On Saturday 8th October I was sitting in the Royal Festival Hall in London, excitedly waiting for the UK premier of Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, The Boy and the Heron, to begin.
Introducing the show, the BFI London Film Festival newly appointed director, Kirsty Matheson, was revealing to a clapping audience how deeply emotional the film was, and how energised she felt after watching it. I thought she chose the right words, as “energy” is exactly what I had felt every time I sat in front of one of Miyazaki’s masterpieces: that strong, even primal, rush of life force the Japanese director has always infused in his works since his 1979 directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro.
I am a Miyazaki fan, even if a recent one. Like most people of my generation, I discovered his work through the 2001 success of Spirited Away. I was sixteen back then. I liked the film, but it was not love at first sight, probably because I was too snobbish in my teenage years to admit I could truly enjoy animation (I was into really serious stuff: Ingmar Bergman was my favourite director at that time; no wonder I didn’t have many friends). In the following years, I watched and liked Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008), but never felt the urge to go digging for his earlier films.
That was until a few years ago, when I found myself bedridden by a terrible cold and couldn’t find anything to watch that I could tolerate in my feverish state. Netflix’s algorithm suggested Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), presumably knowing me better than I did, or do. I clicked on it. And something clicked in my mind: in the following weeks, months, and years I watched the entire Miyazaki’s filmography and watched it again. And again. And again.
Without even realising it, I became an adept member of Studio Ghibli’s cult, and I have been ever since.
The story of an angry boy
I could spend the rest of the article telling you how great The Boy and the Heron is, with its sense of ineluctability and yet hope, its cosmic apocalypse that is also a vision of cosmic rebirth. The Boy and the Heron is probably the most “psychological” of Miyazaki’s films, and I mean the word in the Western, psychoanalytical sense: it could be read as a deep dive into a personal and collective unconscious, or as a journey to an archetypal underworld not so different from the one described by depth psychologists like Carl Jung or James Hillman. It is also a film which features a rich symbolist and surrealist aesthetic, with its references to Arnold Böcklin 1880’s Island of the Dead and René Magritte 1959’s The Castle of the Pyrenees. It is, ostensibly, a film about death, about the end of things, and why the end of things is not a bad thing in itself.
I could tell you this and more, but I don’t want to spoil the experience. So, I’ll stick to something that becomes immediately clear from the film’s very initial scene: first and foremost, The Boy and the Heron is a film about an angry boy. A boy who is angry because he has lost his mum. A boy who following that anger, finds a way to cure his wound, and the wound of the world he inhabits.
This takes me back to the first time I watched Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and what really struck me about the film. In the initial scene, Nausicaa is chased by an Ohm, a huge trilobite-like insect driven into a berserk rage by the destruction of its natural environment. The Ohmu’s blind fury (which reminded me of Achilles' wrath) is an important theme in Nausicaä, and from many points of view the real engine that moves the plot. Nausicaa’s world is a world of trauma, and Nausicaa’s power is the ability to heal this trauma through her empathy. But – and this is what I really liked, even in my feverish altered state of consciousness, or maybe because of it – Nausicaa’s sympathy for all living things is not simply a cure to the Ohmu’s rage: it’s just a different, and arguably healthier, response to the underlying problem, that is to say, the trauma itself, the toxic wasteland that both Nausicaa and the Ohmu are forced to live in.
In contrast to Homer’s Iliad, then, wrath isn’t seen simply as a destructive force. Anger in all of its forms is an imperfect answer to an even more imperfect situation. Anger destroys, but can also create if properly channelled.
A world at war
This theme (anger as a destructive force vs. anger as a creative principle) can be seen in many of Miyazaki’s films: in Princess Mononoke (1997), arguably the peak of Miyazaki’s art before the 2001 success in the West, the young heroine San identifies with a pack of wild white wolves, and is every bit as feral as them: no love she may feel for Ashitaka can tame her, or extinguish her fury for the devastation of her forest. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Howl is consumed by an apparently inexplicable rage, but it is this rage, metaphorically embodied by the fire demon Calcifer, which keeps the Castle moving. Iin Spirited Away, the river spirit is portrayed as a dragon/wolf, and his god nature hides beneath the revolting appearance of a stinky pile of mud which wreaks havoc when it arrives at the thermal baths.
