The Boy and The Heron – Movie Review by Efe Teksoy


Cinema Writer/Film Critic Efe TEKSOY; wrote the drama, adventure and fantastic animation “THE BOY AND THE HERON”,  for America’s Los Angeles-based Internet Newspaper @alaturkanews.



The Boy and the Heron, which heralded the great master Hayao Miyazaki’s magnificent return to cinema after a decade, made its international premiere at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival as the opening film on September 7, 2023. And thus, it made history as the first animated film to open the Toronto International Film Festival. Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s greatest animation directors, created this animation based on Genzaburô Yoshino’s 1937  “How Do You Live?” Inspired by his novel. This production grossed $167 million worldwide and was honored with numerous awards; It received the BAFTA Award for Best Animated Feature at the 77th British Academy Film Awards, the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature at the 81st Golden Globe Awards, and the OSCAR Award for Best Animated Feature at the 96th Academy Awards. The entire production, signed by the famous animation company Studio Ghibli, was hand-drawn by a team of 60 people, and with a budget of 50 million dollars, it has the potential to be the highest-budget production among Japanese films, anime and live action productions to date. Production timeline; It takes an average of 7 years, including 2.5 years for pre-production activities and approximately 5 years for the production phase.

English Voice Cast; Christian Bale, Florence Pugh, Robert Pattinson, Dave Bautista, Gemma Chan, Karen Fukuhara, Mark Hamill and Willem Dafoe.



Although the animations produced by Studio Ghibli, which was founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki in 1985, vary in terms of content and tone, their main theme is environmentalism, that is, the way human beings interact with nature. In addition, the company, Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism, that is, the use of characters in animal form, are the basic characteristics of Ghibli films. These uses, combined with the process of metamorphosis, indicate changes in character and meaning. These motifs and themes underlying the story remind us of the psychological studies on behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, an American social philosopher, psychologist and psychologist who was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In his concept of Radical Behaviorism, which carries the belief that animal behavior can be usefully studied and compared to human behavior, B. F. Skinner argues that experiential factors play an important role in determining the behavior of many complex organisms and that the study of these issues is an important field of research in itself.



Another detail is that the main character of Ghibli films is generally either a child or a young adult. The reason for this is that, unlike the materialism that surrounds their parents, children are more vulnerable to facing serious danger because their ability to perceive the threat and be affected by it is not developed. In addition, the fact that the leading actor is a child makes the young audience identify more with the film. In the movie The Boy and the Heron, we see that these common elements and themes are adhered to. Master artist Miyazaki; Through surreal characters, it allows us to discover a secret world that exists within us but that we are not aware of, and once again conveys to the audience the fantastic and spiritual dimension that adult rationality cannot capture due to logic and reason, by turning it upside down through the eyes of a child. Described as partially autobiographical, The Boy and the Heron has parallels with Hayao Miyazaki’s life. The hospital fire in the film’s opening sequence has personal parallels with Miyazaki’s loss of his mother, who was known for her strong views and is believed to have inspired many of the director’s female characters. In the film, we see that the theme of war in the works of master director Miyazaki is repeated once again, in the story set during the World War II period; It touches on historical events such as the Battle of Saipan (Operation Forager), which took place on the Pacific front of the Second World War between June 15 and July 9, 1944.



When the main character, Mahito, finally finds his stepmother in the other world, it turns out that her room is not a “birthing room” as the other characters say, but is actually a tomb. The white paper strips surrounding his stepmother attack Mahito. The reason for this is that these stripes are Shide (Shinto). It is used in Shinto rituals in Japan to separate and purify religious and sacred areas. We see that white paper strips contain different meanings when viewed from a semiotic perspective. Another important detail in Spielberg’s cinema is that white has a visually important place in the color palette. French philosopher Roland Barthes is the master of thought and writing of the XX. century and one of the founders of European semiotics. Barthes influenced the development of schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism. Barthes, together with the Swiss philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure, known as the ‘father’ of twentieth-century linguistics, and the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, enabled the development of the boundaries of semiotics, on which he laid the foundation. The great French essayist and critic Barthes states in his work ‘The Semiotic Challenge’ that the color white conveys a certain idea about luxury and femininity. The white stripes, whose purpose in the movie is to keep death away from the grave and protect Natsuko, actually protect and defend a kind of purity and innocence. The distinctive color palette in Miyazaki’s cinema is especially evident in the use of harsh tones. The aesthetic lines of cities and villages are separated from the natural framework by clear lines. The dominant colors White and Gray were used by the Spanish Golden Age painter Diego Velázquez, who used them in a way that no other painter had used before him, and It reminds us of the color perspectives in the works of El Greco, who is considered the pioneer of Expressionism and Cubism.



