The worst part of making art is being an artist. It’s a thankless position in life and often only remunerative after death. Those lucky exceptions to the rule are then rewarded with a whole other fresh hell to accomplish: the final statement. An artist’s last piece is humbly expected not only to encapsulate their entire body of work, but also mine some eternal truth from the rubble of the human condition. If they find the time.
One last problem to the pile is that lifespans are expanding at an alarming rate. Back in the good old days, an artist would cough into a handkerchief, see blood, and know he had to wrap things up by age 23. The curse of statins means we just keep on trucking, so a director over 80 might have as many as four final films left in him. We’ve seen this with Scorsese and Eastwood, as we wave tearful goodbye to each only to find we all parked the same block over.
Legendary Japanese animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki already had his swan song with the elegiac “The Wind Rises” in 2013. A decade later, he has replaced that swan with a different bird entirely.
“The Boy and the Heron,” released in theaters Dec. 8, is a fitting salute to Miyazaki’s career, something of a jukebox musical of all his greatest hits. All the stars are here: dead parents, scrumptious food, moss-strewn ruins, even bulbous little spirits waddling about. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but when you accompany a man through the summation of his successes and regrets, that goes with the territory.
The film is set in Miyazaki’s own boyhood, Japan in the thick of the second World War. (“Heron” and “Godzilla Minus Zero,” the top two movies at the box office the week of its premiere, each present the war from a Japanese perspective — perhaps their own small revenge for the success of “Oppenheimer” this year.) Twelve-year-old Mahito has recently lost his mother in a fire and is further unmoored when his father moves them from Tokyo to his mother’s sister’s countryside estate. That he is also marrying her doesn’t help.
His aunt is no wicked stepmother, she genuinely loves her nephew and wants to honor her sister’s memory in raising him. But it’s this closeness, in role and even looks, that drives Mahito away. He’s too young to see her as anything but a copy of his mother, and frankly he’d prefer the real deal. He seems to treat all women as varying degrees off from his idealized mother, holding the aunt and the household old women with polite scorn.
So when a magical heron starts swooping about, telling him his real mother is still alive and that he just needs to follow him to that totally innocent creepy tower off in the garden, Mahito is suspicious but reluctant to resist. The heron kidnapping his aunt forces him to pursue, but she seems more like an excuse than the quest itself.
Miyazaki has always been preoccupied with liminality, the blurred boundary between separate worlds. His heroes are always children on the threshold of adulthood and his settings the pockets of overlap between the wilds and civilization, the supernatural and the mundane. Mahito’s father runs a munitions factory, but his men are still forced to lug the machines by hand up the cracked stone steps of the house. Here the gateway is a tower carved from a meteorite which struck the land just before the Meiji Restoration, when Japan opened its borders after centuries of isolation. The family and the country may have modernized, but the tower lurks enigmatically in the corner of the garden, posing questions and despising answers.
Mahito follows the heron into an alternate world of murderous birds, the heron himself the least of his worries. Here Miyazaki reminds us that dinosaurs never really went away, they just grew too small and adorable to eat us as they still desire. In the parlance of The Beatles there is a different sort of violent bird here, represented by several awesome women who accomplish most of Mahito’s quest for him. One of these is Mahito’s mother, who years ago entered the tower herself. Time moves differently in this world, so Mahito knows soon she must inevitably leave to birth him and die in flames.
The world through the looking glass isn’t the afterlife (as in Miyazaki’s most famous work “Spirited Away” in 2001) but the dreamscape of a mere mortal. Mahito’s top hatted great-great uncle walked through the tower years ago and now rules the world like the Wizard of Oz, only this time with powers. Oz is perhaps the perfect analogy, for if Oz was just CTE nightmares of a concussed Dorothy, the dream world here is the exposed Id of Miyazaki himself. Hence the familiar sights aren’t mere references or recyclings, but a man poking and prodding about his own psyche.
Like Miyazaki, the wizard is nearing his end and looking for his successor. Succession has been the prevalent theme of the 2010s, even the name of one of its more popular shows. The media merely reflects our own world, run by a puttering gerontocracy unwilling to trust the generation it raised to take the reins. Those shows tend to agree, the likes of Logan Roy and Eli Gemstone finding no one up to the task of holding their kingdoms together.
Where Miyazaki differs is his ambivalence to his own legacy. His fantasies have comforted audiences on both sides of the Pacific, but he recognizes that fantasy, and indeed comfort, are as much escape as balms.
When offered the keys to his kingdom, both Mahito and his mother choose instead to return to their world, despite the pain and even death that awaits them. The film’s Japanese title is “How Do You Live?,” a question pondered by philosophers and LeAnn Rimes throughout history. It is perhaps the only question, the tower’s primary riddle with no answer.
But if this is Miyazaki’s parting message in the face of death, he takes the best guess I’ve heard yet. How do you live? By living.