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What is The Boy and the Heron about?
Miyazaki’s long-time producer, and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki, summarized The Boy and the Heron as a message from Miyazaki to his grandson. “Grandpa is moving on to the next world, but he’s leaving behind this film.” The encounter Mahito has with his Grand Uncle expresses this. But it also reveals Boy and the Heron’s core message—malice, death, negativity don’t have to define your world. You have the power to make the world something better. How you choose to live your life matters. Other themes include coming to terms with grief, succession, the symbolism of a scar, and service.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Mahito Maki – Soma Santoki | Luca Padovan
- The Grey Heron – Masaki Suda | Robert Pattinson
- Lady Himi (Mahito’s mom) – Aimyon | Karen Fukuhara
- Natsuko (Mahito’s aunt) – Yoshino Kimura | Gemma Chan
- Shoichi Maki (Mahito’s dad) – Takya Kimura | Christian Bale
- Granduncle – Shōhei Hino | Mark Hamill
- Kiriko – Ko Shibasaki | Florence Pugh
- Noble Pelican – Kaoru Kobayashi | Willem Dafoe
- The Parakeet King – Jun Kunimura | Dave Bautista
- Written by – Hayao Miyazaki
- Directed by – Hayao Miyazaki
The ending of The Boy and the Heron explained
The end of The Boy and the Heron begins following the escape from Granduncle’s fantasy world. There, Mahito had rejected Granduncle’s offer to inherit this strange universe and remake it into something more positive, somewhere not stained with malice. But Mahito wants to be in the real world, with the people who care about him, and come to terms with the existence of malice. That’s when the Parakeet King tries to stack the blocks to save the universe. Only to get frustrated and slice the blocks with his sword.
The world collapses and everyone, except Granduncle, manages to leave. Lady Himi returns to the past. Mahito, Natsuko, Kiriko, and the Grey Heron return to the present (along with the parakeets and pelicans) and reunite with the other old maids and Mahito’s father.
The Grey Heron mentions that Mahito should forget the strange world over time but remembers it for now because he had brought back the toy Kiriko and a block. The tower crumbles.
We pick up two years later. Mahito has a suitcase packed. His dad, mom (Natsuko), and little brother wait for him by the front door. They’re moving back to Tokyo. Mahito’s hair has grown over his scar.
One of the easy ways to understand a movie, especially one as ethereal and dreamlike as The Boy and the Heron, is to compare the opening scene with the final scene. The difference between the two usually embodies the film’s journey. So what do we see here?
The Boy and the Heron opens with a fire in Tokyo after a bombing, a byproduct of Japan’s involvement in the Pacific War. The hospital were Natsuko’s mother works is in the center of the flames. Mahito tries to run into the midst of everything to reach his mother, to save her, but there’s no chance. The flames are too intense. Overall, the scene is full of chaos and desperation, as the population reacts to the fire. Mahito and his father leave Tokyo.
It ends with Mahito and his father returning to Tokyo, but with Natsuko and a new baby brother. The scene is completely calm and peaceful.
That’s the arc. From overwhelming chaos to a sense of peace. From leaving Tokyo because of something horrible that happened to returning to Tokyo because things have improved.
Everything that happens between the beginning and the end is merely there to drive Mahito to that point of coming to terms with the loss of his mom and finding the confidence to not let the bad parts of the world overwhelm him.
That’s the simple way of understanding The Boy and the Heron. It’s about managing to work through bad experiences rather than letting them derail you. Which is what we see in Granduncle’s offer to Mahito. He essentially tells Mahito to stay in this fantasy land and forever be protected from the malice of the real world. But Mahito accepts that malice exists. And points to the scar on his head, from hitting himself with a rock, as a sign that he’s as capable of malice as anyone. So there’s no running from it. Better to be with those you love and face it together.
This is where we start to get into all the other stuff that’s going on.
