Tracing the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki through the themes of The Boy and the Heron

Piyush Singh
New Update
Boy and the heron

Analyzing the themes of loss, love and acceptance in 'The Boy and the Heron' and how these themes resonate with Hayao Miyazaki's artistic resilience.

The Boy and the Heron, Hayao Miyazaki's final film, marks the end of an era that feels like a complex farewell, filled with the familiar magic of his storytelling with the weight of finality. It comes with a strange mix of emotions of nostalgia for the worlds he has built and a sense of loss knowing this is his last work. It’s hard to pin down exactly what I feel since it's like a closing chapter, and with it, a source of wonder and reflection.  

While reflecting on this, I recall watching a Studio Ghibli film for the first time and being left with questions even after the film concluded. When I watched Spirited Away I wondered what happened to Chihiro after that. In Princess Mononoke, was Ashitaka's wound ever properly healed? Did Kiki continue her delivery service successfully? Did Porco Rosso live happily even after changing back to a human? Miyazaki's work has never been a closed book for viewers but rather a reminder that the film only covers a small yet significant personal triumph of the characters in an institutional calamity. These simple yet thought-provoking stories have given us something to ponder and revisit. With his farewell film, Hayao Miyazaki once again presents a narrative similar to an unfinished book, inviting viewers to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Much like his previous works, this film maintains a sense of openness even after its conclusion. This very quality makes his work feel perpetually intriguing and satisfyingly incomplete.

Also Read: 13 anime series that you can watch if you're a newbie

Boy and the Heron 2

With "The Boy and the Heron," you come face to face with questions of loss, healing, and rediscovering love. Inspired by Genzaburō Yoshino's novel "How Do You Live," Miyazaki's adaptation follows 11-year-old Mahito Maki as he grapples with the death of his mother in a wartime tragedy. Through a blend of fantasy and reality, the film explores the journey of raw trauma and the resilience of the human spirit. The film is inspired by the previous works of the studio like The Howl’s Moving Castle, The Wind Rises, Arietty, Spirited Away and even from the works outside Ghibli like the children’s book, “Boy and the Blue Heron” where the heron helps a boy process his emotions and they go on an adventure together. Taking inspiration from all these works, the Boy and the Heron presents, this tragic, bittersweet and above all hopeful world to the audience. 

In the aftermath of the war, Mahito's father Shoichi marries Natsuko, his late wife's sister. Mahito struggled to accept Natsuko as his new mother and the fact that Natsuko was pregnant further alienated him. He was unable to process his grief and it added to his confusion about how his father was moving on so quickly. The family relocates to Natsuko's rural ancestral house, where Mahito meets a talking heron that bothers him. The heron leads Mahito to a sealed tower built by Natsuko's great-granduncle, who vanished mysteriously. Despite his initial suspicions, Mahito follows the heron's guidance into the tower. After he discovers a book titled 'How Do You Live?', he can confront his unresolved trauma surrounding the loss of his mother. 

When Natsuko goes missing within the tower, Mahito sets aside his bitterness and goes on a quest to find her. Within the tower's surreal confines, Mahito encounters younger versions of familiar people from his world. He also meets fantastical creatures such as man-eating parakeets, ruled by a parakeet king, and bubble-like spirits known as Warawara. This fantasy world is an extension of Mahito's subconscious, reflecting his inner turmoil and resistance to forming a bond with his stepmother.

As Mahito goes deeper into the tower's mysteries, he is confronted by Natsuko's great-granduncle, who offers him the opportunity to inherit and rule over this surreal realm. However, Mahito ultimately rejects this offer, as he is determined to follow his own path and create his destiny rather than be burdened by the legacy of another. In the film, the great-granduncle of Natsuko tirelessly works to prevent the collapse of the tower he constructed, which is also a poignant symbolism of Hayao Miyazaki's dedication to upholding the high standards of the studio he built. However, just as the great-granduncle struggles to find a successor to carry on his work, Miyazaki faces a similar challenge in finding someone to uphold his vision and continue his legacy at the studio.


In a 2014 interview for the Golden Times, Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan's most celebrated anime directors, said "Anime was a mistake," criticizing modern anime and accusing contemporary animators of neglecting to observe real people. 

As we observe the evolution of anime, Miyazaki's sentiment resonates with a sense of longing for a bygone era of a particular kind of creativity and stories. Yet, amidst this nostalgia, Miyazaki's words are also imbued with a deep understanding of the inevitability of change and the passage of time. It's an acknowledgement that the new generation will create their own paths and redefine good storytelling and art, even if it feels unsettling to witness the world moving forward without you. Despite these feelings of apprehension, with this film, Miyazaki might ultimately be placing his faith in the next generation.

As we reach what could be the final curtain call, what remains eternal is the legacy of a man who stood steadfast in his artistic vision for so many years. The Boy and the Heron took seven years to complete and is proof of his love for hand-drawn animation. All these years, he remained resolute in preserving the authenticity of his craft, refusing to compromise on his principles. As we mentioned earlier, how his works never feel complete even if the story has been concluded. Like the pages of an open book, his work invites contemplation and introspection, always leaving room for more interpretation. 

Check out the trailer: 

Share your thoughts on this film and Miyazaki's works with us in the comments below. We'll like to hear them!

Follow us for more such content @socialketchup

hayao miyazaki the Boy in the Heron Hayao Miyazaki films Ghibli Studio Ghibli Studio films