Cinema buffs in Japan have been treated to a final gift from Hayao Miyazaki — a new film! Japan Times critics Thu-Huong Ha and Matt Schley discuss what they thought of “The Boy and the Heron.”

Hosted by Thu-Huong Ha and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Thu-Huong Ha 00:09

Hello, welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Thu-Huong Ha, culture critic for the paper, filling in this week for Shaun McKenna. Today we're talking about the new film from Hayao Miyazaki. If a new Miyazaki is news to you, do not stress. It's been 10 years since the beloved animator put out a new film, and he has retired on multiple occasions. And this movie ran especially under the radar. The film is titled “Kimi-tachi wa Do Ikeru Ka?” in Japanese, which translates to “How Do You Live?,” but the official English title is “The Boy and the Heron.” The film began showing in Japan on July 14, and it's scheduled to come out in North America at some point this year. We do know that its first screening outside of Japan will be at the Toronto International Film Festival on the opening night, Sept. 7. In today's episode, I'll talk to Japan Times film critic Matt Schley about how we felt about the film and what this unexpected gift means for fans, Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s legacy. The episode does contain themes and character archetypes. We tried as best we could to make it as spoiler-free as possible, but if you want to go into the film clean, kind of like we did here in Japan, we'll give you a heads up when you might want to skip ahead. Alright, hope you enjoy the show.

Matt Schley, Welcome to Deep Dive.

Matt Schley 01:40

Thank you for having me.

Thu-Huong Ha 01:41

So Matt, this is a huge, huge deal.

Matt Schley 01:44

It is a huge, huge deal. I think you put it best the other day when we were talking and you called it the G7 for kind of Japan-based culture writers. I mean, Hayao Miyazaki, probably Japan's most famous living director, hasn't made a film in 10 years, announced 10 years ago he wasn't going to make any more, then came out of retirement for this one. So, yes, it is hard to overstate what a big deal this is.

Thu-Huong Ha 02:11

It's big. It's a big one. And I think it was extra big because we didn't know what was going to be in it. Right?

Matt Schley 02:18

That's right, so a really interesting PR strategy or lack of PR strategy on the part of Ghibli and kind of their president/PR mastermind, Toshio Suzuki, this time they decided to go without a trailer and go without TV spots. All we had was a poster and the name of the film, and that's it.

Thu-Huong Ha 02:39

I can't even remember what movies were like before YouTube trailers.

Matt Schley 02:43

God, me neither. But according to Toshio Suzuki, that's kind of the way he wanted to do it. Bring back a time when all you had was, you know, maybe a tagline, a poster, things like that. And you would kind of fill in the rest with your imagination.

Thu-Huong Ha 02:57

Yeah, Anika Osaki Exum, she's one of our reporters, she was at the theater on opening day getting people's thoughts.

Anika Osaki Exum 03:02

I talked to one person that said she was really glad for the lack of promotion, because she really wanted to go into it without any knowledge of what it is to be able to enjoy that even more than usual.

Thu-Huong Ha 03:14

Yeah, and I think that a Miyazaki or Ghibli film for people in our generation brings up a lot of nostalgia, right? Like, this is a big deal for us, as two people.

Matt Schley 03:22

Certainly, I mean, you know, for me, getting into Japanese animation when I was a young teen. You know, I'm of the generation where “Pokemon” was on TV, “Dragon Ball” things like that. Those were the days. And, you know, my dad took me to see “Princess Mononoke,” in the theater, featuring the voices of Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson. It was quite a cast. But, you know, it blew my mind when I saw that film. It was just something I had never seen. And seeing an anime movie on the big screen like that, having it be as good a film as it was, that kind of set me on the path to write about anime and come live here in Japan, eventually. Yeah, it's not an exaggeration to say that, that Miyazaki has had a huge influence on my life. But what was it like for you as a kid watching Miyazaki movies?

Thu-Huong Ha 04:17

Yeah, I mean, I was gonna say that. I think for a lot of people who are going to into Japan, I think that Ghibli movies might be one of their initial ways in, it might be different now but at least in our generation.

