Life + Arts Movies

Review: ‘Boy and the Heron’ teaches lessons in nature, life

Two characters from The Boy and the Heron on a blue background: The one on the left is the floating head of a young boy with spiky brown hair and the one in the right is a blue and white bird with a long beak

Jose Gonzalez-Campelo/The Cougar

Studio Ghibli’s latest film “The Boy and The Heron” brought on a variety of reactions from viewers. Some found the film confusing, others were deeply moved by it and some felt that it didn’t live up to the likes of Spirited Away or other popular Studio Ghibli movies. But while the film’s plot can be hard to follow at points, the rich symbolism contained within it creates a deeply compelling narrative.

Notably, the film’s animation and music were rarely criticized; Studio Ghibli never fails to deliver on those fronts. Instead, many were left confused by the plotline and seeming lack of character motivations. Additionally, anyone going into this movie expecting a clean “they lived happily ever after” style ending is likely to be disappointed. 

The ending of the film sees its protagonist, Mohito Maki being offered the chance to build a fantastical world free from destruction and chaos. Instead of taking this chance, he chooses to return to the real world, bringing the film’s arc full circle. While this ending wraps up the film neatly, it can be easy to ask what the point was. Why did the protagonist go through such a dramatic journey only to end up back where he started? 

The movie tries to answer this question by emphasizing the importance of Mahito’s journey. Much like Mahito, the lessons we learn as we travel through life are key to finding oneself and our desires. The character ending up back in the real world with his family was inevitable. After all, while we can live in our imagination for as long as we like, there comes a time where everyone has to return to where we started with a fresh pair of eyes. 

While this message was satisfying to some,  others thought that the film could have made it clearer. For example, Mahito could have taken over the Grand Master’s precariously-placed block world and created his own. A successor like Mohito could have continued the Grand Master’s plans, and maybe even improved them. 

But one only has to look to the way the film uses birds as symbolism to see where this idea falls apart. From the parakeets to the pelicans, the birds serve to deliver various messages to Mohito, especially when it comes to the film’s core themes.

Originally, the Grand Master planned to make a world without chaos, pollution and human evils. As seen in the film’s stumbling blocks, this failed because his methods ended up creating an imbalance in the world’s ecology. When Mohito meets the pelicans, they’re starving, unable to find anything to eat.

Out of desperation, the pelicans resorted to devouring unborn human souls, disrupting their flight to the skies. Even the parakeet king, despite holding near-dictatorial control over much of the territory, ends up struggling to find food and land. Every event in the film stems from a disruption in resources somewhere else.

When one thing thrives, other things must suffer. That is only the natural way of the world. Even the parakeets, who were introduced as the “evil” ones, had only done what they thought was right for them. They wanted to live just as much as any other creature. Instead of a clear “good” or “bad” the film presents a complex series of conflicts and solutions. 

For example, the pelicans end up at the bottom of the food chain because they were doomed from the start. When we first see them trying to eat Mohito, it can be easy to wonder why they don’t just catch fish to eat. But later, the dying pelican Mohito meets explains that their species is, ironically, chained by their ability to fly. They can fly high but are unable to dive low enough to catch fish.  

Bird’s ability to fly is frequently used to symbolize freedom, especially in Studio Ghibli films. Their wings take them wherever they want to go, even transporting them from the real world into the fantasy one. The scene where Mohito meets the dying pelican sparks his sense of empathy, marking a stark contrast to the numbness he felt at the beginning of his journey. In essence, it transports him into a new state where he’s able to understand that his “perfect” imaginary world is actually flawed. 

In the end, the world Mohito travels into eventually crumbles when its purpose is fulfilled. His biological mother returns to her world and he returns to his own. The birds make it out alive, and even more, they have enough fish to catch and eat by the end of the film. In some ways, the world belonged to Mohito more than it did to the Grand Master. When he comes to terms with his grief surrounding his mother, the world fades away. 

The movie presents the idea that sometimes we must use our imagination to find beauty in the world and drive us to pursue our best life at any cost. But at the same time, it serves as a cautionary tale for how easily being obsessed with perfection can spiral out of control.

Much like Mohito, we can also be chained by our obsession with finding the most ideal outcome in all situations. The film reminds us that it is not a healthy outlook to have: the Grand Master’s ideal world didn’t hold up and became corrupted instead.

Whether you relate more to Mohito or the Grand Master, “The Boy and the Heron” has beautiful life lessons within that nearly everyone can relate to. Instead of trying to control every aspect of our lives, we should learn to live in the moment and see the beauty that is already present around us. 

HaiAn Hoang is a biology and philosophy junior who can be reached at
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