Vrai, Cy, and Toni discuss Miyazaki Hayao’s latest (last?) movie, its callbacks to his career and themes, and Robert Pattinson.
Date Recorded: December 29th 2023
Hosts: Vrai, Cy, Toni
0:01:50 Favorite Ghibli film
0:07:08 Sub or dub
0:12:18 The title
0:15:52 SPOILER WARNING
0:18:06 It’s an isekai
0:22:33 What is this sekai?
0:29:22 Takahata Isao
0:30:58 Miyazaki Goro
0:33:20 The birds
0:37:40 The Wind rises
VRAI: Hello and welcome to Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast—and 2024! Hopefully it isn’t already terrible! We are starting off the new year by looking back at the old year, by talking about Miyazaki’s final film—for real this time, probably—The Boy and the Heron. With me to discuss this new theatrical release are Cy and Toni.
CY: Hi, I’m Cy, and I’m here to discuss this theatrical release! [Chuckles] I am an editor here at Anime Feminist, as well as the resident idol lover. Still keeping it going in 2024, y’all.
TONI: Hi, I’m Toni. I’m an editor at Anime Feminist. And I feel like, unfortunately, my brand has become resident “This seinen is good actually”-er of Anime Feminist, which is a brand that I am trying to let go of. You can find me on all platforms @poetpedagogue.
VRAI: Oh, shoot, I didn’t actually introduce myself, and I… uh… Hey, I’m Vrai—
CY: [Chuckles] I was like, I didn’t either!
VRAI: It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.
CY: Y’all know where to find us!
VRAI: Hey, I’m Vrai Kaiser. [Chuckles] Yeah, no, it’s fine. I’m the daily operations manager here at AniFem and content editor. You can find me on Bluesky @WriterVrai. I do things occasionally.
CY: I’m @pixelatedlenses. I’m still on Twitter somehow.
VRAI: Well, as I mentioned up top, we are talking about The Boy and the Heron, which is the first movie Hayao Miyazaki has directed since 2012’s The Wind Rises, which was previously going to be his final film. I hope all of you at home have seen the Miyazaki cat comic, because it’s real and it lives in my heart.
TONI: It’s truly iconic.
CY: It’s very good.
VRAI: Yep. But this is actually the first time that we’ve talked about a Ghibli film on the AniFem podcast, period, I think, except maybe in passing. So, before we get into it properly, let’s do a quick temperature check, I guess. What are y’all’s favorite Ghibli film, and when did you get into… or your favorite Miyazaki film generally? This will be relevant later.
CY: Okay. Okay, so I’ll start off with… my favorite Ghibli film is When Marnie Was There. I love it.
TONI: Ooh! Deep cut!
CY: Oh, my God, it’s my favorite, and every time I say it, people are like, “Wow, really?” and I’m like, “Yeah, because I’m a person with taste.”
CY: It’s true.
VRAI: I feel like a lot of people were disappointed when the marketing made it look really gay, and that’s just not the kind of story it is.
CY: It’s not that kind of story, but as a fellow asthmatic, I really relate to Anna [pronounced “ah-nah”]. I’m sorry. I just called her the Frozen girl’s name. Anna [pronounced to rhyme with “banana” in general American English]. Let’s put some respect on it: Anna. I relate to her. And, yeah, it’s not gay, but, you know, the gay is in our hearts. [Chuckles]
TONI: I’m gagged. I’m looking at the poster. They’re literally back to back, holding hands on a beach.
CY: Yeah, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but, like…
VRAI: Toni, there’s a reason it’s not gay! [Chuckles]
TONI: Hm. Okay.
CY: Yeah, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, Toni, there’s a big reason you don’t want this one to be gay. [Whispers] It’d be incest!
TONI: [crosstalk] Okay, noted.
CY: And then, obviously, because I’m a tastemaker, my favorite Miyazaki film is Kiki’s Delivery Service. Eternal.
VRAI: It’s very good.
CY: [crosstalk] It’s very good.
TONI: I grew up with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and I loved it so much because I was a little environmentalist. Like, a little bit insufferable in it.
VRAI: A little baby.
TONI: Baby environmentalist. And I think as I’ve grown up, I’ve really grown to appreciate Spirited Away. I think I relate to it really hard, especially as somebody who’s moved from one place to another, like I moved from the Bay Area to New York City and I felt a lot like Chihiro. I know it’s the basic answer, I know it’s the one that everyone says, but I genuinely think it’s a masterpiece and I love everything that it has to say about women’s labor, about growing up, about being there and supporting your friends. It’s just… It’s so precious to me and special to me.
VRAI: It’s a wonderful film. I mean, I also have a lot of special feelings about Spirited Away, particularly because when I saw it in theaters, this was like the first time an anime movie had ever come to my very small 50,000-person town. That was the summer of having big “Do I want them or do I want to be them?” crushes on both Haku and Ken Ichijouji. So, Spirited Away holds a special place in my heart.
TONI: Oh, Haku is every… I feel like Haku is so many people’s first anime crush. He was certainly my first anime crush. And I didn’t even have the language to describe it.
VRAI: Yeah, because look at him!
CY: I do think the difference is: is Haku the human boy your first anime crush, or is Haku the dragon boy your first anime crush? If you know me, you know which one it is.
VRAI: A tastemaker.
CY: I’m just saying, that dragon fucks! [Chuckles] That dragon is hot!
VRAI: I see that you too are a man of culture.
CY: Dragon’s hot! Anyway, continuing.
VRAI: No, but my favorite Miyazaki movie is probably The Castle of Cagliostro, which is one of my favorite films of all time. I think it’s just about a perfect fairytale. It’s simple, the art style has aged beautifully, the slapstick is amazing, it’s full of heartwarming… I really enjoy the Manga Entertainment dub. It’s sort of divisive among Lupin franchise fans because it’s so much softer than a lot of the canon, but I think it’s both a wonderful film on its own and a really sweet, gentle kind of last-job send-off for the character. And, I don’t know, I think it’s just perfect at being what it is. It’s a wonderful film that more people should watch.