Miyazaki fan 04:27

I am a huge fan. I am a film studies major in college. I did my thesis on Miyazaki. I don't know any Japanese though! I still saw it! I honestly loved it, like even though I didn't know what they're saying, I still loved it!

Thu-Huong Ha 04:40

I grew up in suburban America in the ’90s and it was not cool to be Asian. I mean, it's pretty cool now, but it was very uncool at the time. And I think for me anime really represented, like, something I could feel proud of. Even though I'm not from Japan in any way, my family’s from Vietnam. And also, like, they had girl heroes. I mean, it was really into “Sailor Moon.” And in all the Ghibli movies had female heroes and protagonists. And that was a very big deal. This might be the first one that I've seen at the time of release in the theater. And that also felt like a really big deal. Because, as you said, there's probably not going to be another one.

Matt Schley 05:21

Absolutely. I mean, I remember 10 years ago, when what was supposed to be his final film, “The Wind Rises,” came out. I think that was the first time that I saw a Ghibli film, you know, in Japan, not too far from where it was made. And I remember that just being a huge experience for me, as it was this time as well.

Thu-Huong Ha 05:40

All right, that's enough foreplay. What did we think about this movie?

Matt Schley 05:45

What did we think? Well, I think we're both in agreement that this is a pretty darn good motion picture. What do you think?

Thu-Huong Ha 05:52

We liked it. We like this movie.

Matt Schley 05:55

You know, my experience seeing this. I went and saw it the day it came out the morning it came out, bright and early at 8 a.m.

Matt Schley recording 06:03

Well, it's 7:45 a.m. here in Shinjuku. Thoughts on my mind this morning? Number one, I wonder how many people are going to come see this thing?

Matt Schley recording 06:13

This was not press screened as going with their strategy of not doing any pre promotion.

Thu-Huong Ha 06:21

Meaning you had to see with all the norms.

Matt Schley 06:23

With all the normies, yeah. No, you know, it's something I kind of miss actually, being a critic, because you go and see it with a bunch of jaded people usually, this time I saw it with film fans. And they gave it a kind of rousing, not standing ovation, but they clapped at the end of the film, which is, you know, is rare in Japan. Yeah. And you know, the very end of the film, the final credit in the film, it says, you know, “written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.” And, I gotta admit, when that name came up, it wasn't just my feelings on this film, but his entire career and what he's meant to me, I have to admit, there was a few tears shed. And I kind of got up to leave the theater. I turned around, and there was a guy sitting behind me who had a very kind of similar look. He was a bit misty, and we kind of looked at each other and kind of gave each other a nod, which was a really nice moment. Just kind of hey, yeah, me too. Yeah.

Thu-Huong Ha 07:21

I'm getting Misty right now. I think yeah, I did have a similar experience. Like, I didn't see it the first day, but a couple of days after in Miyazaki Prefecture — no relation. And, yeah, I mean, we all sat there, as you know, is, is normal in Japan to sit through all the credits and but extra, I think, for this one, and there was a kind of a hush of reverence...

Matt Schley 07:46

Kind of a reverence, exactly. Yeah.

Thu-Huong Ha 07:48

And I think that something that you wrote about in your review that I very much felt was that seeing this film in the theater, I really felt like I was in the hands of a master, and personally I don't think it was his best film but even his like, worst film is still 1 billion times better than anything else in the theater right now.

Matt Schley 08:07

Are you saying this is his worst film?

Thu-Huong Ha 08:08

No, I'm not saying it's one of his worst, I don't know what I would. OK. Another topic for another day. Yeah, I mean, it's just in the details with me, it's OK, right, like, the way a character steps in the mud, the way they're, you know, their shoe hits the mud. Or there's an entire, like a joke, or a whole narrative about someone in the way their hair reacts to the wind, or their clothes react to someone brushing up against them. I mean, it's just like a delight, just these tiny moments, a couple of frames that say, a whole world.

