Review: With Miyazaki’s New “How Do You Live/The Boy and the Heron”, a Master Returns

Review: With Miyazaki’s New “How Do You Live/The Boy and the Heron”, a Master Returns

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Bird creature from the teaser poster for Ghibli's How Do You Live, plus text reading "Miyazaki's Mysterious Return"
After a decade, master director Miyazaki Hayao is back with a full-length animated film. How does the mysterious How Do You Live stack up?

When you’re one of the most beloved filmmakers in the world, someone whose fame and global prestige have only grown since semi-retirement, it’s quite the tall order to put out a final film ten years after the last. Even more so when you purposefully shroud that film in mystery, putting out a movie that your audience has no idea what to expect from.

Yet that’s what Miyazaki Hayao, famed co-founder of anime giant Studio Ghibli, just did here in Japan. As it turns out, his new animated film, How Do You Live (now officially titled “The Boy and the Heron” in English), may well be just as mysterious as the marketing campaign (or lack thereof) that came before it.

I’ve only just left the theater after seeing How Do You Live, making it to the second showing of the first day of release. But the nature of this film – one where Ghibli wants you to know as little about it as possible before seeing it – makes it a bit iffy to review. I’ll be discussing some minor plot details, so if all you want is to know the vibes here, I’ll sum them up in three words: mysterious, gothic, and ephemeral.

All of these words could be used to describe aspects of previous Ghibli and Miyazaki fare. (Well, except maybe “gothic,” which mostly applies to 2014’s When Marnie Was There.) The bathhouse in Spirited Away; the dark plane beyond Howl’s magic door; the ruins of mines and ancient robotic sentries in Castle in the Sky.

One word I would rarely use from previous Miyazaki movies, however, is “oppressive.” How Do You Live is almost oppressive in how unstable the ground is beneath our primary characters. There is a profound feeling of a world in both spiritual and physical chaos. Everything we know feels ready to crumble at any moment. 

“How Do You Live”: Miyazaki’s Dark Morality Play

Review: Miyazaki’s New “How Do You Live” (The Boy and the Heron) Marks an Eerie Return

After a decade, master director Miyazaki Hayao is back with a full-length animated film. How does Studio Ghibli’s mysterious” How Do You Live” (Kimi-tachi wa Dou Ikiru Ka) stack up?

Watch our video review on our YouTube channel.

Of course, this lines up well with the name of the film, which takes its title from a 1937 morality novel by Yoshino Genzaburo. (Does this movie, which is not an adaptation, involve that book, as has been both hinted and denied at previous points? Well…)

Advertisements

It’s clear watching this movie that Miyazaki has been pondering that concept. How do we get along in this world of violence and unease? What do we leave for our descendants? How do we relate to our ancestors who left us this world?

Miyazaki feels he’s leaving this plane of existence, with a globe seemingly once again on the brink of collapse. So, what does he pass on to those he leaves behind?

To discuss this any further, I’ll have to get into a mild description of the plot and setting. Since these details are already up on Wikipedia, I’ll go ahead and give the bare-bones plot here – feel free to skip ahead past the SPOILER-marked blocks if you want my final verdict.

How Do You Live teaser poster featuring blue bird man drawn by Miyazaki and Suzuki.
The sole pre-release visual for How Do You Live.

MILD PLOT DESCRIPTION SPOILERS AHEAD

With all the discussion of this being a grand fantasy epic, it’s a bit disorienting when this movie opens in the midst of WWII-era Japan. (The second Miyazaki movie in a row to use this as a setting.) An adolescent boy, Mahito, leaves war-ravaged Tokyo for the countryside alongside his father.

(This echoes Miyazaki’s own childhood. His father was an engineer who worked on airplanes, and the family moved to the country-ish Utsunomiya from Tokyo to find shelter during the worst of the war years. Much like his previous movie, The Wind Rises, Miyazaki is clearly reflecting on his own upbringing.) 

