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Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘The Boy and the Heron’ strikes a chord worldwide with deep messages

©2023 Studio Ghibli
A scene from “The Boy and the Heron”

TOKYO/LOS ANGELES — Director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film “The Boy and the Heron” has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, raising expectations that the film will become the second Japanese animated film to win an Oscar, after “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (“Spirited Away”), who received the award in 2003.

“The Boy and the Heron” became the first Japanese work to win Best Animated Feature at the 81st Golden Globe Awards. The Golden Globes are considered a precursor to the Academy Awards, the biggest event for the American film industry.

Major awards

While the film’s original Japanese title, “Kimitachi wa Do Ikiru ka?” (How Do You Live?), is taken directly from a children’s novel by Genzaburo Yoshino, “The Boy and the Heron” is not an adaptation of the novel.

Miyazaki wrote and directed the film, his twelfth animated film. Set in wartime Japan, the film is a fantasy adventure in which a boy named Mahito, who has lost his mother, encounters a mysterious gray heron who leads him to a world where life and death merge into one.

The film is said to be the pinnacle of Miyazaki’s career and a reflection of his own youth.

“The Boy and the Heron” has won awards season. At the Golden Globe Awards on January 7, the film became the first non-English language work to win Best Animated Feature, surpassing Disney’s 100th anniversary film and the new animated film Spiderman.

The film’s box-office performance was strong. In Japan, the film was released in July 2023 and had earned ¥8.8 billion as of January 21, coming close to its big hit of ¥10 billion. The film topped the charts in North America, France, South Korea and Taiwan in its first week of release.

While Miyazaki had decided to stop making feature-length animated films with his 2013 film ‘Kaze Tachinu’ (‘The Wind Rises’), he reversed his decision and spent about seven years producing ‘The Boy and the Heron’.

Opinions about the film are divided in Japan, partly because virtually no information about the film was announced before its release. However, the film was highly appreciated by critics abroad, where it was released in the fall of 2023 or later.

New fans

Ryusuke Hikawa, an anime and special effects researcher, cites strong messages in the film as one of the reasons for its high rating.

“How should we overcome challenges common to all humanity, such as unexplained suffering? Like the original Japanese title of the film [How do you live?] suggests, the film serves as [Miyazaki’s] last will and testament of enormous magnitude to ask his audience that question,” Hikawa said. “The film is not just entertainment that is simply consumed by the audience, but also contains messages that help the audience interpret the story.”

Film researcher Seiji Kano points out that the film usually receives high praise abroad, partly because of the sheer visual beauty of the Japanese animation giant. However, as in Japan, some find the film difficult to understand.

“In North America, Warner Bros. Discovery’s HBO Max [now Max] service started streaming Studio Ghibli films in 2020. “I think a new fan base yearning for his first new film in a decade was born as American families watched Miyazaki’s previous films during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kano said.

The recent drastic change in the animation industry is also lurking in the background, according to Kano. “Opinions are divided on Disney’s push for diversity in its recent works, and many of them have lost money. The company is prioritizing streaming on its Disney+ platform over releasing new films in theaters, which has led to more fans turning away from theaters,” Kano said.

“Films that avoid the use of realistic 3D animation and instead use a combination of computer graphics and other elements to create images that look hand-drawn are also highly appreciated. This makes the rarity of ‘The Boy and the Heron’ striking,” he added.

Diversity

On the other hand, the trend of film awards focusing on themes of diversity, such as race and gender, also means that non-English-language films are praised.

For example, diversity in selection and nominations was a focus at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, and critics, journalists and others from more than 70 countries and regions around the world were involved in the selection process.

The Oscars have come under fire for a lack of diversity in the nominees, which are dominated by white people.

To address the situation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has introduced reforms such as increasing the representation of women and people of color.

The South Korean film “Parasite” won best picture at the 2020 Oscars, and the Academy is still in the process of reforming. Such changes in awards shows are apparently boosting the success of “The Boy and the Heron.”

The film is Miyazaki’s fourth work to be nominated for an Oscar for animated film. Of the past ten winners of the Golden Globe for best animated film, eight won the Oscar. This year’s Academy Award winner will be announced on March 10.

More younger fans

In North America, “The Boy and the Heron” was released in December and became the first Studio Ghibli film to reach number one at the North American box office during its debut weekend. The film has grossed over $43 million (approximately ¥6.3 billion) in total.

Miyazaki has been called a ‘master’ in the Hollywood film industry. He has such a special status in the United States that the first temporary exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened in 2021, was named after him.

The voice actors for the English version of the film include well-known Hollywood actors such as Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

An actor who publicly says he is a fan of Miyazaki reportedly asked a distribution company to offer him a role in Miyazaki’s next new film and was happy to even get a role with a few lines in ‘The Boy and the Heron’ to accept.

According to GKIDS, the New York-based company distributing the English-language version of the film in North America, Miyazaki was initially less known in the United States than in Europe and Asia.

However, the company has repeated its previous works in theaters in various parts of the United States in recent years and has taken other long-term measures to cultivate new fans, especially among young people. The success of “The Boy and the Heron” could also be the result of these efforts.

GKIDS president David Jesteadt explains that the high-quality 2D work and the creative and unexpected developments in the story are the draws of Miyazaki’s works. Now that 3D animation has become mainstream, hand-drawn animated films are believed to have high artistic value.

According to Jesteadt, consumers are fed up with family-oriented stories in traditional American animated films, and it is unusual for Americans to see creative animated films that fully reflect the director’s vision.

Los Angeles-based film journalist Yuki Saruwatari said: “Animated works in the United States must have a happy ending. Despite the fact that ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is not the kind of film that ordinary families rush to watch, the film is highly rated, probably because the number of fans of Miyazaki’s films has steadily increased.’

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