Is ‘The Boy and the Heron’ Really Hayao Miyazaki’s Last Film?

Following many failed attempts to retire, the legendary animator has released a new semi-autobiographical feature

Still from The Boy and the Heron
A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s new film, The Boy and the Heron Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli’s 82-year-old director Hayao Miyazaki has changed his mind before. In 1997, he said he planned to retire after the release of Princess Mononoke. But then Spirited Away came out in 2001—with a note that he would soon step down. In 2013, he announced he would leave the industry after The Wind Rises.

“I feel that my days in feature film are done,” Miyazaki said at a press conference that year. “If I said I wanted to [continue], I would sound like an old man saying something foolish.”

A decade later, his newest release, The Boy and the Heron, is a stunning success. With a $12.8 million opening in the United States and Canada, it became the first original anime title to top the North American box office. This week, the movie also garnered Miyazaki his first Golden Globe nomination.

So far, the famed animator has not yet delivered his usual retirement announcement. Maybe he thinks it would have sounded foolish. Or perhaps he’s realized he’ll simply never be ready.

“At first, I could sense that he wanted this to be his final project,” Takeshi Honda, the movie’s animation director, tells BBC Culture’s Stephen Kelly. “But I could sense time and again that he’s not finished, that there are other things that he wants to do.”

THE BOY AND THE HERON | Official English Trailer

Set in Japan during World War II, The Boy and the Heron centers around the story of 12-year-old Mahito. (Miyazaki also grew up in Japan during this period, and the film is billed as “semi-autobiographical.”) Following the loss of his mother in a hospital fire, Mahito is sent to live with Natsuko, his new stepmother, in a rural mansion. In this unfamiliar setting, a mysterious gray heron guides him to a portal that transports him into a magical dimension.

The film ends with a moment that the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang describes as “the simplest, loveliest, most quietly shattering thing.” Without revealing spoilers, he adds: “Let’s just say that this parting shot feels like an end and a beginning, a departure and a return, a reminder of all the imaginative wonders that can spring from the dimmest recesses of a boy’s memory.”

Ahead of the film’s release in Japan earlier this year, animation house Studio Ghibli went with an unconventional marketing campaign: no campaign at all, save for a solitary poster featuring a heron. Without trailers or a plot synopsis, curious fans knew very little about the feature, which required a team of 60 animators and took seven years to create, per BBC Culture.

The movie’s title in Japan—How Do You Live?—comes from a 1937 children’s book by Genzaburo Yoshino. The question is explored throughout the film, which also shows Mahito reading the novel.

Outside of Japan, The Boy and the Heron’s first screening was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro gave introductory remarks, comparing Miyazaki to history’s greatest creative minds: “We are privileged enough to be living in a time where Mozart is composing symphonies,” he said, per the Associated Press’ Jake Coyle. “Miyazaki san is a master of that stature.”

Will Miyazaki continue composing? We can’t be too sure, though the legendary animator doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

“Even now there are new ideas that he talks about,” Junichi Nishioka, vice president of Studio Ghibli, tells BBC Culture. “He is not physically working on sketches based on these as of yet, but I don’t think he will ever be ready to retire. I don’t think he’s ever going to really let go. He will have a pencil in his hand until the very day that he dies.”

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