THE BOY AND THE HERON (Kimitachi wa dô ikiru ka)

Producer: Toshio Suzuki   Director: Hayao Miyazaki   Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki   Cast: (Japanese version) Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Ko Shibasaki, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Takuya Kimura, Keiko Takeshita, Jun Fubuki, Sawako Agawa, Karen Takizawa, Shinobu Otake, Jun Kunimura, Kaoru Kobayashi and Shohei Hino; (English version) Luca Padovan, Christian Bale, Robert Pattinson, Karen Fukuhara, Gemma Chan, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh, Willem Dafoe, Dave Bautista, Denise Pickering, Barbara Rosenblat, Melora Harte, Barbara Goodson, Mamoudou Athie, Tony Revolori and Dan Stevens   Distributor: GKIDS

Grade: B

When renowned Japanese animation artist Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature filmmaking after “The Wind Rises” in 2013, it seemed a more definitive decision than others he’d made along similar lines before.  But he’s gratified his many admirers by reversing himself again, after a decade’s hiatus offering this visually sumptuous if narratively somewhat cumbersome fantasia on grief, maturation and acceptance of loss.  The original Japanese title, “How Do You Live?” (drawn from a book Miyazaki read as a child), is more fitting than the one chosen for its release in this country; and the Japanese-language version is preferable to the dubbed English one, despite the presence of a starry vocal cast in the latter.  But in whatever format, it’s a worthy reintroduction to the work of one of the most imaginative of all masters of 2D animation, even if as a whole it doesn’t reach the level of his finest work.

Miyazaki’s story, set during World War II and featuring some autobiographical elements, begins with adolescent Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki in the original Japanese version and Luca Padovan in the English one) suffering a terrible tragedy when the hospital where his mother works in Tokyo is bombed in an aerial attack and goes up in flames.  In the aftermath of her death, his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale), who runs a factory manufacturing parts for fighter planes, moves the operation to the countryside, and he and his son take up residence with Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan), the sister of the boy’s late mother, and her garrulous old maids (Keiko Takeshita/Denise Pickering, Jun Fubuki/Barbara Rosenblat, Sawako Agawa/Melora Harte, Shinobu Otake/Barbara Goodson), all squat and jovial apart from tall, severe Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki/Florence Pugh).

Mahito is morose and, when bullied at his new school, injures himself with a rock in order to remain at home convalescing.  He’s also bothered by a large grey heron that flaps at his window, leading the lad to make a bow and arrows to kill it.  But the bird—or rather ugly little man in a heron costume (Masaki Suda/Robert Pattinson)—entices him to enter the tunnels beneath a strange tower constructed long ago by his great-granduncle (Shohei Hino/Mark Hamill), where, he implies, Mahito’s mother is still alive awaiting rescue, and into which the pregnant Natsuko has apparently wandered.

The boy goes into the tunnels and finds himself in a strange, sometimes wondrous and sometimes frightening new world.  There he will find both his mother and Natsuko, but the reunions are not exactly pleasant.  Kiriko, meanwhile, is transformed into a young seagoing adventuress who saves him from a flock of ravenous pelicans (one voiced by Kaoru Kobayashi/Willem Dafoe) that feed on adorable white balloon-like creatures called warawara (Karen Takizawa) as they float skyward to become human beings—though some are saved by powerful Lady Himi (Aimyon/Karen Fukuhara), who can shoot lightning bolts from her hands.  (The sequence might remind you of the one in “Suddenly, Last Summer,” in which the recently hatched turtles scramble toward the safety of the sea while being attacked by ravenous gulls.  Thankfully, this one isn’t nearly so horrifying.)

Eventually Mahito finds his great-granduncle, a wizard who keeps the building blocks of the realm from collapsing and invites the boy to become his successor.  The stability of the place is threatened by the army of the militaristic Parakeet King (Jun Kunimura/Dave Bautista), whose followers (including birds voiced by Mamoudou Athie, Tony Revolori and Dan Stevens) plot a takeover.  Will Mahito accept his ancestor’s offer, or choose to return his aunt to her world, and release all the trapped denizens of the tunnels to it as well as their realm crumbles?

The plot is obviously concerned overall with a boy’s coming to terms with the death of his beloved mother (an experience Miyazaki dealt with himself), but it’s depicted in the form of what might be called a “Mahito in Wonderland” scenario, in which the parts often seem more random than related.  Each of them, however, is marvelously realized from the visual standpoint, with the director’s unique vision superbly rendered by his collaborators at Studio Ghibli—supervising animator Takeshi Honda, art director Yoji Takeshige and editors Takeshi Seyama, Rie Matsubara and Akane Shiraishi.  The images are complemented by a haunting score by Joe Hisaishi, and a song by Kenshi Yonezu, aka Hachi.  The voice work in the Japanese version is more serviceable than memorable, though Suda’s scratchy delivery certainly stands out.             

“The Boy and the Heron” has an episodic, meandering structure that can be confusing—and it’s not precisely kid-friendly—but its myriad beauties will enthrall Miyazaki’s many admirers, and newcomers to his world as well.