‘The Boy and the Heron’ – ‘How Do You Live’ with violence

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In a world with ongoing military crises and conflicts, lauded animator Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film The Boy and the Heron (2023) – and its viewers – are concerned with war, justice and the endorsement or condemnation of violence. When I watched the movie with a friend over the Christmas break, they commented, upon leaving the cinema, “That was good. Slightly messy. But don’t you think that it kind of glorified Japan’s involvement in the war?”

‘The war’ my friend spoke of was World War II, which serves as the historical backdrop for The Boy and the Heron. It looms over the entire narrative: processions sending off local soldiers tread past, school children participate in the war effort in lieu of classes, and the protagonist Mahito’s father runs a factory producing fighter planes. One day, he moves truckloads of fighter jet canopies into the family home for storage. As the well-produced glass gleams in the sunlight, Mahito says, “They’re beautiful.”

Endorsing machinery that killed millions in the last century’s most horrific war is problematic. My friend, of course, recognised that in their critique of the movie – we both come from Hong Kong, which was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army for over three years. Yet this violent background also gave me the sensitivity necessary to notice that Miyazaki never uncritically glorifies Japan’s engagement in WWII. To my mind, his sombre portrayal of civilian participation instead outlines the extent to which the war has disrupted their regular lives. The jet canopies symbolically intrude upon the domestic sphere. And while Mahito does express his favour for them, I read it as more of a validation of his father’s hard work, as well as an unadulterated admiration of beautiful craft. The ethical ambiguity of (often civilian-origin) designers and manufacturers of weaponry is an issue that has garnered increasing attention from filmmakers – Miyazaki himself further expands upon it in his 2013 film The Wind Rises, while Christopher Nolan, of course, tackles it from the Pacific Theatre’s opposite end with last summer’s release Oppenheimer (2023). Perhaps these films prompt a more nuanced conception of military engineering: we can both make an important distinction between denouncing its destructive consequences and appreciating the craftsmanship involved, and recognise their ultimately irrevocable connection. 

The violence of war only normalises more violence, until even the youngest civilians learn to convert their grief into a self-destructive cycle of vindictive aggression

Moreover, rather than absolving those involved in the war, The Boy and the Heron arguably centres the tragic collateral of such violence and critiques the all-consuming spiral of reciprocal bloodshed it pulls people into. The movie’s nightmarish opening sequence is unforgettable: the hospital housing Mahito’s sick mother burns down in a haze of fragmented bodies and twisting flames. Fitting right into a wartime landscape of endless casualties, this incident reveals the traumatic effect of conflict upon hapless civilians – for weeks after, Mahito wakes up in tears. 

Considering the suffering inflicted upon him by the war, it is ironic, then, not only how he calls the warplanes ‘beautiful’, but also how he himself often resorts to violence to resolve conflicts. Upon meeting an annoyingly provocative grey heron on his new stepmother’s estate, his first instinct is to whack it with a stick; he gets into a fight on his first day of school; on his way home, he even smashes a rock into his own scalp. The ensuing spurt of blood symbolises the lasting psychological damage caused by his mother’s death – but also how this internal trauma spills out into the world, becoming channelled into an unhealthy aggression against others. Miyazaki’s lesson is clear: the violence of war only normalises more violence, until even the youngest civilians learn to convert their grief into a self-destructive cycle of vindictive aggression.  

So what can be done to escape this cycle? Or, in the words of the movie’s Japanese title, How Do You Live? Change comes about when Mahito enters a fantastical world, and witnesses a young lady’s battle against hordes of pelicans that are trying to consume the warawara –adorable mochi-like souls on their way to rebirth. The girl is well-intentioned, but the explosive flames she sends up simultaneously harm the warawara. It is at this moment that Mahito finally breaks his traumatic silence: he yells for her to stop, acknowledging the innocent souls harmed during traumatic cycles of violence. Later, he learns that the pelicans themselves had become mutated from their original natures. Like humans in WWII, they were transformed into horrifying versions of themselves under violent displacement and pressure – but they did not naturally enjoy such savagery. 

We leave equipped with a greater willingness to consider what should be done with the existing struggles and conflicts of our own time

Mahito’s understanding culminates at the end of the film, where his ancestor – the creator of this fantastical world – offers him the chance to construct a perfect world of his own, without bloodshed and suffering. Mahito declines. Pointing at the now scabbed-over wound on his head, he cites it as proof of his own bloody history and unsuitability for embodying some flawless, saintly creator-figure. Instead, he chooses to return to his own world, that of a war-torn Japan, and move forward from there. 

The head-scar centred in this scene acts as the entire movie’s pivotal symbol: at its creation, the simple wound contains within it all of Mahito’s frustration against others and himself. It is able to heal with time. Yet, throughout the movie, the original hair coverage never grows back; Mahito is left with a lasting bald patch at the side of his head, as a reminder of the past hurt and trauma he has experienced. Similarly, the real world he returns to contains constant brutality and suffering, but because there can be no truly violence-free utopia, he ultimately recognises that it’s acknowledging this existing violence and deciding how we live with it –how we caution ourselves against perpetuating the cycle – that matters. 

As for the audience: just as Mahito understands these truths about reality after his displacement into a fantastical world, we exit the cinema with a renewed understanding of not just Miyazaki’s beautiful production, but also the ethical implications of the devastating wars scarring humanity’s history. Most importantly, we leave equipped with a greater willingness to consider what should be done with the existing struggles and conflicts of our own time.

Image credit: ToukMeasAW via DeviantArt

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