Monday, January 15, 2024

Year-End Movies III: The Boy and the Heron and The Boys in the Boat

The heron in Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron.

One of the cinematic high points of 2023 was surely the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s return from retirement with The Boy and the Heron. (His last feature was The Wind Rises in 2013, though lists a 2018 short, unknown to me, called Boro the Caterpillar.) Conceived and written by Miyazaki, The Boy and the Heron is a gorgeous fairy tale set, like The Wind Rises, during the Second World War. The young hero, Mahito (voiced in the dubbed version by Luca Padovan), loses his mother during the bombing of Tokyo; a year later his father, Shoichi (Christian Bale), moves them into the countryside, where he has opened a new factory. He is now romantically involved with Natsuko (Gemma Chan), who is carrying his child. This will be Mahito’s new home, but it’s alienating to him. Aside from the sudden news that a woman he has never met before, whom he addresses politely as “ma’am,” is about to become his new stepmother, there’s little actual education going on in his new school. The children spend more time working the land for the war effort than in the classroom, and as soon as he arrives he’s bullied by his classmates; his response is to bash himself in the head with a rock, claiming a fall, so he doesn’t have to go back the next day. Yet in unexpected ways this unfamiliar environment links up with the boy’s identity. Natsuko, it turns out, is his aunt and looks eerily like her, and this is the place where the two sisters grew up; the strange, Medieval tower that is the most striking landmark was created by their great-uncle. And a talking grey heron (Robert Pattinson) who gloms onto Mahito insists that he’s an emissary sent to take him to his mother, who isn’t dead at all. The boy’s adventures begin when Natsuko, whom he has seen, from his bedroom window, entering the woods, vanishes, and his quest, at the heron’s invitation, to find his mother becomes, in the mysterious transformative manner of a dream, a search for Natsuko. It takes him into the tower and out again into an island world where pelicans and parakeets are omnivorous creatures the size of human adults (the main pelican is voiced by Willem Dafoe, the main parakeet by Dan Stevens) and where the bent-backed, protective domestics from Mahito’s world are echoed by small wooden dolls that reside on shelves and around beds and operate as totems.

The themes of The Boy and the Heron are those of the coming-of-age fairy tales in any culture: loss, danger and the harnessing of personal resources for the purpose of achieving maturity. The motifs are doubling and transformation, often seen in tandem. Natsuko has another sister, Lady Himi (Karen Fukuhara), a fire spirit who, like Natsuko herself, sometimes stands in for Mahiko’s mother; her ability to withstand flame is seen in contrast to his mother’s death by fire. (He has had nightmares in which she calls out to him to save her before she disappears like a ghost behind tongues of fire.) Himi is a nurturer who protects him from the hungry birds and intervenes when the pelicans try to feed on the wara wara, diminutive white babies with tiny ears and feet that drift and float and fly in hordes. Their nourishment comes in the form of huge fish caught by the brusque young boatman, Kiriko, who looks like a pirate and whose name is the same as that of the maid (Florence Pugh) who followed Mahito into the tower, clinging to his coattail, and then dropped out of sight. (Her reappearance at the end of the movie is a transformation the viewer might be able to anticipate.) Kiriko the boatman adopts Mahito during the first part of his journey, enlisting his services to help fish and feed the wara wara. The island is a difficult place where food resources are in short supply; Miyazaki seems to portray it as an extreme version of rural wartime Japan, where the maids in Shoichi’s house are thrilled by the tinned goods that he and his affluent family have brought with them from Tokyo, and where tobacco is so hard to come by that one maid is willing to barter information to the boy in exchange for cigarettes.  The heron is a magician-trickster whom Mahito initially sees as evil and shoots with Natsuko’s bow and an arrow he’s fashioned himself from one of the bird’s feathers. When he pierces the heron’s beak, it recedes like a mask, revealing a wizened old man who recalls the unpredictable, unsettling figures in many Western fairy stories functioning as guides for the hero. The heron in this movie is actually a force for good, but it takes Mahito – and us – a while to work that out.

“This world is full of the dead,” the boatman explains to the boy. The water is dotted with magnificent phantom ships of many muted colors; the silent buyers who purchase his fish, rowing their canoes toward the horizon, have shadowed faces. And the island world is in constant threat of extinction; the wizard master (Mark Hamill) who controls the tower – that is, the sisters’ grand-uncle – has to balance a collection of stone blocks every day to extend its life. He wants to turn over the tower to Mahito (it has to be passed on to someone of the master’s bloodline) in the hopes that his purity can calm the anger of the stone tower, which sometimes takes the form of a striated rock with fire raging inside that hangs in the air over the master’s head. But there is, of course, no entirely pure soul: Mahito confesses to his own strain of malice – the rock he battered himself with to escape school, leaving a scar at his temple. (The link between these two malicious stones is, of course, another example of doubling.)

One image of Lady Himi enclosed in a glass coffin is cribbed from Snow White, but the main Western influence on The Boy and the Heron is Jean Cocteau, especially in the early scenes in the tower, which recall The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus. The images – no surprise to anyone who has seen Miyazaki’s other work – are beautiful though often creepy, and the metamorphoses are startling. Himi takes Mahito to Natsuko, who has been confined to a delivery room; over her head white pennants that seem to be made of paper swing benignly. But he’s not supposed to enter, and when he does, waking her and begging her to come back with him to their world, the pennants grow furious, whipping through the air, slashing at his face (and leaving marks) and clinging to him so he looks like a mummy. Visually that may be my favorite moment in the movie, though the marching military parakeets and the parakeets working in the kitchens to produce a feast around Mahito when they’ve captured him and the wara wara, colliding harmlessly with each other like miniature balloons, also stay in the memory. (When they gather to ingest the boatman’s fish a few of them carry plates and forks.) Miyazaki vows to return to retirement after this movie. Maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll change his mind again.

Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Callum Turner and Jack Mulhern in The Boys in the Boat. (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Amazon MGM Studios)

Working from a script by Mark L. Smith, George Clooney has turned The Boys in the Boat, based on Daniel James Brown’s bestseller about the journey of the 1936 University of Washington varsity rowing team to the Berlin Olympics and their victory there, into a conventional entertainment. It lacks the narrative depth of Brown’s wonderful account, especially in the Berlin section, where Hitler and the Nazis are mostly a backdrop to the story of the Washington Huskies’ triumph. Still, in its limited way the film is very satisfying, especially during the exciting rowing competition scenes. Joel Edgerton, whose acting has become relaxed and genuine, is the coach, Al Ulbrickson. Callum Turner, the actor with the laughing eyes who gave an understated, finely etched performance as Eddie Redmayne’s brother in the last two Fantastic Beasts movies, plays Joe Rantz, the destitute working-class kid who gets himself into an engineering program at U.W. and tries out for the elite row squad because it pays and he’s about to be bounced out of school if he doesn’t make up his tuition shortfall. Turner keeps doing splendid work under the radar: he was the lead in Queen & Country, John Boorman’s barely-seen sequel to Hope and Glory, and Kuragin in the fabulous 2016 War and Peace limited series on British TV. One of the highlights of The Boys on the Boat is a tough little scene between Joe and the father (Alec Newman) who left him to his own devices at the height of the Depression. The movie can’t resist sentimentalizing this subplot later on, but the introduction of this character stays in our minds.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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