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The Boy and the Heron: Studio Ghibli pioneer Hayao Miyazaki bids farewell with a masterpiece

The Japanese director has threatened to retire twice, most recently after the 2013 release of The Wind Rises, a film that felt like a definitive farewell

The Boy and the Heron
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Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cert: 12A
Genre: Animation
Starring: Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson, Karen Fukuhara, Gemma Chan, Christian Bale, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh, Willem Dafoe, Dave Bautista
Running Time: 2 hrs 4 mins

It’s impossible to contemplate 21st-century animation without the mastery of Hayao Miyazaki. The Studio Ghibli pioneer and Oscar-winning director of Spirited Away has redefined his medium with stunning tableaux, wildly imaginative worlds, complex characters and transportive stories.

The Japanese director has threatened to retire twice, most recently after the 2013 release of The Wind Rises, a film that felt like a definitive farewell. The 82-year-old film-maker happily returns with this lovely postwar adventure drawing on his childhood.

In common with the young Miyazaki, Mahito Maki, the headstrong protagonist of The Boy and the Heron, loses his mother in a second World War hospital fire and is a fan of How Do You Live?, Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel. Mahito later moves to the country, where is attended by several classic Ghibli crones. His father, again like Miyazaki’s own, runs an aviation factory and is married to his former sister-in-law, Natsuko, who is already pregnant.

The boy’s understandably conflicted feelings seem to manifest the grey heron of the title, a mysterious bird in a tower with a ghostly past. The heron, who becomes an increasingly unsettling spectacle, replete with human teeth, promises Mahito reunion with his late mother, a quest that involves the tower (where his great-uncle disappeared years before), man-eating parakeets, the unknown whereabouts of his new stepmother and terrifying little monsters called the warawara.

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Extravagantly imagined, poignantly written and exquisitely drawn, Miyazaki’s 12th Ghibli feature allows for scares, sweetness and salvation. There are moments when the preteen protagonist is the most convincing monster on screen. (In a heart-stopping moment, he hits himself in the head with a rock to get out of school.) In tone and design, there are welcome parallels with such Ghibli classics as Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s a thrilling journey for both young viewers and those with more cause to ponder the afterlife. A fine bow from one of the great directors.

The Boy and the Heron opens in cinemas on St Stephen’s Day, with previews on Wednesday, December 20th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic