‘The Boy and the Heron’: A masterpiece for most, middling for Miyazaki

‘The Boy and the Heron’: A masterpiece for most, middling for Miyazaki

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(3.5 stars)

Hayao Miyazaki faced an impossible task with “The Boy and the Heron,” which comes 10 years after his contemplative and staggering masterpiece, the Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises”which the master of Japanese anime said at the time would be his final feature.

What can a director do after already saying goodbye?

Miyazaki’s 2013 film — a fictionalized version of the life of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi — felt like his last. It dealt with the complex life of an artist and the consequences, both intentional and unintentional, of creativity. If “Wind” was Miyazaki’s swan song, then “Heron” is the old master bursting back into the room to tell one more beautiful, otherworldly tale.

Set during World War II, the film follows Mahito, a Japanese teen who moves with his father from the city to the country after the death of his mother. While struggling to fit in at his new school, Mahito becomes fascinated with a gray heron living near the river. There begins the boy’s journey into a magical world lurking just below the surface of our own.

Mahito, a character on the cusp of change, is a classic Miyazaki character: someone looking to find his place in a new and confusing world. (Think Howl in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Mei and Satsuki in “My Neighbor Totoro,” Chihiro in “Spirited Away.”) Mahito enters the movie as a nearly silent protagonist, occupying the corner of scenes, a passive observer of events. Over the course of the plot, though, he changes. Mahito never becomes an action hero, but his choices are important, causing ripple effects throughout his world and the larger universe.

Despite Mahito’s sometimes limited dialogue, we gradually come to understand the character deeply. Early in the film, he picks a fight at school, where he doesn’t fit in and lashes out. Later, as he’s walking home, he picks up a rock and slams it against the side of his head, blood flowing out and covering his face. It’s shocking, but it reveals the grief he’s hiding. Moments like this give the character a depth rarely achieved in animated films. (That quality is underscored by the voice performance of Soma Santoki in the subtitled Japanese-language version; an English-dubbed version is also available.)

In tone, “The Boy and the Heron” is indebted to such books as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “A Wrinkle in Time,” where the supernatural lurks just past the fence and a little way into the woods. Grand battles are fought by children with a little too much time on their hands. The story is a throwback, depicting a world filled with magic arrows, pirate ships and a Parakeet King. As in those stories, the fantastical is a way to process the real in a tale in which the hero’s journey is a way to come to terms with a pain that is both personal and national.

There are also moments of real fear here. This is not a happy-go-lucky story, but an old-school fairy tale meant to frighten, confuse and excite. It’s the good kind of scary: the kind that helps prepare children for the terrors of the real world.

Like all of Miyazaki’s films, “Heron” serves as a gateway, introducing young audiences both to international cinema and to a pioneer of the animation medium. (Can you remember a rainy day or slumber party without “Howl’s Moving Castle” or “Spirited Away”?) The character design and composition are daring: Colors bleed outside the lines to illustrate chaos, characters hunch in impossible contortions to show the effect of age, and the camera tracks an arrow flying through the air. As the film progresses to its triumphal conclusion, the medium twists in new and exciting ways. If Miyazaki, at 82, is an old master, he is far from out of new tricks.

It may sound unfair, but when held up to Miyazaki’s earlier work, the film falls somewhere in the middle. The ending ultimately becomes a little plotty, but scattered throughout the film are moments of undeniable ecstasy. What for any other director would be a masterpiece is just another day at the office for Miyazaki.

There are rumors that Miyazaki, despite having promised retirement multiple times — and then broken those promises — is already working on his next film. And yet the final act of “Heron” feels as much like closure as anything he has done: The film’s most lasting image is of a tower of blocks toppling over for a new generation to rebuild.

Whether this towering if imperfect film is the end or not, Miyazaki leaves behind 12 films, with a couple of unquestionable masterpieces among them and generations forever changed by his work.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence, bloody images and smoking. Available in Japanese with subtitles and English-dubbed versions. 124 minutes.

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