Directed by Hayao Miyazaki | Written by Miyazaki and Genzaburô Yoshino | 124 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | (in original Japanese with English subtitles and English dubbed)
A version of this review first appeared on FITI during my coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival 2023
I was thinking how universally beloved this animator is, and the legendary Studio Ghibli. I think it has to do with Miyazaki’s ability to plug into our subconscious in his storytelling. He may be using Japanese cultural touchstones, but they translate remarkably well to audiences everywhere.
It’s also his imaginary creatures. Giant furry owl things, forest spirits, soot sprites, dragons, moving castles, and cat buses, it’s arguable that these magical beasts are the real stars of the films and the elements that people remember, more so than the human characters.
Following at least two retirements, Miyazaki is back with one more film — the story of a boy, Mahito, in the Second World War who leaves Tokyo with his industrialist father after the death of his mother. His father is remarrying to a woman who looks suspiciously like his mother, and they settle in a rural community.
There Mahito is badgered by an aggressive grey heron and discovers a mysterious tower, which is a gateway to a dreamlike alternate world with lots of unfriendly birds. His stepmother has vanished into this world and he must venture forth to rescue her, and decide whether to trust the creature living inside the heron.
Part of this feels very much like your standard boy’s own adventure, a young hero’s journey to a magic land full of threats and obstacles. The animation is astonishing, which, combined with the sound mix, music, and character designs, it’s easy to just float along and enjoy this dreamlike experience. That the dream logic and spiralling plotting make next to no sense could be a frustration, but even as I recognized its lack of coherence I didn’t really mind. It’s enough being in the grip of Miyazaki again.
Accept the joy, the humour, and a dark undercurrent of danger. Everyone wants to eat everyone else for dinner, especially those giant parakeets.