The Boy and the Oscar – All the Anime

By Andrew Osmond.

Hooray, The Boy and the Heron has won! When it snagged the Best Animated Feature Oscar last night (sorry, Spider-Verse fans), it marked only the second Oscar victory for an anime feature film. The first time was twenty-one years ago, when Spirited Away, also directed by Hayao Miyazaki, won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars in 2003.

Some other anime features have been nominated in the intervening years, two of them by Miyazaki. Howl lost to Wallace and Gromit in 2005, and The Wind Rises to Frozen in 2015. (Ponyo missed being nominated in 2010.) Two Ghibli films that weren’t by Miyazaki were also nominated without winning, They were Takahata’s farewell film Princess Kaguya in 2014, and the low-key but wonderful When Marnie Was There, by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, in 2015. The Red Turtle was nominated in 2016. It’s wonderful too, but I don’t count this French-animated film as Ghibli, let alone anime.

Only one anime that’s not by Ghibli has ever been Oscar-nominated, and that was Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai in 2018, which lost to the first Spider-Verse. Outstanding directors such as Naoko Yamada, Masaaki Yuasa and Makoto Shinkai have all yet to get an Oscar nod. Many other excellent films of the past two decades have been snubbed. They include The First Slam Dunk, Children of the Sea, Promare, Maquia, Paprika and In This Corner of the World, and that’s just counting the stand-alones.

It’s sadly likely that Boy and the Heron will be the last feature film that Miyazaki directs, unless he can delegate creative work on his next feature to a degree that he’s never managed before. It’s not inconceivable. The website has superb extended interviews with Heron’s animation director Takeshi Honda and animator Toshiyuki Inoue. What emerges from them is that with age catching up with Miyazaki, he relied heavily on Honda, who, for example, was responsible for the design of the pivotal character Natsuko. It was because, Inoue says, “Miyazaki isn’t very good at designing adult women.”

Boy and the Heron has some of the most obvious “signature” animation of any Miyazaki film – namely the early sequence when Mahito rushes through a nightmare of wildly distorted people. Most people will just think it’s by Miyazaki, but a fair number of fans and professionals know that it’s the signature distortion of Shinya Ohira, who was adding his personal touch to Miyazaki films back with Spirited Away. While the commentary on Heron will always centre on the director, the Oscar win is still also a victory for Honda, Ohira, Inoue and Heron’s other artists, many of whom worked on Miyazaki’s films for decades.

What of Heron itself? How much of its reception, including this Oscar, is skewed by the feeling that it’s indeed a farewell film? I’m no dispassionate pundit. I’ve been invested in Miyazaki’s films for decades, and I do like Heron. However, I’d personally rate it below another recent anime fantasy, Shinkai’s Suzume, which has some broadly overlapping themes. I’m not surprised that Heron has been praised, but I am surprised that there hasn’t been more of a backlash to it. Of course there are exceptions, such as an Anime News Network podcast called “Is The Boy and the Heron Miyazaki’s Worst Film?”

Heron is an odd film, in the manner that started with Spirited Away. Its story trajectory is constantly deflected by out-of-nowhere developments and characters. It starts as a creepy, angry ghost story with a boy who graphically self-harms on screen.  By the end it’s about beating up flesh-eating budgies and other cartoon folderol. I find that an amusing contrast to all the fantasy stories that start light and then get grim. Heron is a true journey in that there’s no way to see the later developments in advance. But I’m surprised that critics have bought into its oddness so readily.

I’m also struck by how so much of the writing on Heron focuses on its parallels to Miyazaki’s past films, but doesn’t bring up themes that a first-time Miyazaki viewer could spot, themes that make the film distinctive. Heron’s obsession with mother complexes and motherhood is hardly subtle. This is a film where one of the two main females is Natsuko, Mahito’s beautiful aunt, who we’re told is the spitting image of the boy’s dead mum. In the early minutes, we see Mahito’s discomfort when Natsuko, squashed up to him in a rickshaw, takes his hand and presses it to her pregnant stomach. Soon after, Mahito peeps at Natsuko embracing Mahito’s own father, who married Natsuko after the sister died.