TONI: We can have that and we can have Woman Called Fujiko Mine. We don’t have to choose.
VRAI: It’s true. It’s a huge franchise. There’s been about 60 different Lupin characterizations. It’s fine! It’s fine. Have either of you seen other Miyazaki films in theaters besides this one?
CY: Yeah, I guess Ponyo. And I did see the English dub with Miley Cyrus’s young sister.
TONI: [crosstalk] I did, too.
VRAI: Okay, okay.
CY: Which, it slaps. I’m just gonna state that right now.
VRAI: I love watching Ghibli films dubbed. I really, really do. Like, I imprinted so hard on Kirsten Dunst as Kiki, it is immovable.
CY: Yeah. And okay, so, speaking of that—I know this might be getting ahead—how did we watch this Miyazaki feature film?
TONI: I watched it dubbed. And it was funny because I wasn’t originally planning to, but this was the only showing that I could make with my friends. It was the only one they could make and I could make. And I didn’t mind the dub. I thought the dub was really, really well acted. I was very impressed. And, you know, Studio Ghibli movies really have a long history of having very good dubs. I mean, if I remember right, Neil Gaiman was involved in the scriptwriting for the Princess Mononoke dub. And then…
VRAI: He did. He did the localization script, yeah.
TONI: Which is part of, probably, why that localization is so damn good.
VRAI: No, no, I mean, I agree with you. I love Ghibli dubs. And I do think they’re sort of films with stunt casting that actually make their stunt casting bother to voice-act, which is not the case, especially for a lot of 2000s animated films. I’m looking at you, DreamWorks. I’m looking at you directly.
CY: [Chuckles] Yeah, no, no, I do think [that with] Ghibli dubs and especially a lot of Miyazaki’s films, there is a sense of gravity because they are actors and they’re not just like some guy coming in to give us a tepid reading as Mario [Clears throat], you know, to name a movie this year that had some guy coming into just give us the most “doo-doot doo-doot doot-doo-doot” [spoken in singsong, resembling a Mario jingle] kind of performance, you know? I’m just saying.
TONI: [crosstalk] Give us nothing.
TONI: Giving us nothing.
VRAI: Lorenzo Music didn’t die for this.
CY: Yeah, like Miyazaki films, they are here to serve. And they do.
TONI: I remember watching Only Yesterday with Dev Patel as— I watched it in theaters with Dev Patel as the love interest, I believe.
VRAI: [surprised] Huh!
TONI: And that probably launched my crush on Dev Patel, just his voice. [Hums appreciatively]
VRAI: Good choices, good decisions.
VRAI: Wait, so did we all watch it dubbed? Because I did.
CY: [crosstalk] Yeah, I watched it dubbed as well.
VRAI: Oh no!
CY: No, no, the moment that I knew Robert Pattinson was gon’ be that Grey Heron, yeah. Yeah. Ah, so I guess none of us can speak to the Japanese side, oops.
TONI: He really hammed it up!
TONI: He, like, hammed it the fuck up.
VRAI: He’s perfect.
TONI: He was fantastic.
VRAI: There’s a really wonderful Paste [sic] article that’s just about how they put this dub together and the amount of care and communication with the Japanese studio that they did, and it’s just absolutely so sweet, because part of this being a sort of send-off to Miyazaki’s career is that they brought in a lot of actors from previous films, and they attempted to replicate that where they could for the English dub. So, Howl’s actor plays Mahito’s dad in—
CY: Christian Bale? Excuse me!
VRAI: Yeah, yeah, in Japanese. And they brought him back— Well, specifically, the Japanese side said, “We got Howl’s actor to come back and play Mahito’s dad in Japanese.” So they also went and got Christian Bale to play his dad in English.
CY: Okay. I’m sorry, I thought you were just gonna call him “Christian, Mahito’s dad,” and I was like, “We put some respect on Christian Bale!” Okay, sorry, sorry.
CY: Someone’s a little passionate.
VRAI: And there’s a very cute anecdote about how Robert Pattinson came in the first day and had a little notes app on his phone where he basically got the voice as it’s finalized in the film already before they started recording, because he was so excited about it. It’s really cute. There’s just a vibrant amount of love in this dub.
CY: You can feel the passion.
VRAI: I do think maybe some of the granny chatter, the auntie stuff doesn’t necessarily translate aurally the way it might in the original Japanese and maybe sounds a little bit… That’s the only place that I would point to that maybe sounds a little bit arguably stiff at points.
CY: I will defend these little grandma maids with my life. I love them so much. I love them so much. I love— Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. We haven’t even talked about what this movie’s even about. [Chuckles]
VRAI: Yes, yes. Oh, one more note and then we’ll get into the summary. There was a lot of talk before the movie came out because the Japanese title of the film is “How Do You Live?” and that’s the name of a book in the narrative that Mahito receives from his mother, and it’s relevant to the themes. Like a lot of Miyazaki movies, it’s an anti-war film. There’s a lot of… It’s about conflict and how conflict arises because of what people feel like they have to do to live, right? And so, when it came out in English, everybody was up in arms that the English title is “The Boy and the Heron,” which is much less evocative on its face, I think a lot of people felt like. And that Paste article I referenced earlier sort of demystified that finally, that it was actually a request from the Japanese studio, because How Do You Live? is an actual novel in Japan. It’s a real novel that Mahito is reading.
CY: [crosstalk] It’s a 1937 novel, actually.
VRAI: Yes. Mm-hm. And people, apparently, in Japan were constantly asking if this movie was an adaptation of this book. So, there was a request that the title be changed for an international market. And the reason they ended up on The Boy and the Heron is to try to evoke some of the archetypal fairytale nature of the story of the film. And now you know.
CY: I think “The Boy and the Heron” is actually a much more serviceable title because, while How Do You Live? has an English translation that was released in 2021 through Penguin, uh… I think most people don’t know that. Also, “How Do You Live?” doesn’t necessarily… What does that mean to an English-speaking audience that might be coming from mainstream or [is] likely coming from mainstream and this is like their one touchstone into Japanese animated films? Yeah, “Boy and the Heron”… it is ultimately kind of better.
TONI: I don’t agree. I like “How Do You Live?” partially because I think it captures a lot of the thematic ideas in the film. So much of the film is “What do you take with you that the previous generation is trying to impart upon you, and what do you let go of?” I also do think it’s kind of funny, like— I mean, vestenet, of course, @vestenet on Twitter made this meme that superimposed… took the poster and said, “Dang! I’m shocked at the localization choices.” And it says, “Damn, you live like this?”
CY: Okay. [Chuckles]
TONI: And I just think… pitch-perfect meme. But yeah, no, I quite like “How Do You Live?” And I also think it captures the vagueness of it, captures the surreality of the movie because it is such a strange, weird fucking movie, which is one of the things I really like about it.
CY: Yeah. I do think it is nice that they do have a title that separates it from the book, because I do think a lot of people still think it’s an adaptation of the book when they are completely separate things.
VRAI: It’s less of an adaptation of How Do You Live? than Naked Lunch the Cronenberg film is of Naked Lunch the book.
VRAI: Alright, so, I think it’s pretty clear from the chatter up to this point that we all really love the film and think you should see it, so from here on in, the discussion will be spoiler laden. If you haven’t seen the film and you plan to, please go do that and then come back because it really is a movie that benefits from the surprise of it, I think.
CY: Yeah, yeah, going in unknowing really heightens the experience, for sure.
TONI: This movie just— I had no idea what was going to happen next at any point in the movie whatsoever. I had literally no idea what was gonna happen next, ever! Ever!
CY: I certainly didn’t expect a little man to pop out of the heron.
TONI: Oh my God. That moment…
CY: I’ma be real. I’ma be real. Didn’t expect Robert Pattinson to be so scrungly in this one.
VRAI: So good!
TONI: Like, just the little face.
VRAI: I’m so happy for the degree to which Robert Pattinson has flourished into his weird little guy era.
CY: It’s great.
TONI: I’m so happy for him, honestly.
VRAI: Alright, brief summary in case you didn’t listen to my warnings or you haven’t seen the film for a minute and need a refresher. So, this film takes place during the late stages of World War II in the Pacific War. Mahito is living in Tokyo when his mother is killed in a firebombing, because she is in a hospital that gets bombed. And so, he and his father move to the countryside to live with his aunt, who is also his father’s new bride and is pregnant.
So Mahito is going through it. As he arrives at the house, he discovers that there is an old building that was apparently left there by one of his predecessors and has been blocked off because it’s dangerous and people disappear there. And in the process of grieving his mother’s death, he keeps seeing a heron out on the water that is apparently a guardian of the land and keeps calling to him for reasons he’s not sure about. It’s an isekai!
TONI: Sure is.
CY: It is! It is. It’s really good. And it’s a really well-done one. Take notes, Shield Hero!
VRAI: Yeah, no, I think it was Dee who went to the movie and then skeeted afterwards, “Gee, do you think that Miyazaki is maybe annoyed at all of the wish-fulfillment god-mode isekai that have been popular lately?”
TONI: I think the thing is with isekai… Isekai has such potential to be these really transformative, interesting stories about alternate worlds, similar to what we get when we read something like Ursula K. LeGuin with The Left Hand of Darkness, in visiting literal otherworlds or any other fantasy literature. But instead, it’s this boilerplate, garbage, video-game bullshit. And I really feel like The Boy and the Heron brings us back to the possibility and what made me love isekai so much. It almost reminded me a little bit of when I would read The Subtle Knife in the Philip Pullman Dark Materials trilogy and just how thrilling that was when I was a kid, just because I never knew what the next world would bring.
CY: I do want to call you out and say that shounen and male-centered isekai has lost its path, but there is a lot of isekai that have female protagonists that have not forgotten what it is to be a powerful story.
VRAI: I think there is still that emphasis on the comfort narrative right now in joseimuke isekai. I think, certainly, Boy and the Heron is echoing back to ‘90s isekai, which was almost exclusively a girl-aimed genre with titles like Escaflowne and Fushigi Yugi and Magic Knight Rayearth, where those were also coming-of-age there-and-back again stories where this otherworld is wondrous but it’s also dangerous and not necessarily a wish-fulfillment location for the protagonist. It’s refreshing for that alone, honestly, in some ways, this sense of danger about an otherworld and a protagonist who is vulnerable.
TONI: It is interesting, though, because at the end of the movie, the protagonist does end up getting offered basically to become the god of this new world and stay there forever. Right? That’s kind of the implication, if I understand right.
VRAI: Yeah. Well, but he explicitly rejects it as something that isn’t valuable, as something that will be detrimental to him, to have this sort of stasis where he’s in control of everything and he can build whatever world he likes and it can be a utopia, but it won’t be real. What’s real is taking the pain of his experiences and going forward and growing through those experiences to form connections with people he loves.
CY: Well, and there’s also the fact of Mahito recognizing that he has within him… I think he explicitly says the word “malice,” and that he understands that he has growing to do that has to go beyond creating his own world, the world he’s got to engage in, calling back to when he does that very brutal scene of self-inflicting harm on himself with the rock. He wants to become someone who grows past that. And I think that’s also really interesting.
VRAI: Yeah, no, I think that’s a really good point. That line is so impactful, because I think that’s also— And I don’t think it’s just about “And this is all exclusively to call out what the isekai genre has become.” You know, I think that’s a viable read and not the only one, but it’s also a lot of that wish-fulfillment fantasy in a genre that’s so very full with ends-justify-the-means slavery, among other things, this idea that this one person could start over in a new world and they’ll make it perfect, with no corruption or individual problems whatsoever.
TONI: Yeah, and it’s interesting because even when the Parakeet King tries to take over and tries to take on that god role… The whole parakeet kingdom sequences often felt like a little bit of a collective hallucination. I was like, “What is going on? Oh, my goodness!” Because we don’t really get… The world of this movie is very strange. It almost feels like a barren world, except for the parakeet kingdom, almost like all of the people have died. I mean, we open to a graveyard, right?
CY: Yeah. And we have the pelicans who are also in the act of trying to live while being put in a world where they are dying, at the graveyard.
TONI: Right. I wasn’t—
CY: Yeah, because the pelicans have been… they’ve been transported to this world. And they’re just… they’re hungry. And unlike the parakeets who have found a way to survive, the pelicans really haven’t. [Chuckles] So, it is that dying world. They are from a world where they once lived, and now they’re here and they’re just trying to survive in a world where there’s no food for them.
TONI: Except for souls.
CY: Yeah. Yeah. They eat Miyazaki’s little guys! [Chuckles] They eat Miyazaki’s little guys!
TONI: Aw, the warawaras! I love them so much.
CY: The warawara! They’re [obscured by crosstalk]!
TONI: I, like, cried during— During the scene where Mahito was— First of all, I was crying the whole first half-hour of the movie. It was just so much. And then, especially during the scene where Mahito first encounters the warawara… well, not “first encounters” but first sees one floating up into the heavens, there was something about that scene that was really, really impactful to me. I almost wonder whether it’s because it’s kind of the first moment that he has to rest and process that “Hey, I’m in this new world.”
CY: Well, and it’s kind of a big encounter with life, right? Because this movie… I think it’s easy to compare this movie to a lot of other Ghibli films, but the thing that kept coming back to me was Dante’s Inferno and Purgatory, because he’s kind of in this— And he’s really moved by this act of life and this cycle of death where the pelicans are consuming the warawara and there’s really nothing that can be done. There’s like one person who can stop it.
VRAI: Who would be stronger, the vicious cycle of violence born of desperation or one really hot woman?
CY: Can we call her hot? Can we call her hot given the reveal of who she is? Well, I guess we can call her hot.
TONI: [crosstalk] Wait, wait, wait. Wait, wait, wait. Which one are we talking about? Are we talking about Kiriko or are we talking about Himi?
CY: We’re talking about the literal hot one, Himi.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Kiriko.
CY: Oh, oh, I’m sorry. Kiriko? Oh, okay, I was referencing Himi, who is also…
VRAI: No, no, Himi is a teenage girl. She’s adorable.
CY: Yeah, yeah, I was gonna say—
VRAI: Kiriko is hot.
CY: Kiriko is super hot.
TONI: [crosstalk] But she’s hot in the— But Himi is literally hot with flames! I think that’s what Cy was saying, right? Right, right?
CY: Yeah, I was referencing… Yeah.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Fair. Fair. I stomped on your good pun.
CY: No, but yeah, we have Kiriko, who can kind of help, and then we have Himi, who obviously… she gets her Sailor Mars on and is just like some flames. I’m doing a lot of voguing, which doesn’t really work well on a podcast, but just know I’m voguing like I’m a firebender. But there’s really no one else in this world of life or death, except for a hot bird king, a gruncle, and a bunch of birds that are very, very hilariously hungry at some points. Like, there’s a scene where one is sharpening his knife and looking at Mahito and he’s like, “I’m gonna eat ya.” But yeah, you’re right, Toni. This world is very devoid of life, in a kind of beautiful way and in a really haunting way.
TONI: Yeah, it feels very much like the transitional space, like you were saying, the purgatory, almost, or… I don’t know. I’m thinking of what a Buddhist equivalent… My read on it was that it’s the space where souls go between lives, right?
CY: It definitely feels like that liminal space, and the movie really plays with liminality in a really interesting way. Because it’s so depopulated, there’s just these big, sprawling times of nothing where it’s just Mahito and the scenery—and the Heron. We can’t forget my guy, the Heron. [Chuckles] Hot mess heron. Hot mess bird.
VRAI: And especially in that opening scene with the warawara, it’s hard not to… uh… It feels almost like overstating it, right, to be like, “How much is this scene specifically going full allegory mode about World War II?”
TONI: I think one of the things that I kept on thinking to myself as I was watching this movie is that… Spirited Away, I feel like the allegory and the symbolism is really, really clear. Like, the water dragon, the river spirit, in the way it’s full of garbage, represents the way that our society treats the environment, right? And, you know, it’s very, very clear symbolism, right? And this movie felt a lot less obvious in its allegories. It felt almost a little bit more personal in that sense because it felt like— It feels like there’s a key to this film that probably exists in Miyazaki’s head for what it represents about his life. It almost feels like a dream that he then just put on screen. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean that in an interesting way. But none of us ever gonna see that key, right? [Chuckles] So we can make a whole bunch of guesses about what it might mean about Miyazaki’s life or about his interpretation of World War II. But there were a lot of moments where I was just like, “What does this mean? I don’t know!”
CY: I can say that one of the things to keep in mind… and this comes from IndieWire in an article by Bill Desowitz (thank you, Bill), that one of the things that affected this film was Takahata Isao’s death in 2018. And if that name isn’t familiar, Takahata Isao was the cofounder of Studio Ghibli. He and Miyazaki had a very close relationship, obviously, because they found at this really influential studio that also has a lot of love put into it. So, originally—
VRAI: And worked together on Lupin the 3rd Part 1 before they founded the studio. Their careers were tightly intertwined.
CY: Yeah. And so, one of the things that— There were revisions after Isao’s death because the original focus was gonna be on the granduncle and Mahito, and it became between Mahito and the Heron and that dynamic more than the granduncle taking the main, bigger role. And a lot of Miyazaki’s memories of their storytelling also come into play. So I think that’s at play, but you’re right. The allegory kind of… it kind of feels like a dream. It feels like the kind of dream that I would think I would have in the last moments before you go on [to whatever] happens next. It kind of has that weird, out-of-time feeling that I think is also really powerful.
VRAI: Yeah. Oh, I want to correct myself from earlier in the podcast. The dub article I was referencing is also from IndieWire; it’s not Paste. But yeah, I don’t mean to say that there is one tight allegory that runs through this entire film, because I think… Definitely, there are folks who have proposed it as the characters represent folks Miyazaki worked with—with Takahata as the Heron, for example—and I think there’s an element to that. Certainly, I walked away from that last scene with the magician feeling like, “Oh, so, Miyazaki’s finally apologizing to Goro. Cool!”
TONI: You mean Mahito walking away from the magician being representative of Goro walking away from Studio Ghibli or walking away from Miyazaki’s legacy, sort of thing?
CY: No, walking away from this kinda shitty dad! [Chuckles] Sorry.
VRAI: And it being the right thing to do. And Goro was a producer on this film. Yeah.
CY: Yeah. Not to call Miyazaki shitty, but I would say he’s maybe not the kindest father.
VRAI: Everything I know about his relationship with Goro makes me feel horrible for Goro! Frankly, everything I know about Miyazaki as a director speaks to me of “This man made beautiful art, and um… wow!”
CY: Yeah. Yeah, because that last scene where he does walk away, it did feel a little personal. Not gonna lie. [Chuckles] It is interesting, because one internet theory that’s being posited is like, “Is this a callout of his son?” Y’all… [Chuckles]
TONI: [bewildered] Callout? What?
CY: This 82-year-old man has so many other things to do. [Chuckles] Like, that’s ridiculous. I think I saw that drifting around somewhere on Twitter. And like a lot of things on Twitter, I just disregard it, because…
VRAI: Don’t be—
TONI: Wait, so these people thought it was saying negative things about Goro?
CY: Yeah. And, like, you know…
TONI: Such a strange reading! I don’t understand!
CY: And it’s okay that everyone is media literate about certain things, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It is okay to have interpretations. I just don’t think that’s one.
TONI: Well, I was gonna say, I also do wonder whether all these very personal readings of the film maybe are missing something that the film might be trying to say about war, right? Or about, like…
VRAI: Oh, it’s… Yeah.
TONI: You know? In trying to read this onto some psychological, psychoanalytic aspect of Miyazaki’s relationship with his family and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, are we missing what is directly in the text, which is that this kid is processing living with the death of his mother, trying to figure out who he’s going to be in a society that is very, very much built around war at the time and surviving war and dealing with war and maybe doesn’t necessarily like what he’s seeing of how adults are…? I don’t know. What does a parakeet kingdom represent about Japanese society? You get what I’m saying, right?
VRAI: Right. Yeah, no, I mean, I think it can be both, easily, especially in a film that is so dreamlike and… “rambling” is the wrong word, but episodic.
CY: [crosstalk] Meandering.
VRAI: And you know, we were talking about The Green Knight the other day. It has that sort of quest-like structure, where it’s these various… not anecdotes, uh…
CY: It feels like it’s hitting—
CY: Yeah. Yeah. Because it feels like each vignette is kind of a step forward.
VRAI: Mm-hm. Yeah, and I definitely think you can read the structure of the fantasy world as… Every step Mahito goes up is just dressing up that core brutality and desperation that we see with the pelicans, and we’ve just put more hats on it and made it look fancier and put order around it as we go up. [Obscured by crosstalk].
TONI: [crosstalk] Oh, wow, I never thought of it that way, actually, the idea that the plight of the pelicans being forced into this new world and starving is almost like a key to understanding the rest of the film. I’ve never thought of it— I didn’t think of it that at all that way. But that’s such an interesting read.
CY: Yeah, because I think once you realize that the pelicans… And there’s that pelican that dies, and Mahito—
VRAI: Dafoe pelican.
CY: Yeah. And it even says (I think it says so much), “We’re just hungry and we’re in a world that we’re not meant to exist in.” And that is why they fight: they just want to exist. But they’re kind of these harbingers of death, and that’s kind of what they have gotten attached to, which is really ironic because pelicans largely symbolize healing and renewal. They are often symbols of… They’re often very positive symbols with a lot of mysticism around them, depending on cultures, so it’s really interesting to see them positioned as death-bringers. But it’s the situation they’ve been put in.
And I do think, when you compare that with the real-world situation happening in the movie, of World War II, where Japan has a much different relationship to that than, I would say, like, Americans, who came out part of the victors… Victors always have very different relationships to harm, even if a different group— And I mean, we know Imperial Japan did really horrific things during World War II. But the citizens like Mahito and his mother and his aunt, they didn’t… they were just caught up in it. They were complicit by proxy of being in the wrong country. And yeah, I think when you pull that pelican metaphor in, yeah, ooh, yeah. That’s the spice of life.
VRAI: Well, and I think what makes it so rich is that it doesn’t map cleanly into, like, “And the pelicans are the Americans, and the warawara are the nation of Japan,” because there is that element of it: like, the Americans are the aggressors and committed horrific acts of violence against the Japanese people. But there’s also… you know, Mahito’s dad is a war profiteer, and so he’s, in some ways, just as culpable in causing these innocent civilian deaths.
CY: Yeah, everyone kind of suffers.
VRAI: Did either of you see The Wind Rises?
TONI: I did, yes.
CY: I haven’t.
VRAI: So, The Wind Rises is a semi-biographical film about the man who was an aeronautics engineer, a very passionate one, who ended up designing the plane that became the Zero bomber.
CY: [crosstalk] Horikoshi Jiro?
CY: Oh! Wow, oh, my God. Oh, yeah, oof.
VRAI: And it’s very much— I cried when I saw that film in theaters. It’s very much Miyazaki sort of looking back on his legacy and sort of about stepping back from the shiny idealism of the process of making art for art’s sake and looking at the cultural impact of things that you’ve made. And I think there are remnants of that here through Mahito’s father. And once again, I’m reading his relationship with Goro into this in terms of him totally ignoring his grieving son as he moves parts for the airplane into their house and makes it part of the war machine.
CY: Well, and just in the way that his father just kind of reacts, overall, right? I’m thinking of when Mahito comes home from school, has bashed the side of his head in because he needed—you know, in a very child-logic way—an excuse for why he got the shit beat out of him by these other kids, who clearly beat him up because he is experiencing the war and the war effort very differently. Like, this kid doesn’t have to volunteer. He’s not having to do agriculture. And the dad’s first impulse is “Oh, let me at ‘em! I’ll beat ‘em up!” and you’re like, “Dad, please, Dad. Mm, oh, my God, please ask your son how he’s doing.”
VRAI: Oh, my God, when his dad is like, “I’ll take you to school in my car, and that will make this other impoverished [obscured by crosstalk].”
TONI: [crosstalk] No, it won’t! No, it won’t! [Chuckles]
CY: Puts in the— When he put him in that Datsun, I was like, “Oh, no! Oh, no! This is gonna go very bad! No! No!” Because the other kids are gonna be like, “This kid’s soft! This kid’s not starving like how we are. This kid isn’t going through the same war that we are.” I mean, even when the dad has the suitcase full of… I think one of the maids was like, “Oh, corned beef!” And they are clearly experiencing such a different life. But yeah, his dad is complicit, and that’s really hard to… I would imagine for Mahito that’s really hard to see a bunch of the tools of war that, regardless of nation, killed his mom.
TONI: Yeah, and I think that what’s also interesting about that, right, is that then… I think two things. What stuck out to me so much about the first part of this movie is, as Mahito is moving through his new home, there are these long scenes of him just wandering through this immensely ornate, elaborate, beautiful home, right, but it feels so lonely and anxious and almost like… It’s hard not to think in those moments, like, “Wow, this kid’s fucking rich!” And I do wonder whether that was on purpose to just underscore [that] this kid’s really living in the lap of luxury during one of the most horrific moments, especially if you compare it to, say, Grave of the Fireflies, right, which takes place in a similar kind of… Well, if I remember right, it ends up in a more rural area, right?
CY: Yeah. But you can kind of think of these movies happening concurrently, right?
CY: Grave of the Fireflies, those kids are having a very different experience.
TONI: And they’re also escaping into fantasy, right?
VRAI: [crosstalk] Yeah, and I think it’s inevitably informed by it.
TONI: Right. And those characters are also escaping into fantasy, but in a delusional stupor of hunger and poverty, versus Mahito. And it’s really important, I think, and interesting, then, that when he’s presented— I think that maybe lends another reading to when he’s presented with the option to… like “Hey, you can have control over the world,” right? And he’s gone on this journey where he’s seen a society that’s built around “I’m going to eat parakeets. I’m gonna eat the other side. I’m going to enact violence on whoever I can, because I can,” which is to an extent what war is, right? It’s like, who can kill more people on the other side and make them submit. He chooses to be like, “Nah, I don’t want to be the… This is not going to be the space that I can fix. I can’t fix that.”
VRAI: And that’s his moment of growth from where he starts the film, with his first reaction to the heron being “How can I kill it?”
TONI: And it’s not like Mahito intended for the world to go bye-bye and die, right? That’s the Parakeet King’s doing. It’s more just that he didn’t feel like it was his responsibility to be the savior for it—let alone could he, even.
CY: Though I do think it’s interesting that from that world dying comes life again, because all the animals, they leave and they revert to being parakeets. They flood out and, yeah… And I mean, then there’s the very tragic part that— Tragic but maybe not, because there is the reveal that Himi is actually his birth mother. And Mahito’s like, “Sis, you know you gon’ die!” But Himi finds it worthwhile because she knows he’ll exist. That’s what really shattered me in the movie, is him saying very frankly, “But you die in a fire,” and her being like, “I’m still gonna do it. I’m still gonna go because I know you’re gonna be born. And that’s enough for me.” Like, I’m tearing up right now!
VRAI: Himi’s such a wonderful character. And this movie is so interesting because I feel like, especially in the West, Miyazaki is known as the guy who writes stories with strong heroines. And he’s given interviews really leaning into that as something that’s important to him. And The Wind Rises has a male protagonist because it’s biographical and also because I think in some ways it is him looking back on his work as an artist. But besides that, he hasn’t really had a male protagonist in his films since, I want to say, Pom Poko.
TONI: That wasn’t him.
VRAI: Not Pom Poko. Porco Rosso!
CY: Porco Rosso.
VRAI: Porco Rosso.
TONI: Yeah, Porco Rosso. Which is also a movie about war! You know? [Chuckles]
CY: Yeah. I mean, which, I do understand his fascination with war because Miyazaki is born in ‘41. And while, I mean, World War II would have been the first half of his childhood, about, that’s a really formative childhood to have, and that is a childhood to witness some really gruesome events and the tragedy of when we lean into our worst and let that malice consume us.
VRAI: I mean, it’s like if you’ve ever read Kazuo Umezu’s manga The Drifting Classroom, like “Oh! Oh, okay, you’re working through stuff. Okay! No, yeah, no, that’s fair.”
TONI: Isn’t that an isekai, too, of sorts?
VRAI: It is!
CY: It is. It is.
VRAI: Yeah. I mean, we’re getting almost towards an hour now. We haven’t really talked about the female cast much. Which, this movie really is trying to— I think it’s fighting with the fact that a lot of it is about women like his stepmother as a damsel that needs to be rescued, the fact that women are mothers and caretakers a lot by function in this movie. I think they’re well developed, and I don’t think this is a case— I don’t know. It’s interesting, right? It’s an interesting case for what do you do with a film when you’re looking at it in context of a body of work. And also, even if Himi is ultimately like, “Well, she’s going to become his mom and die,” the film is also really fighting to make her her own character with her own adventures and agency. You know?
CY: Yeah, thinking about that, the first characters you really meet, the first gaggle of characters you meet are the lovely maids, who I don’t think in the dub, other than Kiriko, ever get names, but they do have names. They’re Izumi, Utako, Eriko, and Aiko, which are very… older names. You can tell when someone’s born in that kind of… I guess we call it the Silent Generation, but that certain generation, by the “ko” in a lot of names that doesn’t really happen nowadays. And we meet these lovely caretaker maids, and then you have Natsuko, who… her role kind of is to caretake and help this poor boy who, you know, likes his aunt well enough, but aunt ain’t mom. And I do find it interesting that the world also kind of caretakes her in return when she decides to, you know, isekai herself to go have her baby. Which, like, okay, sis, you coulda left a note, but I understand.
TONI: I was trying to figure out what was going on with Natsuko for a lot of the movie because, to be honest, the moment where she says that she hates Mahito, I was like, “What is happening? Where did this come from?” And I really got the sense that there was a lot of material with Natsuko that was cut from the movie. Like, there’s that moment where she’s clearly very skilled with a bow, right? Very, very skilled with a bow. And it made me wonder, like, did she have her own adventures in Isekai Land that we’re not seeing? And it made me wonder, like, what is going on with Natsuko? What is her deal? Because I feel like I understand what’s going on with Himi, I basically understand what’s going on with Kiriko, but I do not understand what’s going on with her.
CY: I feel like the weakest part of the movie is Natsuko. And it’s not her as a person; it’s the story around her, because when we popped up and she was pregnant in a room, I was like, “Wait, whoa! How’d she get here? Why is she having the baby here?” And I was like, “Did I miss something while I was snacking on my delicious salty popcorn?” And it does feel like something had to… because that part was the weakest vignette, where I was like, “What is going on? What is happening?”
TONI: I mean, it was gorgeous!
CY: [crosstalk] I love the scenery. It’s gorgeous, but I was also like, why is this woman having her baby in this other world? Why? And what I settled on is I think maybe we’re not supposed to understand because life is just like that.
VRAI: I’d agree that Natsuko is the weakest part of the film, as written. As a character, I really had a lot of empathy for her. But yeah, she’s… it’s—
TONI: What’s your reading of her? What is your empathy that you have for her? I want to understand. Not that I don’t— But I just want to understand your perspective on her.
VRAI: Natsuko is the one character where— I really loved watching the dub. But she is the one character where I had this feeling of, like, is there some subtlety that didn’t make it through? And I don’t have an answer to that. People who watched the sub, if you want to tell us about that, I would love to hear it. But to me, Natsuko is a character who is struggling with so much guilt. Like, she married her sister’s husband. And it can’t have been long after the funeral. Did they meet at the funeral? And when she’s in her sick bed, she’s sort of murmuring to herself about how she was supposed to protect Mahito.
And also, I think she’s channeling a lot of the guilt she probably feels about marrying his dad into this failure around his injury and the fact that he doesn’t really like her, and that’s probably hard for her. But, you know, you can’t be mad at a kid, because of course he doesn’t like her. That’s entirely fair for him not to like her! And, you know, she’s running this entire household by herself, which we don’t know the extent to which she was required to do so before the war—probably to some extent, given her prowess with the bow and all, but…
CY: Well, but I don’t know because she has moved to that rural estate. She was not necessarily residing there. And so, it’s probably really overwhelming for her to suddenly be in charge of this massive house—with like five grannies to run it! [Chuckles]
TONI: I also feel a little bit like—
CY: [crosstalk] That’s not enough grannies!
TONI: —boo-hoo, you have property, you know? [Chuckles] Like, okay.
VRAI: There is a little bit of that, but… Yeah, she’s better off than a lot of people, who don’t have any kind of means and/or a rich husband, but I think the trauma of her situation interpersonally is still real as much as it is for Mahito, you know?
TONI: Oh, yeah. Yeah. To lose your sister, right?
CY: [crosstalk] And I do think it’s worth remembering that—
TONI: Her grief is not really… Her grief is something she has to hide to be strong, to support him, right?
VRAI: Mm-hm. Yeah, to—
CY: And who’s to say that they didn’t come to an agreement without her word, of “Oh, well, you can just marry her sister. That’ll be good!” For all we know, she— While she does have property, it’s by proxy of her husband. I don’t know, maybe she wouldn’t have that. And I do feel that empathy for her because she is ultimately still a woman in the 1940s. And, you know, she’s going through it.
VRAI: And it is frustrating that we have to guess all of this because we don’t know! And I feel like the film gives us relatively little time— I don’t— Because at least to me, it’s not a matter of “Natsuko isn’t action oriented like Himi and Kiriko and therefore she’s less of a good character.” I think it’s more that we get to know so much more about Kiriko and Himi and what they want to do and what they want out of life, even when we know them for a very brief period of time, whereas, because the time we get to know Natsuko before she’s sort of in a magic coma, it’s through Mahito’s grief and anger at her, so she’s a very remote character by design, and I feel like we never break through that even as the film shifts to his driving desire to rescue her.
