Sunday 31 December 2023

Spirited away: "The Boy and the Heron"

That this has been a largely recuperative - even restorative - year at the movies is borne out by the manner in which so many of 2023's key titles have seemed to tessellate, expanding our understanding of the world in so doing; after the enforced isolations of lockdown, cinema's connective tissue is at last growing back. Like Godzilla Minus One - this Christmas's other multiplex beast from the East - Hayao Miyazaki's comeback animation The Boy and the Heron invites reading as a sequel to Oppenheimer, specifically in its efforts to suggest the punchdrunk Japanese mindset after the assaults of World War II. (Taken collectively - more tessellation - the Japanese films constitute a forceful rebuke to those angered by Christopher Nolan's unwillingness to dramatise the Japanese perspective: turns out there were far better placed observers and filmmakers to do this.) In its early stretches, Miyazaki's film prioritises historical realism, the endgame of 2013's The Wind Rises, over the fantasy for which Studio Ghibli is best known and loved. Before the title has appeared onscreen, the eponymous lad learns his mother has died in an Allied firestorm; before he can process any grief, he's whisked off to a countryside retreat by his businessman father and introduced to a docile stepmother. Thereafter, the film takes a turn for what we might call the Narnian: an enchanted bird keeps circling the boy's new home, pointing him towards an abandoned building, stirring up the fish in nearby bodies of water (not unlike the new Godzilla), and eventually - after the lad has incurred a nasty, self-induced concussion - exhibiting a rasping voice that will be all the more alarming in the dubbed version for being credited to Robert Pattinson. Consider it the call of the wild: that species of mystery and adventure - by land, sea and air - which might prevent a kid who blames himself for his mother's death from further beating himself up. It is also, apparently, that which tempts a master craftsman back to the drawing board to ponder the fragile structures of the universe, and the big-to-staggering, possibly unanswerable questions these provoke: how we're born, why people die, and what we do with our lives (and what we do to cope) in the meantime.

This is as much philosophical treatise as entertainment, in other words, and the first tip of the hat would be the pacing, utterly removed as it is from the frenetic, pixel-scattering storybeats of most Western animation. Miyazaki gives himself time to set out this turbulent, changeable, increasingly unfamiliar world, and allows us time to explore it, which feels like a genuine gift. (Joe Hisaishi's slow, steady, affecting piano score is markedly preferable to, say, Alessia Cara covering The Tweets.) The enchanted buildings and lush greenery are very much Ghibli stock-in-trade, but no less pleasing for that; more striking is the constellation of supporting characters Miyazaki establishes as the film's own eco-system. An amorphous mass of elderly maids and misters bob around at the boy's new abode, tidying up mess and tears; a colony of gelatinous white blobs, recalling shelled eggs or mochi or the videogame character Kirby, may be as close as Miyazaki ever gets to animating his own Minions. (They're intended to represent inchoate human souls, which tells you just how far removed The Boy and the Heron is from a film like Minions.) The heron, for his part, is permitted to be unsettling, even terrifying, in a way that really would seem foreign to the cheerful worker bees at Pixar, Illumination or Aardman; initially revealing unnervingly testicular gums, and thereafter shapeshifting entirely, he seems less a spirit animal or emotional support pet than a monster luring an innocent into the underworld.

Brace yourself, in short. From the early, Cocteauesque touch of a rose that drops to the floor only to shatter into pieces, through Lynchian sparks and red curtains, to a de Chirico-like piazza on which the characters gather, this is easily the dreamiest of Miyazaki's late animations, yet its strength lies in how that dreaminess co-exists with the protagonist's trauma. (Death is an ever-present here, part of both the natural and unnatural order of things.) It is also - and this becomes glaringly apparent the deeper we go into the film's second hour - the kind of fugue an artist only gets to put on screen when they have the near-divine, next-to-untouchable reputation Miyazaki enjoys in his particular sector. Evidently no notes were offered, not even during the production of The Boy and the Heron's final third, when it becomes clear the filmmaker has no interest whatsoever in explaining the rules of this universe, or what its images might actually signify. (One of several flights of fantasy that departed without me: the cannibal parakeets decked out in the colours of Saturday morning kids' TV presenters. Who, really, needs edibles?) You may feel, as many have felt, that there was no need for notes, given the undeniable ebullience of many of these images, and the broadly comprehensible thrust of its narrative throughline: troubled souls renegotiating their own tragedies while battle rages on elsewhere. This viewer's inclination was to declare The Boy and the Heron second-rank Miyazaki, but that still ranks it higher than most others, of course - and there may not be a timelier film with which to close out 2023.

The Boy and the Heron is now playing in selected cinemas.

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