And then Heron’s other main female is… a time-displaced version of the dead sister, Hisako, aka Lady Himi. She’s a similar age to Mahito, very pretty, and magic to boot. In one scene she burns cute baby-like “warawara” while Mahito shouts for her to stop. That’s just after we’ve learned that warawara are unborn souls; previously the script mentioned that Hisako had a difficult pregnancy with Mahito himself. None of this is deep analysis; these details are upfront on screen. They amount to a vision of motherhood that’s awesome, scary and erotic. Step forward Hideaki Anno, who’s the creator of Evangelion, one-time God Warrior animator and Jiro’s voice in Wind Rises. He once teased Miyazaki for not displaying “the negative things called self-loathing and complexes.” Until now, that is.

In the Honda interview mentioned earlier, the Animation Director even talks of reining Heron back a bit. “Because it’s about the Oedipus complex, if things became too erotic, it would have been too much. For instance, when Natsuko says ‘I hate you!’ to Mahito in the delivery room scene, I initially wanted to open her kimono and show her chest. But it would have been going overboard, so I gave it up in the end.”

For the duration of Heron, we’re observing Mahito from the outside. We’re left to wonder exactly why, for instance, he hits himself with a rock with such savagery, or why he has such murderous hatred towards the heron. (Though trust Miyazaki to turn this hate toward pedagogical ends; this is a film that teaches youngsters exactly how to make their own bow and arrow.) Mahito’s deeper feelings are left for us to infer too, particularly his changing feelings towards the heron and Natsuko.

This isn’t the usual approach for Miyazaki. It is, however, very in line with the “objective” depictions of characters in the films of his late colleague, Isao Takahata. Takahata criticised films that “drive viewers into a position where they can only align themselves with the protagonist, without objectively indicating the hero’s circumstances.” I think Takahata would have surely appreciated Heron; I wrote more on the background here.

Takahata has become part of the discourse around Heron, for a very different reason.Thank Toshio Suzuki for that. He told outlets like Entertainment Weekly that the godlike ageing magus character in the last scenes of Heron is actually based on Takahata. I’ve seen some fans present this as the “real meaning” of Heron, which is ludicrous. The magus may be inspired by Miyazaki’s memories and feelings of his lifelong friend and rival. But it doesn’t start to square with the Takahata who was known to the public, and to various levels of fan. Even the idea of Takahata as a wizard feels all wrong. Very few of Takahata’s works involve magic, except the magic of nature.

For anyone outside Takahata’s private circle, the obvious way to “read” the magus in Heron is as a stand-in for Miyazaki, like past self-inserts as diverse as Porco Rosso’s pig-pilot and the grouchy Kamaji in Spirited Away. And whatever Miyazaki’s personal feelings may have been when he created the character, surely he would have known that’s how audiences wouldsee the magus. The idea of Miyazaki as the fading sorcerer is sweet and resonant. The allegories I’ve seen built on top of that are not. You can find people saying Heron is secretly about Goro Miyazaki and Ghibli’s efforts to make him Hayao’s successor. (At the film’s end, is Mahito an alternative Goro who refuses to make Tales from Earthsea?) It’s so dully literal and bathetic, far from the awe and whimsy of Heron’s finale. For the record, I interviewed Goro last November. Although it’s not in my write-up, I asked him if he thought any Ghibli character represented him. He said no.

Perhaps a clear view of Boy and the Heron will be only possible in twenty years’ time, when it’s as far from us as Spirited Away is now. By then, we can hope that other anime films will have snagged Oscars, films that aren’t by Miyazaki and Ghibli. For now, this Oscar win is a triumph for both, but also for the crack artists who could show themselves off more than they ever could before. Heron also shows a different Miyazaki, who’s now somehow aligned with artists as wildly different as his junior Anno and his mentor Takahata. I think other anime films have deserved Oscars more. But Heron is an especially interesting Oscar win.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.