At the same time, though, rage is also a destructive, annihilating force. And this can be seen in the omnipresent war which serves as a backdrop for almost all of Miyazaki’s films.
War is a constant presence in Miyazaki’s worlds. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) depicts a universe deeply lost in a fratricide war between neighbouring kingdoms; in Castle in the Sky (1986), dark powers seek to control the floating island of Laputa to rule the world; Porco Rosso (1992) is Miyazaki’s take on the WWI epic of early military aviation; Princess Mononoke (1997) is deeply rooted in the environmentalist view of an eternal war of men against nature, and of men against men; in Spirited Away (2001) the thermal baths are ruled as an authoritarian military state; in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) a despotic power uses magic to maintain its grip on power; The Wind Rises (2013) revolves around the construction of military planes in the period between the two world wars; and in The Boy and the Heron (2023), our angry boy Mahito loses his mum in a fire during WWII, and the ghosts of the war never stop hunting him. With the exception of three films (My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Ponyo) this comprises Miyazaki’s full filmography.
In Miyazaki’s universe, anger is a powerful and somewhat inescapable force, one that can be used to destroy or can be transmuted into a deeper, healthier energy.
A difficult emotion
We need to be careful when we read the work of a Japanese artist through Western eyes: the history of the East-West relationship is the history of a misunderstanding, and it’s all too easy to mistranslate ideas and symbols to fit our Weltanschauung. And yet, all the Japanese authors who managed to become mainstream in the West consciously mixed Western and Eastern references (think about Banana Yoshimoto or Murakami Haruki in literature, for example), and Miyazaki is no exception.
Broadly speaking, though, and at the risk of some generalisation, we can say that Eastern philosophies tend to be much less dualistic than the Western Platonic-Christian thought, and somewhat unburdened by our idea of Christian guilt.
As I mentioned before, the archetypal image of anger in the West is Achilles’ wrath, one that morphed into the Christian idea of divine retribution. In the classic and Medieval sources rage can be justified or not, can sometimes be cathartic, but very rarely can become a force of creation: like Achilles blinded by its own fury, or like God punishing humankind for its sins with the deluge, anger destroys. This is probably why we find it so hard, in the West, to come to terms with our angry feelings.
In Miyazaki, just like in the alchemical tradition or in-depth psychology, things are different. Anger isn’t good or bad per se: anger is a fire within, a form of raw energy, a tool that can be used to support the forces of good or the forces of evil (and, because things in Miyazaki are seldom as black and white as they seem at first sight, it’s not always easy to say what is good and what is evil). In Miyazaki, probably influenced here by the idea of Buddhist Samsara, war is the natural state of life: aggressiveness, ignorance, and bestiality are states that cannot be escaped. But they can be transformed, their energy can be channelled into something far more luminous, and positive.
Without anger, there would be no war, but there wouldn’t be a response to the war either. Nausicaa’s empathy would be meaningless, as it would be San’s fight for the natural world. Howl would be suffering much less without the anger that consumes him, but there would be no moving castle either, with all the magical universes it brings along. Creation and destruction are part of a single, entangled whole.
And Mahito, of course, wouldn’t have a reason to follow the heron into the underworld: it is his anger, and not only the sorrow for the death of his mother, that pushes him towards the heron. In fact, Mahito follows the heron because he wants to kill it – that is the level of rage he brings with him.
The Boy and the Heron, as I said, is a film about death and the end of things. It’s the final film of a great master of human emotions if there can be one. As such, it is also a film that looks retrospectively at Miyazaki’s career and quotes more or less explicitly many of his films, from Spirited Away to Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke.
It is also a film about the personal and collective apocalypse, the mass-death of millions of beings and the rebirth of other millions, all caught in this endless, painful, joyous, desperate and yet hopeful cycle of birth and death. It is a film, then, that celebrates the positive power of destruction, as nothing new can be born before the old is extinguished, blown up in a huge, catastrophic explosion.
This is the energy Kirsty Matheson was talking about introducing the film to the BFI London Film Festival audience: this faith that human life, and life in general, is worth living even in the face of grief, sorrow, and personal and collective disaster. This is the fire within that destroys so that it can create anew.