Matt Schley 08:40

I think that's absolutely right. And it's it doesn't just look amazing, it also advances the story, right? I mean, depending on who steps in the mud, as you said, you can see how much they weigh, or if they walk with a confident stride, or if they’re cautious, you know. I mean, I felt very, very similar. There's a, there's an amazing scene that doesn't really have anything to do with the fantasy or it's not, you might consider it another film to be a very kind of plain scene, where it's just two people stepping into a carriage or rickshaw-looking thing. And it kind of shifts with the weight of the kind of heavier character and then the lighter character. And it's just, you can tell, and you can see this whenever you watch a documentary about Miyazaki, how carefully he looks at the world, and then how he translates that motion of our real world into a two-dimensional medium. It's just incredible.

Thu-Huong Ha 09:39

Yeah. So we loved it. But you know, I struggled a little bit with the plot. Matt, can you try to, can you try to sum that up for us?

Matt Schley 09:47

If I could sum it up in a pithy way? Yeah, I would say something like, well, there's a young boy in the midst of World War II, and he is pulled into, kind of a fantasy realm in order to save his new stepmother. But what do you think?

Thu-Huong Ha 10:02

You did that really easily? I, after I saw the film I tried with my friend to summarize the film, it took us 25 minutes...

Thu-Huong Ha recording 10:11

The wizard comes, the old wizard comes, like you see him like from afar, and he's like ... oh, no, I'm missing a bunch of stuff. He's, you know, first ... the water ... the mom??

Matt Schley 10:21

So I admit that, and I don't disagree with you that the film, there's a lot going on. Let's say it that way. And especially, you know, the way that the film is set up, basically, you've got the first 30 minutes or so which are quite grounded in reality, let’s say, and then after about that he enters his kind of fantasy world. I don't know about you, for me, I really like those kind of more grounded kind of realistic elements.

Thu-Huong Ha 10:48

Yeah, no, I was, I was waiting to take off. I was like, let's get to the fantasy. I'm really into the, you know, the girls in the fantasy worlds part of Miyazaki.

Matt Schley 10:56

Sure, sure. I mean, I think like you said, once you go into the fantasy part, you've kind of got what might be criticized as kind of a greatest hits of Miyazaki, right? He's kind of checking off some of those boxes. So you know, all these bits kind of come at you quite quickly. They don't entirely feel cohesive. But I do feel like all those scenes on an individual level were a lot of fun.

Thu-Huong Ha 11:19

I agree with that checklist, “greatest hits,” feel. You know, he's really known for each of his films, creating these really distinct unique worlds, and this one felt just a bit like, self-referential ... tribute to himself ... an homage to himself? And I don't mind the ego, actually. But I just think that normally his films don't, like, break the fourth wall and just feel really self-contained. And I'm thinking specifically, I was a little bit annoyed, there were these very, very cute, like, wara-wara spirits, they looked like kind of Kirby-esque ... and I was, it felt a bit like they were trying to re-create the cuteness of the kodama spirits in “Princess Mononoke,” those are the ones in the forest with the shaking heads, and it kind of felt like predesigned for later merch, and like desktop backgrounds.

Matt Schley 12:15

Ahhh, the cynical take.

Thu-Huong Ha 12:16

I felt, yeah, and I just felt overall it was getting a bit of sense of deja vu.

Matt Schley 12:20

Yeah. I mean, I don't disagree with that either. I think another way to interpret that, it would be that, you know, this is a director, who's had the same kind of visual and thematic obsessions throughout his career for decades. And this may be being his final film, just based on his age. And you know how long these films take to make. Why reinvent the wheel at this point? I think it makes sense for him to go to back to his kind of favorites in a way and kind of sum up his career up to this point.

Thu-Huong Ha 12:59

“The Boy and the Heron” did feel more final to me than say his last, supposed last film, which was “The Wind Rises.”

Matt Schley 13:06

I think so, too. But at the same time, it does have a lot of the same themes as that film, or same kind of obsessions, again, we've got for example, the airplane thing, right?

Thu-Huong Ha 13:16

Yes, he loves airplanes.

Matt Schley 13:17

He does love his airplanes.

