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From Spirited Away to My Neighbor Totoro, Studio Ghibli has developed into a legendary animation team that has produced a variety of classics over the years. Founded on June 15, 1985, Studio Ghibli continues to be a pioneer of animated film production in Japan through the talented lens of Hayao Miyazaki. 

With Castle in the Sky as Studio Ghibli’s first film released in 1986, Hayao Miyazaki has created and released many more iconic films under the studio, such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Ponyo (2008), and their most recent release The Boy and Heron (2023). 

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The Themes of The Boy and The Heron

Although Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2013. The animator wanted to create one last masterpiece to inspire his grandson and the future generation. He then started storyboarding on The Boy and the Heron in 2016, which has now been released this year with no intention of promoting or advertising it on the end of Studio Ghibli’s promotional team. The Boy and the Heron tells the story of a boy named Mahito Maki, who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town and enters a fantastical world with a talking grey heron. This fantastical release is considered a semi-autobiographical film as it is based on Miyazaki’s childhood and the struggles he and his family faced during the post-war period in Japan.

The Boy and the Heron is set in 1944, during the time of the Pacific War, when Mahito loses his mother in an air raid in Tokyo. As his family moves to the countryside. Mahito struggles to assimilate himself into the new town while dealing with the grief of the loss of his mother. One of the main themes of this film is dealing with loss. Mahito not only has to deal with the loss of his mother. But also the loss of his home in Tokyo due to the Pacific War. In a scene in the film, Mahito finds a copy of the novel “How Do You Live?” with his mother’s handwriting inside. He meets a talking heron who taunts him, claiming that his mother is alive. Then they must enter a mystical tower that leads to an alternate world full of magic. 

A Journey Through Parallel Realities

In this alternate world, Mihato meets a granduncle who rules the world as a wizard with great powers. At the end of the film, the granduncle asks Mahito to stay in this new world to maintain its balance but Mahito refuses, choosing to return to his world. He also meets a young woman with magical powers named Himi, who he invites to live in his world, but she declines the offer as she reveals herself to be the younger version of his mother and must return to her own time to ensure that Mahito will be born.

Like Hayao Miyazaki, Mahito longs for a deep connection with his mother. In the film, he finally meets a version of his mother and wants to bring her into his world, but ultimately cannot because of the reality of her death. Mahito choosing to go back to his real world instead of the alternate world also shows that he is ready to accept the pain of losing his mother and move forward from it. Despite the loss, Mahito learns that pain makes you stronger.


Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for incorporating his views on war and pacifism in his works. His films Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and The Wind Rises (2013) tackle themes of war and destruction. The Boy and the Heron explores the themes of war, the aftermath of it, and how it impacts children and the way they see the world. Mahito experiences war first-hand at an early age, causing him to lose his mother, his home, and his innocence. In his new town, he fights with his classmates and develops a tense relationship with his maternal aunt. He journeys around by himself to search for his mother by entering a magical world and leaving his family behind. 

Hayao Miyazaki wants to showcase this type of “childhood selfishness” that Mahito presents through his actions, disregarding his family’s care for him. However, we understand that Mahito’s behavior is caused by the trauma of losing his mother in the war. The film ends with Mahito moving back to Tokyo with his family after the end of the war. SSymbolizing Mahito’s acceptance of his new life and overcoming his selfishness to be a good person.

Crafting a Message of Peace

Highlighting the theme of war, Hayao Miyazaki made sure that this movie talks about how destructive war can be. And how it can lose so many lives, and how important it is to maintain peace in this world. Mahito’s choosing to grow up to be a good and kind person reminds us that pain should not allow us to inflict even more pain onto others. It is our own choice to create a world of peace “with our own hands.”

Watching The Boy and The Heron

Hayao Miyazaki’s final feature film, The Boy and the Heron pays tribute to the filmmaker’s childhood. Critics describe the film as the culmination of Miyazaki’s entire body of work. Which is incredibly complex and fascinating. Therefore he recommends watching the film more than once to understand the meaning of the film fully. The Boy and the Heron’s perplexity truly captures the vibrant and dynamic mind of Hayao Miyazaki.

The Japanese voice cast includes Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Ko Shibasaki, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Takuya Kimura, Karou Kobayashi, and Shinobu Otake. Moreover the English dub cast includes notable stars such as Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Gemma Chan, Willem Dafoe, Mark Hamill, Robert Pattinson, and Florence Pugh.

The Boy and the Heron was came out in Japan on July 14, 2023, by Toho. Moreover it was screened in both traditional theaters and other premium formats such as IMAX. International release dates for the film vary per region. The U.S. release is set to open in theaters across the nation and IMAX on December 8, 2023.


About Vishankh Dutta

Vishankh, lover of Japan's charms, Haiku words flowing with open arms. Sushi master, sake sipper, Lost in anime, a passionate flipper.