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SUPERVERSIVE Review: “How do you Live?”, directed by Hayao Miyazaki –

SUPERVERSIVE Review: “How do you Live?”, directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Tuesday , 12, December 2023 2 Comments

(The original Japanese title is perfectly comprehensible when translated to English and far superior, I’m not using the stupid title “The Boy and the Heron”).

After writing a full retrospective on Miyazaki’s filmography, it was quite the surreal experience to walk into a theater and actually watch a new Miyazaki movie on the day of its release.

I’ll lay my biases on the table here. I am a Miyazaki fanboy. I think he’s the greatest living director and one of the greatest directors of all time. I am of the opinion that he doesn’t have any truly bad films (the closest being “Ponyo”), multiple classics, and three masterpieces, “Princess Mononoke”, “Spirited Away”, and “The Wind Rises”.

I had been following this movie since its announcement, and instead of going through the whole history up to now, I’ll give a brief plot synopsis and my thoughts:

In the midst of WWII Mahito’s mother, who works in a hospital, dies in a fire in Tokyo; though it is not stated directly it is heavily implied this is due to the American firebombing of Tokyo.

Within one year Mahito’s father has remarried and his new wife is pregnant. The new wife is Mahito’s Aunt Natsuko, his mother’s sister. Though Mahito tries his best to be polite and respectful, he’s clearly uncomfortable with her and misses his mother badly.

After moving to a home near his father’s factory, his mother’s ancestral home, strange things start happening around Mahito. A gray heron seems to follow him around the property. And he tells Mahito something strange: Mahito’s mother might still be alive…

From this point forward it is going to be very hard to actually describe the plot, because the movie is so bizarre, even for Miyazaki. Strange stories surround a great-grand-Uncle and a mysterious tower on the edge of the property, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the gray heron leads him there and it ends up being the entrance to a fantastical, magical world.

Where to even start with this movie? I suspect it will take many re-watches to fully appreciate, as did “Princess Mononoke”. Yet like with the latter, I don’t want to imply that this wasn’t an enjoyable watch the first time around – quite the contrary.

One thing I am sure will get better on subsequent viewings is the first half of the movie. It takes a long time for Mahito to actually enter the fantastical world of the tower, and the first half of the film is concerned with dealing with Mahito’s grief. While things move slowly and relatively little actually happens, the storytelling on display is masterful. Mahito’s grief is portrayed with very little dialogue but incredible imagery and animation. You see how he deals with the grief through his facial expressions, the way he withdraws from people, his obvious discomfort with his Aunt’s presence, and the moment he decides it would be better to seriously injure himself than be around the company of other people.

Is this exciting stuff? No, but it’s very well done, and if you can manage your way through it the second half pays off in spades with some of Miyazaki’s most marvelous, beautiful, and bizarre imagery. I suspect that on a rewatch this section of the film will only improve.

And yet, as a critic, I can’t help but compare it to the absolutely masterful opening of “Spirited Away”, one of my favorite scenes ever. It makes me think that this really should have been cut at least a little bit – but perhaps your mileage will vary here.

Is the film too dreamlike and bizarre? I suppose opinions will vary on this. Crafting a believable fantasy world is never easy, and the reveal near the end of how this world formed does help to make some sense of things. If you’re trying to grasp the message of this movie, you’re really going to have to work hard to interpret the imagery, which is another reason I suspect a rewatch of the movie will be necessary to fully appreciate it.

What is the message of the film? If I had to take something away, it would be that you can’t wallow in grief forever. Life is full of hardship and misery, death and despair, but life is also full of beauty and love.

Spoilers incoming, by the way.

Mahito’s Great-Grand-Uncle attempts to create a world in his image, with himself as the master, and he becomes so obsessed with creating it he withdraws from the real world. And it doesn’t work; the world he creates is just as flawed and painful as the real one. Worse, it isn’t truly his. His Great-Grand-Uncle can’t create anything new, just twist already existing creatures to try and fit his image, and these creatures are deeply dissatisfied with their new lives.

Mahito is offered the chance to do things right, to take over and fix the world, to make it in HIS image instead of his Great-Grand-Uncle’s and eliminate all of the evil and suffering from the world. Mahito rejects the offer, citing the injury he gave to himself as proof of his own malice and the inevitability of his eventual failure to create the perfect world his Great-Grand-Uncle envisioned. In doing so, and in contrast to his Great-Grand-Uncle, Mahito has proven his wisdom.

He meets a younger version of his mother in the fantasy world, and she chooses to leave to her own time instead of escaping to Mahito’s time, knowing she will eventually give birth to Mahito and die in a fire. She accepts the pain she knows is coming in her life in exchange for the beauty and love.

And that is the ultimate message of the film. There is no escaping the pain of the world. There is no escaping grief or fear or hatred. But love and beauty are real too, and if we focus all of our time on figuring out how to escape the pain of the world, we will miss out on all of the love around us that makes life worth living.

This film is not easy viewing; it’s hard to even call it a children’s film, considering it’s rated PG-13. It moves slowly, has a lot of rules in its fantasy world that it doesn’t explain, and contains some imagery that I think can honestly be called “intense”. Yet if you are patient, it has some of the most stunning imagery ever put on film, brilliant dialogue-free storytelling, and an incredible amount of imagination.

I don’t know yet where this will rank in Miyazaki’s filmography, but don’t misunderstand; this is a film that straddles the classics and the masterpieces. At any event, it is very strongly recommended.

  • Codex says:

    The Daughter Product and I went to see it opening weekend.

    Completely agree with your assessment. This movie deserves the big screen and the small.

    Side note: Why not Howl’s Moving Castle in the masterpieces? No other filmmaker has made a movie from a book as good as the book itself (and it was a good book) *in the book’s author’s own opinion.

    I think it’s better. Both truly a Miazaki story and truly a DWJ story.

    • Anthony M says:

      Well, because as much as I love it I don’t consider it a masterpiece. I love the ending but it rushes to get there and a lot of things happen very suddenly and conveniently to reach the (admittedly beautiful) final scenes.

      I rewatch it regularly but it simply does not have the thematic depth or storytelling perfection of his three best.

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