Thu-Huong Ha 13:19

He loves to depict war. We start this film right away with like the world kind of ending, and it's World War II. We also right away get this super-familiar theme of a strong mother figure. But who's missing or lost.

Matt Schley 13:34

Yep. And we've got a kind of bumbling dad, a Miyazaki staple, for sure.

Thu-Huong Ha 13:41

Yeah, they're well, meaning, but they don't help that much.

Matt Schley 13:45

Yeah, you know, we've also got a main character who is a child, which is another huge Miyazaki thing. We've got a kid who, you know, starts off kind of selfish, irresponsible, and by the end kind of grows into his own, maybe a bit faster than would be the case for a lot of children. You see that in a lot of his films, right? You've got “Kiki's Delivery Service” where Kiki moves to the big city has to grow up quickly. “Spirited Away,” Chihiro is brought into this world where she's got to kind of work for a living grow up really quickly. And this film, we have Mahito, who is a boy, which is a bit unique for him, he is lucky film but again, he starts off as kind of immature and over the course of the film kind of learns to grow up.

Thu-Huong Ha 14:33

Right. A lot of his characters have to, like, sign contracts at a young age. Commit themselves to working life.

Matt Schley 14:41

Yeah, well, you know, this reflects Miyazaki’s own life in a way. He was born in the years of World War II. He had a family that was pretty well off compared to a lot of families. They were able to kind of escape the fire bombings of Tokyo by moving to Utsunomiya, to the north of Tokyo, because of their financial well being. They helped build fighter planes, which led to Miyazaki’s both obsession with planes, but also his very ambiguous feeling about them, you know, his family is profiting off other people's suffering. And we talked about how a lot of his films have kids that have to grow up really quickly. That has a lot to do with his childhood. His mother, who was a big influence on him, had tuberculosis, and she was kind of bedridden for many, many years. Which meant that Miyazaki, like his characters, had to grow up really quick, kind of be the substitute mother for his siblings,

Thu-Huong Ha 15:39

Right. And now, listeners, if you're worried about spoilers, here's where you might want to skip ahead about four minutes to 20:20. In this movie, we also had this wizard, which is not a new thing. He reminded me a lot of Howl from “Howl’s Moving Castle.” He's kind of depressed and, like, isolated in his little tower. This wizard felt older. Did you ... did you think it was Miyazaki?

Matt Schley 16:07

It sounds like you did. I think that's certainly one way to interpret it. Absolutely. You know, he's kind of a creator, like Miyazaki. He's kind of this kind of lonely suffering, kind of creative spirit, as you mentioned. I also think this character has the really important role of kind of explicating the title of the film, which in Japanese is “Kimitachi wa Dou Ikiri Ka,” which is “how do you live?” “how will you live?” I felt like this is kind of Miyazaki asking his grandchild — is one theory that's out there — asking the audience in general, especially the young people, “Hey, it's my time to go. How are you guys going to make the world a better place from here on out?”

Thu-Huong Ha 16:47

Yeah, I think this film reflected his own feelings of mortality more than I think his previous films. It felt more abstract, it felt more existential. That could just be my own age coming through, but I think that, you know, a lot of his films, as we've discussed, are about childhood and sometimes a little bit about parenting. But this one felt like there was also this major storyline of being a grandparent, or almost like he already sees himself as an ancestor leaving behind a legacy. Matt, you introduced me to this great book by Susan Napier called “Miyazakiworld,” and she talks about “late Miyazaki,” in other words, you know, what characterizes the later films by Miyazaki, and what she argues is that we can see a kind of movement away from the fantasy and magic of his middle works and towards a kind of reality. So in “Ponyo,” which came out in 2008, at the very end of the film Ponyo gives up her magic and lives in the real world. And in 2013, “The Wind Rises,” that's a film with almost no fantasy in it at all. It takes place in the real world completely. And I think that Mahito is grappling with these two things, you could say, on the one hand, the world of storytelling and creation, fantasy and magic, and on the other hand living in the real world.

