Thematic Architecture in ‘The Boy and the Heron’

January 19, 2024



Elle Yap

The destruction wrought by World War II onto its communities is central to the 2023 Hayao Miyazaki film The Boy and the Heron. The new Studio Ghibli film by the Japanese animation legend grapples with themes like grief and the legacies of violence. He does this in ways that might feel genuinely oblique to audience members watching.

Miyazaki’s films tend to utilize its setting to speak of its thematic importance. And so it goes with The Boy and the Heron, as we analyze its use of setting to expound on its ideas further. 

The Boy and the Heron‘s Sense of Place

Miyazaki’s past films are well-known for having a good sense of place to help ground the fantastical elements that exist in his films. My Neighbor Totoro, for example, is set in the countryside, which helps inform the whimsy the children experience within the film. 

A promotional still from the 1988 film “My Neighbor Totoro.” Source: Studio Ghibli.

The Boy and the Heron is also primarily set in a rural area. However, there’s no sense of whimsy in the proceedings. The film’s main character, Mahito Maki, is sent to his stepmother’s aging palatial estate. The house uses a shoin-zukuri style typical of Japan’s upper class of the time: sliding doors, tatami floors, and a grand entrance hall emptied out by time. 

The estate is stuffy and palatial, and Mahito’s discomfort is palpable in every scene he spends there. While it gives off the same vibe of the bathhouse from Spirited Away, it lacks its dynamism, teeming with elderly folks too old to help with the war effort. 

A promotional still from the 2001 film “Spirited Away.” Source: Studio Ghibli.

Thematic Undertones

Set during World War II, the film’s dark themes evolve over the course of the story. It begins on a quiet night in Tokyo, the silence shattered as a bombing occurs to a nearby hospital.

Mahito, woken by the panic, runs through the streets as the dread builds within his head. The people around him become more and more abstract, turning into impressionistic bodies of horror lit only by the flames of the fire, bringing that sense of loss and grief to the forefront as he reaches the hospital’s burning remains.

This looming dread exists everywhere in the film. Even in the rural estate where he stays, when looking outwards from the house, you can see a factory dedicated to building war planes close by, undercutting any escape from the circumstances they find themselves in. 

A promotional image from “The Boy and the Heron.” Source: Studio Ghibli.

There are trees and rivers surrounding his stepmother’s rural estate, and yet he can’t help but see the flames everywhere. Unlike Totoro, the rural estate doesn’t represent any escape from the grief that enveloped him. The aging opulence, empty rooms, and the nature that surrounds offer him no comfort from his trauma.

A Tower’s Legacy of Regret

An abandoned tower looms over much of the narrative. It exists hidden in the forest surrounding the estate. Old and decrepit, its story shrouded in myths. Mahito’s granduncle allegedly found a meteor that landed during the Meiji era. He hid it behind the tower he built obsessively for years, and whose construction cost many lives. Soon after its completion, he disappeared. It remained rotting away unused and closed off to the world. 

The tower differs from most of the buildings seen in the film. Its Western, Neo-Classical design is castle-like and feels out of place in the nature that surrounds it. Built during the Meiji era and likely influenced by Giyōfū architecture, it melds Western styles to Japanese building techniques. 

During this period, the Japanese government opened itself up to Westernization and started towards its path to industrialization. Miyazaki frames this tower as a symbol of hope in the eyes of Mahito’s granduncle. It’s something otherworldly that could help progress their society forward.

And yet, the tower degrades and instead comes to represent isolation and grief—a structure that corrupts from the inside and out. 

A promotional still from Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron.” Source: Studio Ghibli.

The tower contains fantastical wonders isolated from the world. There, Mahito finds personifications of death, greed, and war. He allows his emotions to become clouded with anger because of his past trauma. And in a world corrupted by the destructive capabilities of humanity, how do we move forward and create a better world?

Building Without Tools of Malice

The crux of Miyazaki’s film utilizes the tower as metaphor. Ignoring the flawed foundations of something doesn’t make it good; just as constructing walls around our world doesn’t help us overcome grief. How we build is as important as what we build. It prompts us to reflect on the nature and purpose of our constructions and the motivations behind them.

A promotional still from 2023’s “The Boy and the Heron.” Source: Studio Ghibli.

Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” skillfully utilizes its setting to effectively convey a sense of darkness that exacerbates one’s struggle with grief. Through subtle context clues and thematic elements, the film anchors its narrative and propels the story forward. It engages the audience in a critical exploration of the film’s pervasive mood of doom, prompting viewers to contemplate a central question: How does one cope with grief and the moral decay that has resulted in such desolation, as symbolized by burning hospitals, forsaken estates, and deteriorating towers?

Related link: The Mausoleum of Martyrdom of Polish Villages in Michniów Remembers History Through Concrete Forms

Download this month's BLUPRINT magazine digital copy from:
Subscribe via [email protected]