The Boy and the Heron: Ending Explained…?


Charlie Craven (he/him) interprets Hayao Miyazaki’s latest final act

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Image by IMDb

By Charlie Craven

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The Boy and the Heron.

The Boy and the Heron, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth “final” film, has been met with critical and commercial success for Studio Ghibli – a beautiful, BAFTA-winning voyage combining fantastical settings with resonant ideas. Yet, as with all of Miyazaki’s films, there is a complexity and nuance to the storytelling which feels more abstract than most Hollywood animation. Spawning a plethora of “ending explained” think-pieces and videos, the film’s conclusion is certainly cryptic – an emotionally intense climax which can be viewed and interpreted in a number of ways. Ergo, I want to explore this sequence through a variety of lenses, applying key themes and context to uncover meaning in what might be the final third act in an iconic and unparalleled directorial filmography.

As a starting point for analysis of the finale, the thematic arc most foregrounded throughout the film provides a valuable approach: the exploration of Mahito’s grief as a consequence of his mother’s death. In the first act, Mahito becomes increasingly detached from the world, compounded when he moves from bustling Tokyo to an open rural estate. As the film’s Japanese title (How Do You Live?) suggests, Mahito’s grief places him in a position where he does not know how to continue living. But as the film progresses, he begins an odyssey across fantastical realms, guided and derided by a mysterious heron. Each chapter in this journey complements Mahito’s state – be it the sometimes horrific, sometimes beautiful cycle of life and death he experiences with Kiriko on a seemingly boundless ocean, or the existential debate with Granduncle in which he learns of the fragility of life. As such, the film concludes with Mahito having fully processed his grief and found a way to live – rejecting Granduncle’s offer of a higher realm to embrace those he loves in his own world.

In some manner or another, almost every Miyazaki protagonist has experienced a level of grief throughout their arc. From Chihiro’s anguish at losing her parents in Spirited Away to the loss of Kiki’s powers in Kiki’s Delivery Service, negative emotions provide essential beats for these narratives to progress. However, The Boy and the Heron holds a core distinction through its holistic exploration of the process, being present throughout the story. Ergo, the film foregrounds this grief, crafting a compelling and intensely personal arc in which Mahito rediscovers his motivation to live within our fractured, malicious world. A sense of darkness exudes from the film, similar to works like Princess Mononoke, without a need for strong gore or violence – making the film an arguably more relatable and recognisable experience to those living through comparable depression or anguish. Like much of Miyazaki’s filmography, The Boy and the Heron feels life-affirming in a wholly unique way – it recognises the struggles, suffering and evil of the world, whilst also compelling us to continue living and attempting to survive within it. Even in the throes of grief and nihilism, the film’s finale reminds us that Mahito, Miyazaki and thus perhaps the audience, can find an underlying sense of purpose even when faced with the toughest, most insurmountable challenges.

Another core component of the film’s thematic construction is the importance of family, a critical facet of Mahito’s arc. In the film’s first act, Mahito is largely despondent towards his father’s new partner, his enticement at the potential of his mother’s return acting as an inciting incident for the narrative. But Mahito learns to accept his new mother throughout the journey of the narrative, shaped by a traumatic encounter in a delivery room and a critical realisation surrounding the character of Himi. Once again, the film’s climax acts as a perfect distillation of this idea – with Mahito able to let Himi go as the world collapses around them.

However, as is conventional for a modern Miyazaki-penned narrative, there is a complexity and ambiguity to this act beyond the typical “Hero’s Journey” structure. Specifically, there is still a sense of pain and irresolution to this conclusion: Mahito doesn’t just accept his birth mother’s passing wholeheartedly and forget her. The clean, Hollywood approach of having a character completely overcome their pain by the narrative’s conclusion is almost critiqued by the film, with a more realistic portrayal of Mahito’s relationship with his family members despite the overtly fantastical narrative.

But perhaps the most complex and multifaceted thematic exploration within the film’s ending is that of – broadly speaking – the future. Aside from the aforementioned narrative arcs concluded in Mahito’s final confrontation with Granduncle, there is also a long discussion surrounding the future stability of the world. Granduncle shows Mahito a teetering tower of blocks – explaining that he must keep this tower balanced to keep the world in order and that Mahito should take this responsibility. As Mahito refuses, citing his own flaws, the Parakeet King quickly attempts to build a tower – with the blocks falling and the world collapsing as a result.

Paradoxically, this tower provides both the most obvious metaphor of wider meaning in the film, whilst simultaneously being the most ambiguous and heterogeneous symbol. Taken in the wider context of Miyazaki’s filmography, an obvious interpretation of this destruction could be a representation of the modern world. Ecological destruction and technological advancements are common themes for Miyazaki, topics he is obviously dogmatic about as demonstrated in the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. As such, the eventual destruction of the world acts as an interpretive goldmine – is Miyazaki inviting a new age in the wake of the collapse of current society? Have older generations made the redemption of our current world an impossible task? Should we, like Mahito, try to focus on improving our own relationships and character in the face of intense, galactic responsibility?

Yet of course, this is not the only interpretation of the blocks. Another representation could infer them as simply a symbol of the future of Studio Ghibli. In the wake of Miyazaki’s seemingly final retirement in 2013 and Isao Takahata’s passing in 2018, the studio has found itself in an unprecedented position. Attempts to find new Ghibli auteurs in people like Miyazaki’s son Goro have resulted in mixed results – with new approaches (such as the studio’s first 3D animated feature Earwig and the Witch) not satisfying the mainstream appeal of its former creative figureheads. As such, the tower’s collapse at the end of The Boy and the Heron immediately takes a new context – a potential call to Ghibli as a company to embrace its potential downfall, allowing for new talent to rise within the industry. The tower could even represent the process of creativity itself, requiring destruction and chaos for the reinvention and proliferation of art as opposed to complete societal and aesthetic stagnation.

Ultimately, film criticism is (thankfully) not a game of competing interpretations to find the “one true meaning”. Instead, arguments can be formed and tested through methodology – attaching formal construction to meaning and wider contexts – even if the concluding interpretations are contradictory or near-antithetical. The Boy and the Heron's conclusion acts as a perfect demonstration of the benefits of this approach, with a vast breadth of ideological meanings which can be drawn from a single sequence. As such, the joy of film criticism and theory can be found – a personal, fluid process of interpretation that continually evolves to allow texts like Miyazaki’s to feel fresh and live forever.