Matt Schley 18:12

Yeah, it was interesting, wasn't it? You've got these kind of very distinctive sections of the film, one of them being in the reality of, kind of, World War II-era Japan, and then we've also at the fantasy section more of a return to “middle Miyazaki,” perhaps. But yeah, kind of him grappling with those two worlds, kind of, late Miyazaki and middle Miyazaki fighting for domination. I'm not sure. But I think, kind of, we've got this choice — without spoiling anything — Mahito has got to make a choice at the end of the film, and while the choice he makes is clear, the way that we the audience interpret that choice, I think is a lot more open to interpretation. I don't know, what do you feel about that?

Thu-Huong Ha 18:54

Yeah, I agree. Like, he definitely makes a choice, but the symbolism is a little bit up for debate, I would say.

Matt Schley 19:01

Absolutely. You know, the weekend after this in Japan, the new Mission Impossible film came out, which I went and saw. It was fine. Tom Cruise jumped off high stuff, which is you want from those films. He's still got it. And that's impressive. But you know, I left the theater with my buddies and we talked about the film for about five minutes. That was really cool when he jumped off that thing. But that was about it. And in comparison, the discussions that I've had about “The Boy and the Heron” have lasted now for weeks, right. With everybody that I meet who's seen the film, we've talked a long time about what the ending means, and it's really fun to be a part of a film that feels like it's creating discussion.

Thu-Huong Ha 20:15

That's neuroscientist and writer Ken Mogi talking about the movie on his YouTube channel. So I still have a lot of questions, not just about the plot, but also about the symbols. I've been hearing a lot of people say that the movie is so dense with allusions that they need to rewatch it. And it seems like maybe they are? The movies doing really well, right?

Matt Schley 20:32

Yes, the film has been doing really well. So far, despite the total lack of promotion, on the first weekend it grossed ¥2.14 billion, which is about $15 million. That was a long four day weekend. But in comparison, we look at “Spirited Away,” which is so far Ghibli’s highest grossing film of all time, and it actually had a slightly better weekend or a slightly better first four days than that film. That also included a national holiday. So it's doing rather well. And we have to remember that “Spirited Away” had a very extensive marketing campaign. So, as we record this, we've also got the second weekend results. So, so far, the film over two weeks has made ¥3.6 billion. For some kind of comparison, if people don't know how much the ¥3.6 billion means, “Spirited Away,” which I just mentioned, is Japan's second highest grossing film of all time that made a total of ¥31 billion over its entire run. So we're a tenth of the way there already.

Thu-Huong Ha 21:36

Right, and that's with no promotion. But that's not the first time that this has happened. Right?

Matt Schley 21:40

That's right. So actually, back in the not so distant past, when the film “Howl’s Moving Castle” came out, they did a very similar thing with that film and did very little promotion. Why? Well, “Princess Mononoke,” and “Spirited Away,” both films did extremely well, and apparently, Miyazaki was a little bit miffed that people were attributing the success of those films not to the quality of the films themselves, but to Toshio Suzuki's amazing promotional techniques. So, when they released “Howl’s Moving Castle,” they kind of put the brakes on marketing. That film did incredibly well as well. So it turns out people just want to see Miyazaki movies.

Thu-Huong Ha 22:23

Do you think there's ever gonna be another Miyazaki?

Matt Schley 22:24

What does that mean?

Thu-Huong Ha 22:27

What do I mean?

Matt Schley 22:28

I think when people ask that question, and they've been asking it for at least a decade, because he's already announced he's retiring once, right ... I think they're asking two or three different things: one of those is about his studio Studio Ghibli, whether they're going to survive without him. Right? That remains a huge question mark in my opinion. The studio was founded in the ‘80s to specifically make films from Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, who passed away a few years ago, and with also the brain of Toshio Suzuki, who we've been talking about, those three guys, that secret sauce, I'm not sure there's ever going to be a combination exactly like that. And on a little bit more of a cynical note, let's keep in mind that Studio Ghibli is in a really unique financial position where they can go take seven years to go off and make a movie and not have sponsors kind of saying, “Hey, when's it coming out? When's it coming out?” So they've tried to several times to pass the baton on to the next generation of filmmakers. There have been some real tragedies, with one of those directors passing away in his 40s. You've got Goro Miyazaki, who's the son of Hayao Miyazaki. I think he's a little bit underrated. Everybody made fun of him so much for that first film. He's made a couple since then, which haven't been as bad. I mean, I think his second film was actually pretty good but they haven't done as well at the box office, obviously. And so, the future of Studio Ghibli. they've announced that they're working on a new film. Very little details about it so far. They just opened the Ghibli Park down in Nagoya. So we'll see what happens with them. That is unclear.

