Why the Success of ‘The Boy and the Heron’ May Lead to Another Miyazaki Movie

TheWrap magazine: “If this film becomes a major hit, then he may make another film,” says producer Toshio Suzuki

The Boy and the Heron Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli's "The Boy and the Heron"

When legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki decided to come out of self-announced retirement a few years after making 2013’s “The Wind Rises,” it didn’t come as a shock to his longtime producer, close friend and Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki. But the news, which meant that the studio would have to reopen and bring in new staff, didn’t make Suzuki especially happy, either.

“I wasn’t surprised, but I did feel disappointed,” Suzuki said in an email interview. “I want my second life back! Even after he announced his retirement, as we saw each other every day, I realized that Miyazaki’s feeling of wanting to make another film was getting stronger, so I was resigned to it.” 

“The Boy and the Heron,” which won the animation awards from the New York and Los Angeles film critics, is Miyazaki at his most autobiographic and ambitious. The story follows a young boy named Mahito (Soma Santoki), who loses his mother during World War II in a hospital fire. He then travels with his father, an air munitions factory owner, to the countryside, where he encounters a mysterious heron who transports him to an in-between realm where time and space are turned upside down.

As much as the film is a fantasy, it also draws on Miyazaki’s own childhood. “I am very familiar with his upbringing,” Suzuki said, “and his feeling toward his mother is the everlasting theme for his creativity.” But that didn’t mean that the personal would take precedence over the universal. “Miyazaki has projected himself into his works in the past, but his stance of completing a film that the audience can enjoy as entertainment has never wavered,” he said.

The result is one of Studio Ghibli’s most visually sumptuous works, sometimes veering into the realm of the hallucinogenic. The movie’s animation is all the more startling by the fact that it was created using hand-drawn techniques, which Suzuki admitted are something of a dying art in Japan.

“The biggest challenge was how to gather together animators who could draw the frames as Miyazaki wanted,” he said. “In the Japanese animation world, there are fewer people who are talented in hand-drawn animation. Fortunately, Japan’s top-class, brilliant animators were willing to put aside their other work in order to participate in Miyazaki’s film.”

The director, who will be 83 in January, was not able to be as hands-on as he once was. “He is no longer able to check and redraw all of the frames as he did when he was younger,” Suzuki said. Supervising animator Takeshi Honda oversaw the revision of frames, and work proceeded slowly. “We provided a production environment for which plenty of time was allotted, without setting a deadline. We adjusted to Miyazaki’s pace of working and didn’t push him.”

But they didn’t change the director’s basic stance, which has always been to do things by hand, not with computer graphics – a decision that can complicate the work enormously. “In the scene where many birds fly around, we did not use CG, so each bird was drawn entirely by hand,” Suzuki said.  

When “The Boy and the Heron” was finally released in America in December, it became the first Miyazaki movie to top the domestic box-office chart. And that might be good news for animation fans who are hoping for another Miyazaki movie.

“His desire to make more films has become stronger and he has many ideas, but we don’t know if they will lead to another film,” Suzuki said. “Currently he is very concerned about whether this film will be seen by many viewers. If this film becomes a major hit, then he may make another film. If that happens, then my second life may be delayed once again.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Ava DuVernay photo by Maya Iman

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