The Boy and the Heron is probably Miyazaki’s most personal film. He didn’t lose his mother at a young age—he was 42 when she passed—but the loss was profound all the same. The Tokyo bombings caused his family to leave the city for Utsunomiya when he was three. A year later, they fled to an even smaller town—Kanuma. By 1947, they doubled back to Utsunomiya. Shortly after, Tokyo.
So Mahito is very much Miyazaki. Except Miyazaski’s also the Granduncle. Miyazaki has spent his entire adult life creating fantasy worlds. But he’s 83. Any film could be his last. He’s aware of this. And one of the big narratives, since his short-lived retirement in 2013, has been finding a potential successor to lead Studio Ghibli once he’s gone. He and Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s co-founder, had spent years attempting to convince Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, to take over. But that didn’t come to fruition. So they sold to Nippon TV.
You can see Mahito’s refusal of the Granduncle and the finality of Granduncle’s world as Miyazaki coming to terms with the idea that he may not ever have a successor. That if Studio Ghibli ends with him, that’s fine, because his son, his grandson, and others are free to live their own lives and build their own world.
That brings us to one of the other major ideas presented by Mahito’s return to Tokyo. It’s the idea of a post-war Japan. Prior to the war, the emperor of Japan had claimed divinity as descendents of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. But as part of the terms of surrender following their defeat in World War II, Emperor Hirohito had to issue a national statement that he was not divine. The Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburō Ōe has a wonderful article about this called “The Day the Emperor Spoke in a Human Voice.” It marked a huge cultural shift in Japan. One that’s still in the process of unfolding.
Mahito is scarred by the bombing of Tokyo. The war. And the anger he carries with him, the malice in his heart, causes him to wound himself with the rock. Just so he can not go to school. He wants to avoid. But the events in the tower and the fantasy world cause him to reevaluate how he wants to live. He doesn’t want to be a pelican that feeds on the warawara. He’d rather be like Kirko and his mother, Lady Himi, and make a positive difference.
With that in mind, you can see the warawara and Natsuko’s pregnancy as being about the future of Japan. So Mahito’s return to Tokyo carries with it this idea that he’s part of the next generation, the post-war generation, that will shape the country.
We have that quote from Toshio Suzuki, that The Boy and the Heron was for Miyazaki’s grandson and that “Grandpa is moving on to the next world, but he’s leaving behind this film.” You very much get the sense that Miyazaki’s saying to his son, his grandson, and the rest of the younger generations of today, even tomorrow, that the future is in their hands. And how they choose to live their lives matters because malice can be a cancer. While positivity can be an antidote.
Which gets at one last piece of the puzzle. The actual title of the film isn’t The Boy and the Heron. That’s marketing for Westerners. The actual title is Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka. That translates to How Do You Live?
If that’s familiar, it’s because it comes directly from the book that Mahito finds from his mother. The book is real and was published in 1937 and is a classic in Japan. A kid loses his dad and the uncle steps in to be a father-figure. It’s very philosophical and instructional about how to live life, ethics, and how to deal with certain issues. After you spend all this time seeing how the uncle lives his life and how the kid, Koperu (Copper), decides to live his life, the novel concludes with a question to the reader: “How do you live?”
It’s a striking question because the novel puts some responsibility on the reader to put into context how close they are to the ideals espoused through the narrative. Are you on a positive path? Or a negative path? Are you handling things well? Poorly? Where can you improve? The question is innocent, not judgmental. So it provides an opportunity for the reader to, on their own, feel inspired to live better, to make adjustments.
It’s said that How Do You Live? was an important book for Miyazaki, a favorite from his childhood. But he has gone on record as saying the film isn’t an adaptation of Genzaburo Yoshino’s novel. Rather, it’s about Mahito reading the book and feeling inspired by it.
