Cropped selection from the poster for The Boy and the Heron

On Grief: The Boy and the Heron

In an already complicated year, as I was struggling with changes in my professional life and family drama, I got the news that my biological father, Galen, had passed away.

Read more: On Grief: The Boy and the Heron

It was the day after Halloween. That evening, my mother called to tell me that a coroner’s office in Washington state had gotten in touch. Somehow, they had found her contact information, and were seeking his next-of-kin. As I was his only child and he had no current spouse, that responsibility fell to me.

We hadn’t spoken in years. Our disagreements and his personal struggles were extremely private, so I won’t discuss them here. Needless to say, our relationship had been strained, and I wasn’t entirely sure if he was still alive when I got word of his passing.

But of the things I remember about Galen, most prominent was his talent as an artist. He carved palm tree trunks into tikis, painted dark, moody landscapes on driftwood, and when he was living on pennies in his later years would draw abstract castles with colored pencils. I wish that was all I remember about him.

The Boy and the Heron, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and last?) animated film, had no promotional material before its release in Japan this summer, save a single poster. No plot details were revealed by the studio before its premiere. Like many fans, I avoided spoilers as much as possible until it reached the states.

To summarize: it is about a boy grieving the loss of a parent, and the complicated legacy of an aging artist. I was just barely in the right state of mind to watch it.

(Spoilers here on out!)

During World War II, Mahito, a young boy, loses his mother in a hospital fire. Some time later, his father remarries, and Mahito has complicated feelings about his new stepmother. Meanwhile, a giant heron harasses Mahito, eventually drawing him into a parallel world that’s on the verge of collapse, whose creator, an aging wizard, wants him to inherit his work. Mahito meets a young girl in this parallel world, who is revealed to be a younger version of his mother, and also the sister to Mahito’s stepmother. Mahito chooses not to continue the creator’s work, returning to his own world, having reconciled with his mother’s passing and opening his heart to having his new stepmother in his life.

It’s not a perfect parallel, of course. My mother is alive and well, thank you, but I still felt the loss of Mahito’s mother more acutely than I would have before my father’s passing.

But I’ve struggled with my feelings about the old wizard, and how much he wanted someone to carry on his work. The wizard is revealed to be a great-granduncle to Mahito, and he has been trying to find a descendent to inherit the world that he created before it collapses. To put it bluntly, there’s a lot about my birth father that I would prefer not to carry on. While Mahito wrestles with the idea yet decides not to carry on the work, I would have rejected it outright.

I would argue that The Boy and the Heron is Miyazaki’s most applicable work, in the sense that Tolkien meant it: avoiding direct allegories, but laden with symbolism that could be applied to a variety of things, events, or life experiences. The One Ring isn’t meant as a direct allegory for nuclear war, or power, or addiction, but it can be interpreted as such, depending on the reader.

The only two direct allegories seem to be these:

  • Young Miyazaki -> young Mahito
  • Old Miyazaki -> the wizard

However, the rest of the film is awash in surreal imagery: human-sized carnivorous parakeets; puffy, Kirby-like creatures who float away to become the souls of the living; giant, fake sailboats that obscure the horizon; and far more besides. If any of it is meant to be a direct allegory, I just don’t see it. Are the parakeets disgruntled workers at Studio Ghibli? Are they venture capitalists? Otaku fans? Who knows.

The titular heron — actually a Danny Devito-esque character wearing a heron’s plumage like a magical costume — is obnoxious, wily, and a bit treacherous. But as unwanted as he is, he gets Mahito to where he needs to be.

At least to me, the heron is grief.

My father’s ashes sit in a cardboard box by my desk. I’ve been making plans with his relatives to have his ashes disposed of in a way he would appreciate. As complicated as my feelings about him were, there were still people who cared about him, who want the best for him even after his turbulent life.

The grief has been stubborn and inconsistent. I could barely function for several days, but I often just felt this emptiness inside me. I channeled my feelings into his final arrangements, handling paperwork, contacting the crematorium, etc. Just busywork.

According to Miyazaki, he made The Boy and the Heron to help his loved ones move on from him after his eventual passing. Studio Ghibli is in its own precarious state, having been acquired by Nippon TV. He originally stated it would be his final film, but true to form, he wants to work on yet one more.

Having tied my feelings about my father to this movie, I don’t know how often I’ll revisit it. But it arrived at just the right time to help me grieve, to give me context for my complicated feelings.