Thu-Huong Ha 24:19

But what about Makoto Shinkai, the “Your Name” guy?

Matt Schley 24:22

Michael Shinka? Yeah, he of “Your Name,” most famously. But also “Weathering With You” and “Suzume,” these films that have done really, really well at the box office and critically. In these conversations, you also get Mamoru Hosoda who did “The boy and the Beast” and “Belle,” which also did really well. They are extremely technically gifted directors and their films look incredible. But are these guys a duplicate of Miyazaki? Obviously not, but they bring their own worldview and their own techniques to the medium obviously.

Thu-Huong Ha 24:52

Yeah, I've seen the Shinkai films. I think they're very beautiful. There is a specific style that has started to become familiar for me that I feel something. Not quite the next Miyazaki in my mind, but I think, you know, I'm kind of optimistic that humans are endlessly creative. I think the times will eventually give rise to a new anime genius that we can get all excited about together.

Matt Schley 25:20

And I hope you're right. And I think the reason that we are so excited about anime here in Japan is part of Miyazaki’ legacy, right? If you look around at countries across the world and you look at the top box office films, it's usually a Marvel film, a Tom Cruise film, something like that. You look at Japan, and in the same weekend where the Avengers is on the top of every other country in the world, instead, here it's the latest “Detective Conan” film, or the latest Ghibli film or the latest Shinkai film or something. So Japan has this weird kind of niche where instead of those films, it's animation that always wins the day, and part of that is thanks to decades of successful Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki films. So we talked about Makoto Shinkai, we talked about Mamoru Hosoda. These are two creators on a very long list of people who've been inspired to create animation, partially by Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. And you know, in other places, animation is often seen as something for kids, something to be taken lightly.

Thu-Huong Ha 26:29

Yeah it's really an art form here.

Matt Schley 26:30

It is. And you know, it rules the box office. So I think cementing the cultural status of animation here in Japan, that might be the ultimate legacy of Hayao Miyazaki.

Thu-Huong Ha 26:43

Thanks very much to Matt for coming on Deep Dive. You can find links to Matt's writing on the film in the show notes. And Shaun McKenna is here to help us wrap up the show. Hi, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 26:51

Hi, Thu.

Thu-Huong Ha 26:52

Have you seen “The Boy and the Heron?”

Shaun McKenna 26:54

I have not. I'm saving my money for “Barbie.”

Thu-Huong Ha 26:56

You sound like me at age 8. Shaun, what else is happening in the news this week?

Shaun McKenna 27:04

Well, elsewhere in The Japan Times last month saw the second highest number of scorching days or moshobi. Those are days above 35 degrees Celsius, for July since the weather agency began keeping such records. The heat is expected to persist throughout August and September. And continuing with the weather, high winds hit power lines in Okinawa Prefecture and knocked out electricity to more than 200,000 households on Wednesday morning as the powerful and slow-moving typhoon Kahnoun neared Japan southwestern islands threatening torrential rains. At the time of this podcast recording hundreds of thousands of people in the prefecture were advised to evacuate as the storm moved northwest at a speed of 10 kilometers per hour. Deep Dive is produced by Dave Cortez, our interns are Christoph Loing and Himari Semans. The closing theme is by Oscar Boyd and the theme music was written by Japanese musician LLLL. I'm Shaun McKenna ...

Thu-Huong Ha 27:56

And I'm Thu-Huong Ha. Thanks for listening and, podtsukaresama.

Shaun McKenna 27:59