And we see that change in Mahito. Before he reads it, he’s a bit angrier, a bit more haunted. But after reading it, he is braver and more determined to save Natsuko and be a force of good. At the very end of The Boy and the Heron, we see Mahito put the book in his backpack. So as he returns to Tokyo, the cultural center of Japan, he brings with him the positivity the book represents. In that way, he becomes a symbol for others to feel inspired by material like How Do You Live? and How Do You Live? (the movie) to learn from our scars, both personal and national, and reshape Japan, or wherever home is for you, for the better. We see how he has chosen to live. How will you?
The themes and meaning of The Boy and the Heron
Granduncle offers Mahito what amounts to a protective bubble—stay in this world and you’ll never have to face pain again, you can be protected from all the negative things you’ve experienced in the outside world. Except Mahito recognizes that nothing is without malice or negativity. That he himself has the capacity for it.
There’s a parallel between the two. Mahito went to school, got in a fight, so hit himself in the head with a rock so he wouldn’t have to go to school and could just stay home all the time. Likewise, Granduncle didn’t like what was going on in the outer world so created the magical realm in order to hide. If Mahito accepted the position, he would only be reinforcing the negative emotions that had already plagued him. It wouldn’t accomplish anything for the people he cared about.
You can’t get rid of malice, negativity, or bad things. It’s part of who we are. Part of the world. Part of life. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference.
The most obvious example of this are Granduncle and Mahito. But the idea of succession is important in other ways. Like Natsuko as Mahito’s new mom. Even though he is polite to Natsuko, we know Mahito isn’t necessarily thrilled with what’s happening. He’s still grieving so maintains a bit of an icy distance from his aunt. Until she heads into the magical realm. His eventual acceptance of Natsuko as his new mother coincides with his acceptance of a world without his mother.
How you live
The novel How Do You Live? plays an important role in things because it asks a question that implies there’s a choice. It’s not just “How do you live?” but also “How do you want to live?” What kind of person do you want to be? What choices could you make differently to be that person?
Mahito is, initially, in a negative place because of his grief. Just like the pelicans act negatively because of their hunger. But once he meets young Kirko and the 12-year-old version of his mom, it changes the polarity of his soul. Positivity takes over. He stops being so self-oriented and begins to help those around him, like the Warawara. He partners with his enemy, the Heron. And risks everything to save Natsuko. Then rejects a world he could be the god of in order to be part of the lives of the people whom he loves and who love him.
So the film recognizes our capacity for malice but submits that we can choose to be better. That we can live much more positively and the difference that makes on the world and those around us.
Why is the movie called The Boy and the Heron?
It’s not the real title. The real title is How Do You Live? which is a lot more meaningful to the story. As it asks the viewer to pay attention to Mahito’s attitude and the change from a negative perspective to a positive one. While The Boy and the Heron puts a lot more emphasis on the relationship between those two characters. You can still see the change in that relationship, from contentious to supportive, but it’s possible to overlook the larger implications of their dynamic.
Who changed the title? The president of GKIDS, the film’s American distributor. Dave Jesteadt. According to NextShark, “Jesteadt explained that the shift from the original title…was aimed at distancing the film from the 1937 novel of the same name that inspired legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. While Studio Ghibli has previously clarified that it was not a direct adaptation, some observers have mistakenly described the movie as being one.”
NextShark continues: Jesteadt shared that as they were trying to decide on an alternative title, several options were considered, including The Tower Master and The Grand Uncle. As the team avoided titles that felt more rooted in hard fantasy, they ultimately chose The Boy and the Heron.
What’s interesting is that the heron character was based on Miyazaki’s long-time creative partner, the man we’ve discussed a lot, Toshio Suzuki. So, in some ways, Jesteadt’s chosen title has meta aspects as it’s essentially Miyazaki and Suzuki. Which feels fitting for what could be the final film in a partnership that’s had such a tremendous impact on cinema.
Important motifs in The Boy and the Heron
Mahito’s trying to save his new mother-in-law who is pregnant with his younger sibling. But for a lot of the early portion of the movie it seems Mahito wants nothing to do with Natsuko and has no interest in a potential sibling.
So there’s some symbolic meaning when he helps Kiriko with the Warawara and witnesses the marshmallow-y spirits fly up to the sky to be reborn as new souls. He essentially participates in magical childbirth. And becomes really invested in the Warawara’s survival. This becomes part of Mahito’s positivity-shift to wanting to help others and be of service, punctuated by his saving of Natsuko.
The magical tower
The tower embodies a retreat from reality. It’s where the Granduncle ensconces himself. It’s where Mahito tries to run off to when he wants to get out of the house. It comes to represent this idea of hiding from the world. And we see the levels of that. The way Mahito’s father moves them from Tokyo to the rural estate. And how Mahito knocks himself in the head to avoid going to school and further retreats to just the home. Then from home to the tower. The fall of the tower is a sign of his confidence and no longer needing to or wanting to hide. Which culminates with the return to Tokyo.
Questions & answers about The Boy and the Heron
Is The Boy and the Heron connected to other Studio Ghibli movies?
No. But it does share a general story arc with Spirited Away. And Miyazaki did base the movie on aspects of his life, something he also did in a lesser way with The Wind Rises.
Is The Boy and the Heron Miyazaki’s final film?
People thought The Wind Rises would be his last movie, mostly because MIyazaki said as much, then retired. But he came out of retirement a mere four years later to begin making How Do You Live? People assumed this would be his final movie, since he’s 83 now. But Toshio Suzuki has said that it seems Miyazaki wants to work until he can’t. So much so that apparently he’s already started on a new one.
Is The Boy and the Heron based on Alice in Wonderland?
I guess you could view the Heron as the White Rabbit and Mahito as Alice and the world of the tower as Wonderland. Kind of like how Ponyo is similar to The Little Mermaid.
Honestly, it reminded me a lot more of Pan’s Labyrinth. Both movies involve a new marriage and a pregnant mother, war, and a child trying to escape the negativity of the world through the fantastic. With that dark fantasy edge. I can find a lot of articles about Guillermo Del Toro appreciating Hayao Miyazaki but I can’t find anything about Miyazaki commenting on Del Toro. But I’m curious!
Why did Mahito hit himself in the head with the rock
The kids at school weren’t nice to him. To the point Mahito gets into a fight. We know he’s still upset about his mom dying. That he’s in a new place. And now these kids are being mean to him. Instead of finding a way to live with that or work through it, he hits himself in the head with the rock because he can blame it on the kids and get out of going to school. It’s an avoidance tactic. But it does some pretty serious damage. We see a lot of blood. And the scar is huge.
Was the fantasy world all in Mahito’s head?
He does hit himself in the head with a rock. And it’s right after that the more fantastic things begin to occur. So maybe for a few minutes you could start to buy into the “all in his head” theory. Until Natsuko goes missing. That’s not his fantasy or a delusion. And the old women all know the legends about the tower. So, no, it wasn’t in Mahito’s head.
Was Lady Himi really Mahito’s mom?
Yeah. We’re told that his mom disappeared for a full year when she was 12 years old. We don’t know if the time in the magical realm is the same as the time on Earth. One year could have been decades. Which seems implied because Granduncle was something like Mahito’s great-great granduncle. We can assume that Mahito’s mother in real life was in her mid to late 20s or early 30s when she passed in the fire. By the time Mahito enters the world, it’s probably 15 to 20 years later.
One possible version of what happens is this: 12 year old Himi enters the tower, goes into the magical world. She spends what’s essentially 20 years in that world but doesn’t age due to the magical properties. Mahito enters the world. They meet. They destroy the tower. But each has to return to different periods. Mahito returns to the film’s present. While Himi returns to 19 years ago (since one year passed). She doesn’t remember that world but subconsciously names her son Mahito because she already met him.
But it did seem that Himi was already aware she was Mahito’s mother? I’d have to rewatch to check that. But that knowledge would mean we have to reevaluate how she knows that and what it means.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about The Boy and the Heron? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!