April 17, 2024

OPINION: Beauty and malice

Lost in Scene

Over the last weekend, I found myself in the Cinemark theater in West Des Moines, preparing to watch “The Boy and the Heron,” Hayao Miyazaki’s newest animated film from Japan. Before the movie started, a small featurette played featuring Takeshi Honda, an animator for the project, creating a sketch of one of the characters, Kiriko, and some small sprite-creatures called Warawara.

What I found fascinating about this feature is the dedication to showing the whole process of the sketch. Every stroke and every mistake is shown, with Honda making comments about his process, specifically in regards to the mistakes he was making. He would forget the process, details about the character, get distracted in drawing the Warawara, and even after dating and signing the sketch he continued to fix small mistakes.

This fraction of the creative process brings into context the work that was needed to create a hand-drawn animated movie in “The Boy and the Heron.” It requires extreme attention to detail, continuous and arduous work. Every meticulous frame is drawn with an abnormal level of discipline.

This obsession with detail and perfection is one of the cores of “The Boy and the Heron.” The setting which shifts from a grounded background of WWII Japan to a fantastical metaphysical world is inextricably linked to the concepts of creation. Rules and values of inhabitants in the fantasy world can be imbalanced, and the capacity for violence or evil becomes a necessary power to survive.

Our young protagonist, a boy named Mahito who loses his mother in the prologue for the movie, finds himself feeling alienated by the world around him. He purposefully harms himself to avoid hostile schooling, and is pulled toward the fantasy world by a grey heron who promises the boy his mother is alive. He sets up a fascinating theming of inherent malice in the world, as his own selfishness, more personal and child-like than maliciously scheming, is left understated.

Contrasting Mahito is the Heron, endearingly obtuse as a cunning liar, whose presence elevates the movie as a conflicting taste while he journeys with Mahito. The screening I attended was an English-dubbed version (I would have attended a subbed version if I could), with a bizarre but wonderfully crazy vocal performance from Robert Pattinson practically stealing the show. The Heron initially is the personification of inherent malice, but as he becomes attached to Mahito, he shifts, slowly growing out of the duo’s initial resentment.

There’s a complexity to how “The Boy and the Heron” progresses that folds these themes together, slowly building and allowing for reflection. Downtime becomes an asset for the film, giving time to mull over its world. There’s messiness and conflict that requires time to untangle. Mahito is described as reeking of death, the use of fire in the fantasy world reference the hospital burning where Mahito’s mother died, and the conclusion of the film places a world-scale decision on Mahito which rears the themes into a single decision.

Despite the movie’s drama, it’s the quieter, lighter moments where “The Boy and the Heron” can really find its stride. Mahito struggling with gutting an enormous fish, giant goofy parakeets who sharpen knives before they attempt to eat Mahito and the adorable white Warawara blobs which ascend into a starry night sky. These moments become highlights due to their inherent uniqueness, something that makes the medium of animation far more rewarding.

The most unfortunate part of “The Boy and the Heron” to me as I sit here writing this while listening to the movie’s gorgeous soundtrack is how much I desperately want to see it again, see it with a new light and a new appreciation for what’s ahead of me. The film’s ending brings what had been a slow, meticulous exploration to a sharp slam on the brakes, a realization of how quickly these final moments had faded. I think most who watch the movie for the first time will fall to a chance to be alienated or misguided from its dissonant hopping of setting.

Even so, the flashes of wonder and reflective themes are potent and uniquely memorable in today’s film age, where truly fantastical adventures seem to be rarer and rarer. I can’t help being completely drawn in to it, wanting to indulge myself in the richness of its images, sound, characters and story.

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.