Climate Action

Answering Nature’s Call in The Boy and the Heron

Last December, Studio Ghibli released the final feature-length film of Hayao Miyazaki’s career: The Boy and the Heron. With the 96th Academy Awards scheduled to air this Sunday, and his film nominated, many are wondering whether the Japanese genius behind Spirited Away (2001) can bring home a second Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Although critics and fans alike have been quick to point out the autobiographical elements in the film, what interests me even more are the ways in which the director picks up where he left off in terms of the themes and preoccupations of his earlier work, such as his interest in man’s relationship to nature.

In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), he imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which human conflict has resulted in the destruction of the global ecosystem. In My Neighbor Totoro (1988), he conceives of nature as a place removed from society, where humans and nonhuman life can live in harmony. In Princess Mononoke (1997), he explores the complexity of the conflict between humans and nature, asking the audience, How might we develop sustainably? What would it take to move away from an ideology of consumption? 

The Boy and the Heron (2023) appropriately merges the concerns of all three of these films. Like Totoro, it features a young protagonist, Mahito, who loses himself in a fantasy world, hidden by a forest. Like Nausicaä, the world he escapes from is wrought with conflict among humans: World War II, in this case. And like Mononoke, the story contends with the themes of responsibility and stewardship.

The Boy and (the World of) the Heron

The hero of his new film is 12-year-old Mahito Maki, who explores a mysterious tower in the woods, where he meets another child, Lady Himi, and discovers a fantastical world where time is all but suspended. 

Everything in this place, we learn — from the land to the sea, including the Grey Heron himself, after whom the film is named — is managed by Mahito’s Granduncle, a Wizard-of-Oz-like sorcerer who receives his power from a magical stone, which fell from the sky decades ago and possesses awesome properties. In a way, one could say that, through the stone, Granduncle serves as the steward of nature’s power. Without the stone, a (super)natural object, Granduncle is no more than a man; with it, he becomes a godlike figure, able to shape the world in whatever image he chooses. 

“Natural” Victim Blaming

Two scenes in particular serve to illustrate Miyazaki’s preoccupations with nature in this film. The first one occurs in the middle of the plot, when Mahito stumbles upon the conflict between the pelicans and the warawara — the unborn souls of humans. 

As the warawara ascend to be born, pelicans arrive in a swarm to feast on the adorable humanoid marshmallows. At this point, Lady Himi shoots fireworks at the birds to disperse them, which saves the unborn souls from being gobbled up. Afterward, Mahito finds a wounded pelican and lectures him. He tells this pelican that it is wrong to eat the warawara. (Because they are defenseless? Because they will go on to become human beings? Because they are so darn cute? He doesn’t actually say.) 

In response, the dying pelican replies in no uncertain terms that he and his kind have been left with no other choice. Without another source of food, the pelicans are fated to starve to death lest they prey on the tiny creatures. Since Granduncle placed the pelicans there, he is responsible for the predicament in which both the pelicans and the warawara find themselves. If this doesn’t sound like an allegory for climate change, you may want to start again from the top!

It Takes a Village

A scene near the end of the film develops the man vs. nature conflict in more detail. In Granduncle’s final conversation with Mahito, he asks the boy to take over as his successor. Mahito, though, believes himself too impure for the task, for it is by lying to his family that he managed to explore the tower in the first place. 

Before the two members of the Maki family can finish deliberating, in swoops the Parakeet King, furious at Granduncle’s unilateral decision-making and its potential to ruin the empire over which he presides. In a rage, the King swings his sword at Granduncle’s building blocks — pieces of the magical stone that gives life to everything in the tower world — which results in the imminent destruction of the very earth beneath their feet. Soon, everyone (human and nonhuman alike) makes a mad dash for the doors that exit to the “real” world. The one they leave behind perishes alongside Granduncle. 

Once Mahito and his friends make it outside, the tower crashes to the ground. The door to “paradise,” as it were — or at least the promise of such a place — has been forever sealed shut. 

Yet it is at this moment that Mahito removes from his pocket one of the magical building blocks Granduncle used to forge the world of the tower. Interestingly, Mahito foraged this one from inside, which is to say that this particular block, to our knowledge at least, has never been manipulated by the boy’s Granduncle. In his hand, Mahito holds what one might call a piece of paradise: a symbol of the world as it could be, where humans and nature live in harmony. A world, it must be said, that Granduncle was unable to design on his own.

That Mahito deems himself unfit for the task of steering the magical tower world autocratically is evidence of his humility in the face of the greatest challenge in human history: mitigating climate change, and thereby ensuring a livable future for all species. In this scene, I believe Miyazaki is making a case for the old adage, “It takes a village.” For, more than the actions we pursue as individuals (although these, too, matter), what will determine the fate of life on this planet will be the extent to which we choose to come together as a community to effect change. 

More likely than not, children like Mahito and Lady Himi will be the ones to lead the way.

What Can We Learn?

So, what can environmentally-minded viewers take away from The Boy and the Heron? Simply put, no one is going to save us from the greenhouse gas emissions we have been pumping into the air since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. We all must do it. And, as Mahito understands, systemic change starts one block at a time. It is we humans who have the power and the responsibility to supply the magic.

UPDATE: On March 10th, 2024, at the 96th Academy Awards – The Boy and The Heron secured Hayao Miyazaki his second Oscar for Best Animated Animated Feature. At 83 years old, Miyazaki, is the oldest director ever nominated for this category.

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