Mahito, suffering through his own trauma, finds himself haunted by a blue stork inhabiting a nearby pond. A tower of mysterious origin within the local forests also beckons to him. When a reason to venture into this dark, uninviting building arises, he bravely enters the tower. A world beyond his imaging resides therein. 

Echoes, Shadows, and Starlight

There are echoes of many previous Miyazaki films in this description. Scenes and settings within the film also harken back to many of the Miyazaki staples.

What sets this How Do You Live apart, however, is tone and pacing. The latter feels surprisingly languid, with the main action only commencing around forty-five minutes in. There is good set-up, placed within settings and architecture that live up to Miyazaki’s unique ability to craft spaces that are both nostalgic and otherworldly.

In tone, the movie is almost gothic. I’ve never seen a Ghibli movie that feels so distant, almost dour. And, indeed, I’d hazard that parts of this movie are even off-putting. This could easily be the least accessible Miyazaki movie. His penchant for the gross and gooey, seen in many of his previous films, is here unbounded. 

So, however, is his visual flair for beauty both unearthly and of-this-world. Suzuki Toshio, Ghibli producer and constant hype-man, has said that here, unrestrained by partner companies or desire for monetary return, Miyazaki was allowed to make a film just as he wanted to.

What seems to result is a series of astounding set-pieces and creatures, both silly and threatening. There are more ghostly plains, dreamy, moss-covered buildings, and deep, unknowable recesses down darkened corridors than ever before.

These images are indelibly Miyazaki. Imagine the sort of iconic, deeply affecting imagery you’d see perhaps four or five times in most of his films and multiply that by ten.

Animated Unreality

What perhaps let me down here is that these images, more fantastic than ever, are tethered to a place that feels so unreal. The bird-populated, logic-defying space of the netherworld is hard to get a grasp on. This, of course, seems purposeful. But for a first viewing, it leaves the viewer feeling unmoored.

The late, famed movie critic Roger Ebert, a huge Miyazaki-backer in the US, once said he felt the director had lost a bit of his magic with Howl’s Moving Castle.

Sophie, old or young, never quite seems to understand and inhabit this world. Unlike Kiki of the delivery service or Chihiro, the heroine of “Spirited Away,” she seems more witness than heroine. A parade of weird characters comes onstage to do their turns, but the underlying plot grows murky and, amazingly for a Miyazaki film, we grow impatient at spectacle without meaning.

Roger Ebert. (June 09, 2005.) “‘Castle’ nothing to howl about.”

I like Howl much more than Ebert did, but I somewhat get his point. Spirited Away was an unknowable world of the gods. But simultaneously, it felt like it had rules. The bathhouse had structure, both physical and societal.

But if Ebert had problems with Howl’s chaotic setting, I wonder how he’d feel about How Do You Live’s infinitely more nebulous bird-world.

Acclimating to the Mysterious

I must admit to having had a hard time with this aspect of the film. I love how lived-in, how real, Miyazaki’s worlds can be. Whether Porco‘s Adriadic or Iron Town in Princess Mononoke, these settings live on in my heart.

The lack of structure, of anything knowable in the netherworld in How Do You Live, left me a bit cold. As I ponder the film a bit more, though, the meaning of all this seems to come together.

This will be a movie that requires more than one viewing to process, I feel. However, with its slow pace and dreamy – perhaps nightmarish – unreality, it could be a hard sell for general audiences. The ending section of the film, however, brings much of the proceedings together, finishing off the story in a strong way. As Hisaishi Joe’s otherwise somewhat understated score swells, I felt chills go down my spine – I was witnessing something truly beautiful, truly unique.

END OF PLOT SPOILERS

Marketing on an Enigma

So, will the audience be there for this “final, final” Miyazaki film?

