Twelve-year-old Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki) is still mourning the tragic death of his mother Hisako to a hospital fire during World War II. His father Shoichi has a new partner, the young and beautiful Natsuko (Yoshinp Kimura). She happens to be Hisako’s younger sister. The family enjoy a wealthy lifestyle in a large countryside mansion, supported by a group of wrinkly old ladies. These servants constantly probe the little Mahito, vouching for his comfort and security, while also intruding into his dreams and aspirations.
Mahito does not fit in at school and has a troubled relationship with his stepmother, who turns out to be pregnant. He self-harms by repeatedly hitting his head with a large rock, in an attempt to dissociate himself from his psychological pains, while also drawing attention to himself from his vaguely estarnged father. From this point on, reality and fantasy blend seamlessly, presumably as an hallucinatory consequence of his self-inflicted wounds.
Mahito befriends a sarcastic and manipulative grey heron with human teeth. It is soon revealed that the bird in in reality inhabited by an evil-looking dwarf with a big red nose. The parasitical human being eventually sticks his head out of the creature’s beak and wears its feathered body as if it was a costume. Mahito’s unlikely and highly dubious friend takes him to a mysterious tower in the woods, which was built by his long-missing great-uncle. They enter the collapsing building, and many layers of fiction begin to intertwine. Mahito unwittingly drags one of the old maids along his journey, a woman called Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki), who literally clings to his clothes. There is an alternative world inside that building, one where old and frail Kiriko becomes a youthful, seafaring beauty, and small budgies turn into giant, man-eating parakeets. Pelicans and tiny spectral creatures called wara-ware complete the exotic fauna of this exotic land. It is later revealed that the tower was formed by meteorite, adding yet another layer of mystery to this strange tale of motherly love and interspecial bonds.
One day, Natsuko goes missing after entering the forest. Mahito sets out to find her, convinced that she’s imprisoned in the magic tower. Our protagonist is hellbent on saving the woman his father loves and his unborn sibling (perhaps in a gesture of redemption for earlier jealousy). He may even come across his mother (the grey heron lures him with the promise that she may not be dead after all). We barely see the two missing women, the 123-minute story being almost entirely focused on Mahito’s imagination. A very colourful and barely coherent fantasy world, much like the imagination of an orphaned child (
The problem with the Boy and Heron is that its is too multithreaded. The convoluted narrative is ostensibly dotted with Japanese folk, mythology and cultural references not recognisable to Western eyes such as mine. And I’m not sure whether there are any political connotations, given the tumultuous time in which the film takes place (and the fact that Mahito’s father owns an air ammunition factory. Not a film that hits you like a meteorite. More like a light dream that you’ll barely remember once you open your eyes.
The Boy and the Heron showed in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival. The film premiered in Japanese cinemas in July to both critical and commercial acclaim. Also showing at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. The UK premiere takes place in October as part of the 67th BFI London Film Festival.