boy and The Heron' is currently running in cinemas in India. 

A still from The Boy and The Heron.

(Photo: Instagram)

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The film’s premise, is perhaps, exceptionally bleak. A young boy’s (Mahito) mother dies in a fire and he has to come to terms with his father’s marriage to his mother’s sister (Natsuko) during World War II. His new home is at his mother’s rural estate and opens into a fantastical world, which he is ushered into by a dubious grey heron.

Mistrustful of the heron at first, Mahito embarks on his mystical journey to the tower situated in his family estate alongside the heron when his stepmother goes missing. 

It’s the sheer audacity of Miyazaki’s world-building that creates a multitude of possibilities in the world. Time curiously intersects with space – the rich cosmology of the world shifts from one sequence to the other. At one point we are met with the vast expanse of the stars and at another time we witness a passageway that leads to different spatial-temporal realities. A world that inhabits both the dead and the living. But also a world that is, unfortunately, dying.

Hayao Miyazaki's 'The Boy and The Heron' is currently running in cinemas in India. 

A still from The Boy and The Heron.

(Photo: Instagram)

Fantasy worlds are often seen as an escape. A shrugging off of uncomfortable realities to seek refuge in a world that fills the gaps of the ‘real world’. A world that outwardly resonates with the ethos of The Boy and the Heron. Yet unlike Spirited Away, which delves headfirst into the world of fantasy, Miyazaki’s last film spends a considerable amount of time in a War-stricken world, in a rural estate.

Hayao Miyazaki's 'The Boy and The Heron' is currently running in cinemas in India. 

A still from Spirited Away. 

(Photo: Instagram)

Suzuki, in his interview, had suggested that the film is “introspective.” Does it not then, question the relationship between ‘fantasy’ and the ‘real’? There are two worlds which are entangled together - the ‘real’ (family estate) and the ‘fantastical’ (the tower). Miyazaki, time and time again, brings us back to the ‘real’ world because we can never truly leave it behind. His experiences in the two worlds lead him to a path of reflection, as Suzuki pointed out. 

Myazaki’s world-building is more a refuge rather than an escape. In ways it’s a pit stop. A place to gather your emotions and navigate through it. In Mahito’s case it's the reconciliation with his grief and acceptance of his stepmother despite initial resistance. 

This is not to say, there is no value in escape. Yet, the skewed meaning of escapism, predominantly burdened with negative connotations, suggests a black-and-white view that points to a rejection of reality. But more often than not, it’s not the case. It’s the fuel one needs to thrive in reality. Escape or refuge through art is sustenance. 

Jonathan Jones, in his article for The Guardian, writes, “Fantasy is not always escapist. It can be full of pertinence to the real world.” Mahito is a “dark” (Suzuki) character and isn’t the kindest. However, he is resolutely sincere, much like Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle. Miyazaki’s ability to go beyond the baggage of morality and create characters that are not intrinsically righteous but flawed and profoundly likeable sets him apart from the rest.

The Parakeet King and the heron show how the tower echoes the realities of the ‘real’ world highlighted through their sense of duty, no matter how questionable. The King destroys the world in his fervent desire to fight for the opposite and the mischievous heron does not want to help the boy but slowly turns into his trusted companion.

Hayao Miyazaki's 'The Boy and The Heron' is currently running in cinemas in India. 

A still from Howl's Moving Castle. 

(Photo: Instagram)

The “balance” (Suzuki) that Miyazaki so ardently aims for in the film is unlike any other in his filmography. It’s the balance of ‘escapism’ and the ‘real.’ It finds value in both. It graduates to move the idea of ‘balance’ as both worlds seem to mirror each other. Hence, the destruction of the world seems like a befitting end because, in parts, they are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, the destruction of the world isn’t as catastrophic as one would presume as Mahito’s journey seems to have only begun, not ended. 

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