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Dream Pastiche or Messy Jumble? Miyazaki's Final Flight aboard the Heron

A student of mine told me after watching Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron, that Finding Natsuko would have been a better title. How so? Let's back up.

Currently settled in a non-metropolitan city for my work, I was morose that I might miss the chance to experience the first Studio Ghibli production to be screened in Indian theatres. Was I mistaken? Certainly! I was overjoyed to find a cinema house near me where the film was being screened. The anticipation was intoxicating. However, it pains me to admit that all the excitement was met with an anticlimactic resolution.

Being a hardcore otaku since my early teens, I have grown up with the oeuvre of Studio Ghibli. The directors of "Team Ghibli" are nothing short of deities to me. After Spirited Away, this is the one that the Academy had duly recognized. Therefore, the build-up was high. The beginning of the film augmented that. In the backdrop of the nuclear holocaust, one encounters Mahito, a young fellow who has recently lost his mother, Hisako, to a fire. Suffering from PTSD, his grief is intensified as his father remarries his aunt, aka Hisako's younger sister, Natsuko. As Mahito relocates to the countryside to live in his enormous maternal mansion, a mysterious heron appears to stalk him. The kernel of enigma burgeons, as one expects the heron to be instrumental to the resolution of Mahito's challenges. Yet, one finds that the title is entirely misleading. The talking heron seems nothing but a distraction from what is portrayed as the actual mystery: the missing granduncle and the elusive 'tower'. The 'tower' is apparently an interdimensional space that sucks people into its vortex: the granduncle, Hisako/Himi, Natsuko, elderly maid Kiriko, and finally, our young master Mahito. And that's where it all starts to get convoluted.

Miyazaki's penchant for nature and natural symbolism is known to all. Ghibli characters are often seen leaving the city and relocating to the rural areas. Chihiro (Spirited Away), Satsuki, Mei (My Neighbor Totoro), Ana (When Marnie Was There) and many others are found to make that move. Mahito is no different. The Shinto cycle of life and the afterlife has been explored repeatedly by the lauded director. The grove leading up to the tower reminds one of Totoro's haunt. The souls or 'wara wara' resemble the soot spirits or 'susuwatari'. The aeronautic imagery is a constant in Miyazaki's works. Mahito's father works for the aircorp, much like the director's father did. The familiar Ghibli beacons bring joy to the seasoned viewer. However, the heron and avian presences (pelicans and parakeets) make no sense whatsoever. The heron luring Mahito with false promises, Natsuko disappearing into the tower, Hisako and Kiriko's younger doppelgangers, and finally, the granduncle's scheme to make Mahito his 'heir' to worldbuilding exercises; create a messy jumble of unresolved plotlines. The concern for the Anthropocene is overshadowed by a hurried concluding statement about hatred, jealousy and other human vices. The narrative possibilities offered by the nuclear doomsday, Mahito's private loss, the healing touch of nature, and sustaining friendships which could have transformed the film into a masterpiece, are elided over entirely.

The film leaves several loose ends and unanswered questions in its wake: How and why did the tower appear? How did the granduncle become the grandmaster of the universe? What happened to Hisako after she returned, being lost for a year or so? Why did a pregnant Natsuko venture into the abandoned tower? Why did Mahito find the miniatures of the elderly maids from the mansion in the other dimension? How did the half man - half heron become servile to the grandmaster? ... and many many more.

What could have been a memorable pastiche that paid homage to the opus of the Ghibli cinematic productions from the past, turned into a fragmented weave of failed nostalgia. If this is how Miyazaki is bowing out, his admirers would be heartbroken forever. If not, we look forward to his next creation, with the hopes to be bewitched again.

Stay tuned for more


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