Studio Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata are prominent members of labor unions at Toei Studios, and their commitment to social justice is also evident in the societies that adorn their films. Socio-political and social issues such as War, Industrial Revolution, Consumer Society, and the contradiction between technological progress and natural life are conveyed to the audience with a socialist observation. In this movie, during the Pacific War in Tokyo, Mahito loses his mother in a hospital fire. Mahito’s father, Shoichi, an aerial munitions factory owner, marries his late wife’s sister, Natsuko, and they move to stepmother Natsuko’s rural estate (just as director Miyazaki’s family was forced to migrate from the city to the countryside during the war). Here the character Mahito encounters a strange gray heron who leads him to a sealed tower, the last known location of his stepmother Natsuko’s architect great-uncle. This meeting is actually the most important breaking moment in the story, the Plot Point. Because the Gray Heron (sort of taking on the role of the Rabbit in the Alice in Wonderland story) takes Mahito out of the real world and takes him into the depths of the dream world. While the story initially follows a tragic and dramatic structure, as it progresses, we see that it takes steps towards a cosmogonic and chaotic parallel world, based on a classical fairy tale archetype. However, we see that this enchanted and magical world is actually a deconstructed post-modern universe of signs loaded with layers of meaning (in the words of the French post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida). Today’s leading philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han, in his philosophy book titled “The Best of Fun”; “While entertainment claims to aim only to entertain and please, it shows its effect by infiltrating cognitive layers.” He states that he achieved this thanks to his semantic and cognitive structure. The cognitive layers mentioned by Byung-Chul Han; We see that the animation and the characters in it reach the audience.



It is then revealed that the Gray Heron is actually a Birdman in costume. Erving Goffman, considered the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century, was the 73rd President of the American Sociological Association. He made significant contributions to the world of sociology with the concepts he put forward on social interaction. His book “The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life” was recognized by the International Sociological Association as the 10th most important book written in the field of sociology during the 20th century and received the MacIver award of the American Sociological Association. The book states that people perform many performances in daily life and we wear various masks to make an effective impression. Goffman; “Everyone who is sure of his thoughts, proud of his position, or anxious to fulfill his duty, wears a tragic mask.” By saying this, he states that he actually assigns the mask to be himself and transfers all the arrogance of the person to it. Just like the Birdman character does this by dressing up in the Gray Heron costume. In the animation called The Boy and the Heron; The inner journey of the character Mahito brings us deep questions about identity and existence. Jean-Paul Sartre, who is known as the father of the Existentialism movement in philosophy, wrote in his 1943 masterpiece, Being and Nothingness; He makes detailed phenomenological descriptions of the concepts that form the basis of the philosophy of freedom and defends the understanding of “absolute” freedom. However, with George Berkeley, one of the most important philosophers of the English empiricist tradition and the Enlightenment, who said that to exist is to be perceived, and René Descartes, the French mathematician, philosopher and scientist who is considered the founder of modern rationalism, he sees the proof of existence in the concept of thinking, also we see the connection between identity and existence here. However, Gertrude Stein, the great master of Avant-garde literature and the language acrobat of Modern American literature, says that to be is to be involved in the moment and to write that “uninterrupted present”. When viewed according to Stein’s principles, the character Mahito has no distinct identity. But, after gaining success, Mahito matures and acquires a characteristic identity, and the problem of ultimate existence eventually disappears.



However, when viewed within the framework of existence, the problem of freedom and the story arise in direct proportion. In this new life where Mahito moves and starts a new life, he searches for a kind of freedom in the hope of breaking his ties with the past. Looking at its essence, Mahito’s character creates an idealistic personality profile. When we look at the history of philosophy; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the greatest name of “objective idealism”, Descartes, the representative of “subjective idealism”, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, who rejected the concept of “transcendental self” but put the principle of “intentionality” (Intentionnalité) at the center of philosophy, and “phenomenon-noumena” dualism completely. Within the framework of critical idealist Immanuel Kant, we observe different types of idealism in the history of thought. When we look at The Boy and the Heron through the character of Mahito, we see (just like Sartre’s path in the history of philosophy) arguments such as the priority of “being-in-itself” over “being-for-itself” and that consciousness has no content of its own, and almost the opposite. We see that he has adopted a “conscious idealism” with an orientation.



BARTHES, Roland. (The Semiotic Challenge), Göstergebilimsel Serüven, Mehmet Rifat-Sema Rifat, translate İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları press, 2018

Colin Odell, Michelle Le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Films (Stüdyo Ghibli: Hayao Miyazaki ve Isao Takahata Filmleri), Barış Baysal, translate, İstanbul: Kalkedon Yayınları press, 2011

GOFFMAN, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Günlük Yaşamda Benliğin Sunumu), Barış Cezar, translate, İstanbul: Metis yayınları press, 2020

HAN, Byung-Chul, Good Entertainment: A Deconstruction of the Western Passion Narrative (Eğlencenin İyisi: Batı Sanatında Ciddi/Eğlenceli İkiliği),  Haluk Barışcan, translate, İstanbul: Metis Yayınları press, 2023

SKINNER, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.

SARTRE, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness (Varlık ve Hiçlik: Fenomenolojik Ontoloji Denemesi), Turhan Ilgaz, Gaye Ç. Eksen, translate, İstanbul: İthaki Yayınları press, 2011.

SARTRE, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism (Varoluşçuluk), Asım Bezirci, translate, İstanbul: Say Yayınları press, 1985.

SARTRE, Jean-Paul. The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness (Ego’nun Aşkınlığı: fenomenolojik bir betimlemenin taslağı), Serdar Rifat Kırkoğlu, translate, İstanbul: Hil yayınları press, 2018



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