The lead-up to How Do You Live has been quite unlike anything seen before. It’s impossible to imagine a major tentpole film from any studio releasing without numerous trailers, teasers, clips, and more; and yet, Miyazaki’s first movie in a decade has received no promotion save a single teaser poster.

Suzuki Toshio came up with this policy. He felt that the modern movie industry gives too much away via its promotional campaigns; how much more exciting, he thought, to go into a film completely in the dark.

Miyazaki himself found the idea appealing and gave it the green light. As the date of the premiere approached, however, he expressed some anxiety to Suzuki. Locally, nearly every Ghibli film to this point has been the top Japan-originated box office draw in any given year of release. Now, with an audience no longer trained to expect Ghibli films, can this strategy really work?

I visited a theater in Chofu, Tokyo Prefecture, the day before the movie was to open. Not a single sign of How Do You Live‘s impending release was to be seen. I approached an employee to ask if he thought moviegoers were aware of this major release’s existence.

He just said, “I really wish they’d do some advertising for this thing.”

Suzuki’s Gamble

The single visual anyone has had to go off of is the teaser poster, featuring a vague bird-man-thing. Fans have been wondering for months what the image might represent. (The answer is…interesting, to say the least.) In the days leading up to the film’s release, numerous local artists took to Twitter to post their imagined versions of the whole creature.

Although fans, observers – and perhaps the director – have wondered about Suzuki’s strategic thinking, the truth is that the man has been a wizard at marketing. According to Steve Alpert, who worked closely with Suzuki and Miyazaki for over a decade:

I learned some very important lessons about marketing films from seeing how Toshio Suzuki marketed Ghibli films in Japan. He is without a doubt one of the most brilliant people to ever market anything. And he does it by not following the conventional wisdom. This is not any easy thing to do when you’re under pressure from all those around you who want to stick with what’s safest.”

Steve Alpert, in his memoire “Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man.” (2020) p.170.

The theater I saw the movie at was packed, although it was hard to gauge the overall reaction. As I entered, the only sign of the movie’s existence was a small marquee poster. All around were gigantic posters, some tens of meters long, advertising Pixar’s Elemental and Mission Impossible.

A small news crew was outside, holding the sole poster of the bird-man being sold at concessions. As I left, the crowds were growing; some looked disappointed to find no seats left available. We’ll see if Suzuki’s stratagem pays off.

How Do You Live poster demarcating the theater the author saw the picture in.

Some Thoughts

I feel that the no-promotion marketing is both blessing and curse for first-time viewers of How Do You Live. It allowed all the visuals and story shifts to be experienced in an increasingly rare, unadulterated state. Seeing incredible visuals with no idea of what was waiting in store was wonderful.

But I also feel as though the very limited information about the film perhaps allowed me to fill in the gaps with the movie I hoped this would be; with no solid expectations, it turned out to be something very different. On first viewing, this does miss some of the solid storytelling, worldbuilding, and emotional highs that I love Ghibli for. On the other hand, as the images and deeper themes sink in, I’m finding myself appreciating some of what makes How Do You Live unique in Ghibli’s catalog.

Final Flight

It’s been suggested that Miyazaki made How Do You Live with his grandson in mind. (Much as he made Spirited Away for a friend’s young daughter, or Ponyo for very young children.) It’s clear that this film does harken to its moralistic namesake. Our protagonist is unhaltingly brave and steadfast. He’s not inhuman, but he demonstrates the way Miyazaki might say a young man should be in our current world. A world falling apart, that you may have the duty to remake; a duty that you can choose to embrace in your own way.

How Do You Live is Miyazaki’s personal film through and through. Despite the outstanding production values, it might as well be an indie film. It seems to have no desire to be a breakout hit or have mass appeal. What it does have, however, is a deeper message for an unknown world, and the young people who will have to live within it.

If this is indeed Miyazaki’s final film, then I can only thank him for that message – and for his many decades of creating some of the best animated fare in the world.

The Ultimate Guide to the Studio Ghibli Universe

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy