Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘The Boy and the Heron’Strikes Chord Globally With Deep Messages

©2023 Studio Ghibli
A scene taken from “The Boy and the Heron”

TOKYO/LOS ANGELES — Director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film “The Boy and the Heron” has been nominated for the Academy Award for best animated feature film, raising expectations for the film to become the second Japanese animated feature to win the Oscar, following “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (“Spirited Away”), which received the award in 2003.

“The Boy and the Heron” became the first Japanese work to win best animated motion picture at the 81st Golden Globe Awards. The Golden Globes are considered a precursor to the Academy Awards, the biggest event for the U.S. film industry.

Sweeping awards

While the film’s original Japanese title, “Kimitachi wa Do Ikiru ka?” (How do you live?), was directly taken from a children’s novel by Genzaburo Yoshino, “The Boy and the Heron” is not an adaptation of the novel.

Miyazaki wrote and directed the film, which is his 12th animated feature. Set in wartime Japan, the film is a fantasy adventure in which a boy named Mahito, who has lost his mother, encounters a mysterious grey heron who leads him to a world where life and death are blended into one.

The film is said to be the culmination of Miyazaki’s career and a reflection of his own childhood.

“The Boy and the Heron” has swept the awards season. At the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 7, the film became the first non-English-language work to win best animated motion picture, surpassing Disney’s 100th anniversary film and the new animated Spiderman movie.

The film’s box-office performance has been strong. In Japan, the film was released in July 2023 and had earned ¥8.8 billion as of Jan. 21, coming close to the big-hit mark of ¥10 billion. The film topped box-office charts in the first week of its release in North America, France, South Korea and Taiwan.

While Miyazaki had decided to retire from making feature-length animated films with his 2013 film “Kaze Tachinu” (“The Wind Rises”), he reversed his decision and spent about seven years on the production of “The Boy and the Heron.”

Opinions on the film are divided in Japan, partly because there was almost no information about the film announced before its release. However, the film has been highly appreciated by critics in foreign countries, where it was released in the autumn of 2023 or later.

New fans

Ryusuke Hikawa, an anime and special effects researcher, cites strong messages in the film as one of the reasons for its high rating.

“How should we overcome challenges common to all humankind, such as unexplainable suffering? As the film’s original Japanese title [How do you live?] suggests, the film serves as [Miyazaki’s] last will and testament of vast scale to ask its audience that question,” Hikawa said. “The film is not only entertainment simply consumed by audiences but contains messages that help the audience interpret the story.”

Film researcher Seiji Kano points out that the film generally receives praise overseas, for such reasons as the sheer visual beauty created by the Japanese animation giant. However, as in Japan, some feel the film is difficult to understand.

“In North America, Warner Bros. Discovery’s HBO Max [now Max] service began streaming Studio Ghibli movies in 2020. I think that a new fan base craving his first new film in a decade was born when American families watched Miyazaki’s past films during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kano said.

The recent drastic change in the animation industry also lurks in the background, according to Kano. “Opinions have been divided on Disney’s push toward diversity in its recent works, and many of them have lost money. The company prioritizes streaming on its Disney+ platform over releasing new movies in theaters, which has resulted in more fans turning away from movie theaters,” Kano said.

“Films that avoid using realistic 3D animation and instead use a combination of computer graphics and other elements to make images that look hand-drawn are also highly evaluated. This makes the rarity of ‘The Boy and the Heron’ stand out,” he added.


On the other hand, the trend of film awards focusing on themes of diversity, such as race and gender, also allows non-English-language films to receive praise.

For example, diversity in selection and nomination was front and center at the Golden Globe Awards this year, and critics, journalists and others from over 70 countries and regions across the world were involved in the selection process.

The Oscars have been under fire for a lack of diversity in awards nominees, which have been dominated by white people.

To address the situation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has launched reforms such as increasing the representation of women and people of color.

The South Korean film “Parasite” won best picture at the 2020 Oscars, and the Academy is still in the process of reforms. Such changes in awards ceremonies are apparently giving a boost to the success of “The Boy and the Heron.”

The film is Miyazaki’s fourth work to be nominated for an Oscar for animated feature film. Out of the past 10 winners of the Golden Globe for best animated feature film, eight went on to win the Oscar. This year’s Academy Award winner will be announced on March 10.

More younger fans

In North America, “The Boy and the Heron” was released in December and became the first Studio Ghibli film to take the top spot at the North American box office over its debut weekend. The film has earned more than $43 million (about ¥6.3 billion) in total.

Miyazaki is called a “master” in the Hollywood film industry. He holds such a special status in the United States that the inaugural temporary exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which was opened in 2021, was named after him.

Voice actors for the English version of the film include big-name Hollywood actors, such as Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

An actor who publicly says he is a fan of Miyazaki had reportedly asked a distribution company to offer him a part in Miyazaki’s next new film and was happy to accept even a part with a few lines in “The Boy and the Heron.”

According to GKIDS, the New York-based company that distributes the English language version of the film in North America, Miyazaki was less known in the United States than in Europe and Asia at first.

However, the company has been rerunning his past works in theaters in various parts of the United States for the past few years and taking other long-term measures to cultivate new fans, especially among younger people. The success of “The Boy and the Heron” could also be the result of these efforts.

GKIDS President David Jesteadt explains that the high-quality 2D work and creative and unexpected developments in the story are the attractions of Miyazaki’s works. As 3D animation has become mainstream, hand-drawn animated films are seen as having high artistic value.

According to Jesteadt, consumers are bored with family-oriented stories in traditional American animation works, and it is unusual for Americans to see creative animated works that reflect the director’s own vision entirely.

Los Angeles-based film journalist Yuki Saruwatari said, “Animated works in the United States must have happy endings. Despite the fact that ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is not the type of film that ordinary families are rushing to watch, it is highly rated probably because the number of fans of Miyazaki’s films has steadily been increasing.”