Swan Song or Not, Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is a Master Surveying His Empire

Studio Ghibli/GKIDS via AP
This image released by GKIDS shows Mahito Maki, voiced by Luca Padovan in English and Soma Santoki in Japanese, in a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy And The Heron.”

When Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro said in his introductory remarks: “We are privileged enough to be living in a time where Mozart is composing symphonies.”

You might be tempted to call that hyperbole, but — this being Miyazaki, the legendary anime filmmaker of “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” — it’s closer to fact. The occurrence of a new film from Miyazaki deserves to be treated like the coming of a seldom-seen comet or something rarer still, like a winning New York Jets season.

Ten years ago, Miyazaki released the profoundly personal “The Wind Rises.” It was then expected to be his swan song. But the 82-year-old filmmaker — known for his propensity for retiring again and again — soon announced that he would make one more. A decade of anticipation followed. Then, just as “The Boy and the Heron” finally debuted, word came that Miyazaki is pondering yet another movie.

As long as he keeps extending, so does our chance to keep returning to some of the most magical realms of animation. Watching “The Boy and the Heron,” which opens nationwide Friday, is like returning to a faintly familiar dreamland. Only, since the only location here is really Miyazaki’s boundless imagination, it’s less the feeling of stepping back into a recognizable place than it is revisiting a well-remembered sense of discombobulation and wonder.

“The Boy and the Heron,” loosely adapted from Genzaburō Yoshino’s 1937 novel “How Do You Live?,” first feels like a familiar setup for Miyazaki. A young protagonist is harboring an inexpressible grief while traveling to a new home. In the film’s indelible, nightmarish opening scenes, a boy’s mother dies in a Tokyo hospital fire amid bombing late in World War II. Flames fill the frame.

A year later, the boy, Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki in the subtitled version I saw) is sent to live in a country estate by his father, who has already found a new wife, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). She’s also the younger sister of Mahito’s deceased mother. The basic framework of the story has personal echoes for Miyazaki. As a three-year-old, he was evacuated with his family to the countryside during the war.

Mahito is miserable in his new home. He doesn’t like his stepmother-to-be and the kids at school are unkind. To escape going to school, he gives himself a head wound. Not unlike the 10-year-old Chihiro of “Spirited Away,” who’s transported into a fantastical world from an abandoned amusement park en route to her family’s new home, Mahito finds a portal to a surreal dimension while ambling around the estate’s grounds.

He’s prodded toward an old tower, built by Mahito’s great-uncle, by an ornery gray heron (Masaki Suda) who won’t leave him alone. Think of herons and you might picture elegant, long-legged creatures, but this one is more of an annoying pest. It’s also a kind of disguise, because a big-nosed man peels back the bird’s head like a child momentarily taking off a Hollywood costume. He becomes something of a mischievous guide to Mahito. In Miyazaki films, guardian angels seldom look the part. (The English dub versions includes a voice cast of Christian Bale, Gemma Chan, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.)

Studio Ghibli/GKIDS via AP
This image released by GKIDS shows Mahito Maki, voiced by Luca Padovan in English and Soma Santoki in Japanese, left, and Grey Heron, voiced by Robert Pattinson in English and Masaki Suda in Japanese, in a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy And The Heron.”

Once Mahito makes his way into the tower, he lands in a fantasy world that, for its pure vividness, rivals anything Lewis Carroll ever dreamed up. There are armies of giant parakeets who protect a Parakeet King and little balls of sprites called the Waruwaru that float serenely to the sky. Almost like a Miyazaki greatest hits, “The Boy and the Heron” is filled with little fluffy orbs and fantastical oversized creatures, with drips of blood and drops of tears. It is, though, more avian than any previous Miyazaki movie, which tended to lead into wooded forests or watery seas. “The Boy and the Heron” will be, certainly, a hit among psychedelic-loving bird watchers.

But just as in the world above, there is violence and cruelty here, too. (Gird yourself now for the fate of the Waruwaru.) This is less a fantasy to escape to than a parallel world, populated with childlike versions of some of the people in Mahito’s life, including his mother. It’s a dizzying place that seems just as directly pulled from Miyazaki’s subconscious as any other realm he’s conjured before. You’ll leave “The Boy and the Heron” in disbelief that this, supposedly, is a filmmaker in autumn. It’s just as uncompromising a vision, and just as attuned to the experience of childhood.

“The Boy and the Heron” eventually drifts toward an aged, long-haired wizard (voiced by Shōhei Hino) who’s spent his years holding this strange world together. As it teeters on the brink of collapse, he offers to bequeath his creation and all its responsibilities to Mahito, who instead decides to return to his own world. It’s a parting sentiment from Miyazaki, a great sorcerer himself. Here, Miyazaki makes his peace with seeing his own tower crumble, while imploring his legion of followers: Go and create your own worlds, dream your own dreams.

Whether it’s a final goodbye or not, it’s among the most poignant partings of recent cinema. It’s a grand culmination of both Miyazaki’s extraordinary body of work and of a film that gathers, like a flock, or a symphony, so many of his trademark obsessions.

“The Boy and the Heron,” a Studio Ghibli release is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for some violent content/bloody images and smoking. Running time: 124 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.