CY: Yeah. And it’s a shame because I wonder what this movie would be had Natsuko gotten a little bit more development, because she does seem like a pretty cool person. And she seems to so genuinely love Mahito. And I think that love is complex, right? I think that love is the love of the last remaining physical aspect of your sister. But also, I do think she genuinely loves him as nephew who’s become a son. She is kind of surrounded by these two really cool characters, one who is very hot, Kiriko, as we’ve said, and then Himi, who literally is the little fire beauty who… You know, she just… Once again, I’m voguing with my hands. That’s how she does. She just fire, flames, pshaw, you know? And yeah, it’s… [Chuckles] And I don’t know if maybe it was a runtime thing that they were like, “Ah, snap. Miyazaki has almost made a two-and-a-half-hour movie. We have got to cut something.” You know.
VRAI: It is already quite long.
CY: Because, y’all, listeners, it’s 124 minutes. And there’s not a good place to go to the bathroom, so… just be dehydrated during the film, I guess.
TONI: I thought one thing that was interesting to me is that Mahito feels a little bit less (how do I put this?) well defined as a protagonist than, maybe, previous Miyazaki protagonists. I feel like a lot of Miyazaki protagonists have this set of beliefs that they are very firmly holding on to over the course of the entire movie and then get tested, and they have to figure out how to hold on to those beliefs as the movie progresses. I mean, obviously Spirited Away is not that. But I almost felt like Mahito, to me, as I was first watching it, before this conversation, felt almost like a bit of a cipher. I wasn’t quite sure what the core of his character was as much as I am used to with Miyazaki movies.
But I feel like after this conversation, I feel like I understand all of his feelings a lot stronger than I did before, maybe, especially in regards to his dad being a war profiteer and the complicated feelings he has over both wanting to find and protect Natsuko but also feeling complicated over the fact that he’s kind of a source of guilt for her or represents her guilt. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m curious what you all made of Mahito as a character himself.
VRAI: I see what you mean about… I think, definitely, the film is opaque about him in some ways. Like, that whole first 40 minutes or so, I think it really, probably deliberately, holds us at arm’s length when it’s being more grounded and it doesn’t start to let us closer to the characters until we translate over into the otherworld. And I think that opacity is very different than how Miyazaki structures a lot of his other films.
CY: See, and it’s really interesting because to me it felt clear that I was like, this is a kid who… So, I’m gonna get a little personal. I lost a parent as a child at 18. And that grief of not outliving your parent and of losing them in a particularly tragic way, which I did in the case of my father, it kind of depersonalizes you by proxy of the way that you’re forced to process, because if you lose someone in a time of upheaval, you kind of don’t get to be a grieving person.
And Mahito gets to grieve when he goes on this journey and kinda… because I also thought of the movie as like going through the five stages of grief. And he gets to be a person as he goes on this journey of grieving, but he starts out very… I don’t want to say “blank” because he’s not blank but very muddled, I think, because he doesn’t even know what to make of his feelings. And I think that’s kind of the beauty of this movie, is seeing the character he becomes that is a much more stable… like, you can pick out bullet points about him, because he starts off the movie not able to be a character because grief doesn’t let you be a full person, especially when you have to grieve in a time like World War II, in the Pacific War.
And, you know, not to… Well, to bring to bring today into it, I think we can see that with the current situation that I’m sure is gonna be still going on in 2024—as we’re recording this, it certainly is—of the Israeli–Palestinian war, of how people are not able to grieve because when war is being waged on you, that is the first part of taking away your humanity, is your ability to grieve.
TONI: Yeah, I mean, at a certain point, is it even war when your opponents can literally turn off your water supply? I mean, the deep, deep, deep dehumanization of it, right? And I think one of the things that I don’t think we talk about enough is [that] in addition to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we also did… you know, we firebombed so many places during World War II, both in Japan and in Germany, like with the firebombing of Dresden, which killed… God, I mean, some estimates about the firebombing of Dresden are like 30,000 civilians died. Some are like 100,000 civilians died. And when you recognize that what we’re experiencing now is stuff that the United States has done historically, so much, like the indiscriminate murder of civilians, right?
CY: Yeah. Well, and you have this kid whose mother was… I think you can say a country did war crimes and also say that everyday people like us are also victims. And you have Mahito, who’s a victim of this horrific— Like, fire is the worst way to die. It is grisly, it is extremely painful until it isn’t, and by the time it isn’t, it is a very horrific end. And he experienced this, and because of the nature of his world, he kinda had to just internalize it. And that’s really hard for a kid. So, that’s kinda what I make of Mahito, is he can’t be a person until he’s allowed to move through that grief to reclaim his personhood, because I think that’s what the process of grieving is, is a deeply depersonalizing event where you kinda have to find your way back to the humanity that you want to serve as the vessel for the grief inside you.
VRAI: I think this film has been somewhat divisive on how folks come down with it, and I think that’s a testament in some ways to how many threads there are to pull at it. And that’s a way of reading it I hadn’t really thought about, but I think it’s really moving.
TONI: Yeah. I really do appreciate that we’ve brought this conversation around the movie back to the topic of war, right, because I think it’s something that we need to be thinking about right now, and I think that it’s really poignant for right now. Our art needs to be engaged with anti-war themes, and we need to be talking about anti-war themes in art, I think, more than ever, given just the horrors we’re seeing every day. And it is interesting to me that even as I was watching this movie in the middle of something where, maybe a couple of weeks before, I had just gone through a big protest around fighting against genocide in Gaza because that’s what’s happening, right, I still had not made that connection. And I do wonder whether that speaks to the lack of an anti-war lens necessarily in media coverage of these kinds of films, and I would like to see more of that kind of anti-war lens.
VRAI: I mean, it was Miyazaki that gave us one of the most perennially useful screencaps ever, right? “Better a pig than a fascist”?
CY: It’s so good. It’s so good. That’s my guy.
VRAI: Yeah, go watch this movie. Go watch some of Miyazaki’s other movies, especially the ones mediating on war, you know? Nausicaä, Mononoke, Wind Rises, Porco Rosso… The man made some good movies!
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