By Landon Huneycutt
Directors’ final films often face scrutiny as the work of filmmakers past their prime, a remnant of what once was. Some older directors lose funding and creative control, and their films suffer as a result. But many final films challenge that notion: An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu), L’Argent (Robert Bresson), Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick), Blue (Derek Jarman), Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi). The greatest filmmakers as they age often show a maturation and a stripping of excess. Their final films serve as a punctuation: They can be a lamentation, a somber reflection, a display of anger or regret, a peaceful goodbye, a farewell.
The Boy and the Heron, now showing at The Independent Picture House, is an intriguing example of what a director — in this case the renowned Japanese animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki — can achieve near the end of a long career.
Miyazaki, whose work spans six decades, has been telegraphing the end for years, at least since 1997, when he released Princess Mononoke. In 2001, after the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, he announced plans to retire. In 2013, he released The Wind Rises, which was thought to be his last film. The main character of that film, Jiro Horikoshi, aspires to fly planes as a child and ends up designing fighter aircrafts. The Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni comes to him in dreams to offer philosophical musings. The film ends with the two watching Jiro’s planes fly off and Jiro sullenly observing that none return. Caproni tells him, “Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.” It’s an ending of beauty but of the mind, about a man trapped within his own dreams, a refraction of reality.
Now Miyazaki, 82, returns with The Boy and the Heron. Tokyo teenager Mahito relocates to the countryside after his mother is killed in the World War II bombing of a hospital. After moving in with his father and stepmother, Mahito encounters a strange heron and a new world that he ventures into. Perhaps Miyazaki’s funniest film, it is also one of his most confident. His brilliant balance of beauty and horror creates a world more mythic than fantastical. It could have easily been a bleak finality to a career. Instead it is an acceptance of life’s irreversibility. Clinging to the past is fruitless; accepting what is and what we have become is often all that we can do. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But is it really the end? At the Toronto Film Festival, an executive of the film studio he founded told an interviewer that Miyazaki comes to the office every day, just as he always has: “He is currently working on ideas for a new film.”