In early 1940s Japan, World War II takes many tolls. For young Mahito Maki, one of those costs is the loss of his mother. She dies in a Tokyo hospital fire.
Mahito and his father, Shoichi, however, no longer live in Tokyo. Shoichi, a prosperous war-time industrialist, moved them to a sprawling family residence in the countryside. And there, Mahito discovered he now has a new parent, a stepmother named Natsuko. She’s his mother’s younger sister. And beautiful. Very pregnant and very welcoming.
Mahito, however, isn’t so welcoming. He doesn’t like the sprawling and leafy Gray Heron Mansion. He’s annoyed by the seven old maids that care for the place. He grieves over his mother still. And the idea of going to school with children who bully him and think him privileged turns his stomach.
So, he bashes his own head with a rock. Comes home covered in blood. And takes to his bed.
That’s when a massive gray heron that flies in and around the compound swoops in and calls for Mahito to follow. But this isn’t just any gray heron. It’s more of a troll-like man inside a gray heron. A man with large square teeth and a bulbous, knobby nose that leans his face out through the bird’s beak.
The man-heron promises to lead Mahito to his mother. He says she isn’t really dead. Then again, the man-heron also lies. Continually. He takes the boy to an abandoned tower that Mahito’s granduncle once built. And Mahito soon finds himself sucked down into deep depths of the estate. It’s a place where time and space warp and fold together.
Mahito runs frantically between death and life, traversing a realm with man-eating birds and magical happenings. It’s a world that’s upside-down and inside-out: it has no balance, no control. It’s a place where Mahito indeed finds his mother, but where her life is a lie.
Now, Mahito must find a way out, or he’ll become a meal for hungry things that roam the land.
Mahito Maki isn’t really a likeable kid. He breaks his loving guardian’s rules, lies to those around him and even cracks open his own head to get out of school. The duplicitous gray heron-man is even less likeable. But with time we realize that both are reaching for some positive resolution: Mahito, working through his loss and grief; the heron looking for purpose. And these two unlikely and initially unlikeable compatriots eventually help each other and become something akin to friends.
In the real world, Shoichi and Natsuko want to ease Mahito’s grief and draw him into their new family. When Shoichi believes his son has been violently bullied, he staunchly rises up to defend the boy.
Natsuko ventures into that otherworld place, too. And at one point, she pushes Mahito away. But when she realizes that he is trying to rescue her and wants to call her mother, her heart softens. She sacrifices to save him.
[Spoiler Warning] In the otherworld, Mahito also meets a younger version of his mother and a younger, swashbuckling version of one of the Gray Heron Mansion’s maids. Both befriend and aid the young boy. In addition, Mahito meets his elderly Granduncle—a man said to have gone crazy because he read too much. This man continually attempts to bring balance to the tottering tower of the otherworld in some magical way.
Magical powers and quasi-spirituality are everywhere in the crazy tower otherworld, from the large floating rock that is said to power everything, to the animals and creatures that have taken on human-like form and deadly desires. Nothing here is truly as it seems.
That means odd, electrically sparking happenings can happen at any moment: Doors lead into other dimensions; people inexplicably sink into the floors; seemingly real people dissolve into a pool of watery goo at a touch, etc.
As Mahito is just beginning to communicate with the strange heron-man, a swarm of toads pour out of a nearby pond and cover the boy entirely. Then when an adult calls for Mahito, the toads hop away. A magical golden door is inscribed with the words: “Those who seek my knowledge shall die.” An adventurer produces a magical fiery whip.
There’s a vast sea in the otherworld filled with boats being rowed by scores of diaphanous spirits of the dead. Small, balloon-like creatures called warawara are said to be both life and death. They puff themselves up and float skyward, and we’re told that they will emerge into the real world as newborn infants.
We hear stories about a magical tower that fell out of the sky.
We don’t get a true sense of how long it is after his mother’s death that Mahito’s dad remarries. (In fact, it’s not perfectly clear that he did marry.) Mahito just travels to the countryside and meets his pregnant aunt, Natsuko, who is now his new mother. Mahito secretly watches Natsuko and Shoichi embrace and kiss.
Early on, Mahito hears that the hospital where his mother works being engulfed in a fire and he runs to see the massive blaze. Later, eleven-year-old Mahito still has nightmarish dreams of his mother, in flames and waving goodbye, as she floats skyward.
Mahito bashes himself in the head with a large rock. Blood gushes down his face and over his eye. Later we see a raw scar on the side of his head.
Voracious birds try to eat Mahito, including a large pod of pelicans and an army of man-sized parakeets carrying butcher knives and saws.
Mahito and an adventurer named Kiriko hook a very large fish and then gut it with knives. Mahito is covered in spurting blood and goop. The fish’s entrails spill out by the gallon. Scores of the dead spirits and other creatures swarm in to get some of the spilling entrails.
As the balloon-like warawara float up into the sky, a large group of pelicans fly up to gobble them. In turn, those pelicans are hit by fire blasts to keep them at bay. Mahito encounters a downed and bleeding pelican with a broken wing; the bird to be killed and put out of its misery. But the bird dies before Mahito can administer that coup de grâce.
We’re told that scores of men died while working on Granduncle’s tower. A parakeet king tries to kill Mahito and the heron-man several times, chopping down a staircase on top of them as well as coming after them with a large sword.
[Note: This film can be found in its original Japanese with English subtitles or with an English voice dub; Plugged In reviewed the latter version.]
We hear “d–n” and “d–mit” repeated six times combined, along with uses of “dang it” and “turd.”
When the old maids and Natsuko unpack Shoichi’s bag, they find packs of cigarettes among the belongings. One of the maids lights up a cigarette. An old man smokes a pipe, but says he is smoking “knotweed” because of the lack of tobacco during the war. We see him puffing a cigarette, later.
Mahito lies to the people around him. He steals cigarettes to bribe an old man. One of the maids tries to bargain with Mahito for some of the stolen cigarettes.
Right out of the gate, let me say that The Boy and the Heron is a very difficult film to wrap a Western brain around.
Yes, you can spot themes of grief, loss, sorrow and fear in this coming-of-age fantasy. There’s Japanese lore and even a sprinkling of WWII history here. And the movie’s images veer back and forth between the chaotically colorful and the strikingly beautiful.
But to actually understand director Miyazaki’s swirling, semi-autobiographical tale is a very heavy lift. Every time one symbolically structured story block slips into place, the cinematic table shifts and the whole perception tower tumbles down.
There’s a troll-like man emerging from the beak of a heron; large man-eating parakeets with butcher knives; little balloon-like creatures that represent both life and death; a mother repeatedly engulfed in the nightmare flames of war; and a magical otherworld sea filled with starving, dead boatmen amidst the disparate images and scenes. This is a fever-dream of a film.
For adults longing for another shot of Studio Ghibli animation and singular moments of emotion, The Boy and the Heron might be worth the price of admission. But frankly, their kids could learn about growing up in far more coherent ways.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.