Manga/Anime Memorandum

random thoughts on manga and anime

Tips for The Boy and the Heron

This post includes a lot of spoilers for The Boy and The Heron. If you have not watched the film, I don't recommend reading it.



Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, "The Boy and the Heron," has far more ambiguous parts than his other films had. The studio and the producer have not reveal detailed information about the film. However, the context of the film is hidden in some old interviews and essays. In this post, I check those materials and try explaining why Miyazaki made the film in that way. I am unsure if it will lead to a better understanding of the film, but I think it can show some interesting sides of Hayao Miyazaki.



1. The Fire and the Wind

In the introduction, Mahito's biological mother Hisako dies in a fire. Many people assumed it is a bombing on Tokyo, but others say it is not. They say it is not the Tokyo Air Raid because Mahito's father mentions the battle of Saipan in a later scene, one year after the fire. It is hard to imagine Hayao Miyazaki forgetting the fact that the air raid started after the fall of Saipan. (Some memo from the storyboards show that Miyazaki was totally aware of the war timeline, so I'm certain that the fire is unrelated to the war on the in-universe level.)
Thus, it is probably just an ordinary fire disaster even though it looks like an air raid. Why does Miyazaki show such an image in the introduction?
I think his reading experience gives us a hint about it:

Miyazaki has said that his favorite author is Yoshie Hotta. He once wrote, "When I am asked what has influenced my films the most, Yoshie Hotta always comes to my mind." He also listed Hotta's "Hojoki Shiki" as his favorite text.
Hojoki Shiki is an analysis of a famous medieval essay collection called Hojoki. Hotta focuses on depictions of a medieval fire disaster and compares it with his air raid experience in that book.
Hotta says that the air raid and the coming catastrophe gave him a weird excitement during the Pacific War. Everything would be destroyed. Everything would be over. That expectation was a sort of promised liberation to Hotta.
He found similar sentiment in a sentence from Hojoki:
"The old capital was already ruined, while the new capital was not yet established."
Good old things were gone, but the new era is yet to come. Hotta found such a suspended feeling in Hojoki. He thought the depictions of the medieval anarchy could explain his sentiment toward the Pacific War.
That context can explain why Miyazaki uses the fire image in the introduction. (Miyazaki has already used the fire image from this book in Howl's Moving Castle.) Through the ambiguous disaster, he shows us an archetype of catastrophe. It includes climate changes, wars, political corruption, etc. That fire is our past, present, and future. 
In a review of children's literature, Miyazaki wrote this:


The wheel of history began to turn. The curtain of the survival era has rolled up. The catastrophe is coming not only in Japan but all over the world. We reached the first phase of the mass consumption society's end. We have to live in such a world without losing our sanity. I wrote 'The wind began to blow' before. It is not refreshing wind. It is rough and terrifying. It includes death and poison. It destroys our lives.


Hotta experienced the wind of death in the Pacific War. The medieval people experienced it in a chaotic society. We are now entering the same phase, Miyazaki thinks. He shows us such an image in the introduction.
By the way, I think "Wind began to blow" is probably a reference to Soseki Natsume's novel "Nowaki." Miyazaki often uses that phrase these days. This paragraph from Nowaki explains his sentiment well:

"Society is a battleground. Civilized society is a bloodless battleground. Our patriots of forty years ago accomplished the great work of the Meiji Restoration, risking death. The risks you must brave may prove greater than theirs. The bloodless battleground is more deadful, more tragic than battleground of thunderous guns and glitting bayonets. You must be prepared for that. You must be better prepared than those partiots in the Imperial cause. You must be prepared for certain death. Those who think their society is a peacceful society, who expect success without struggle, are far more morally impoverished than those who fall down to die on their way to realizing their ideals.

While marching on your way, you will have to drive off those who put up obstacles in the way. While fighting with them, you will experience greater pains and hardships in your inner life than those that the patriots suffered. Today the wind blows hard, as it did yesterday. We are having unsettled weather these days. But it is nothing compared to the moral uncertanty you may have ahead of you!"


Soseki Natsume is a novelist of the 20th century. He is regarded as one of the most significant authors in Japanese history. From Meiji to Taisho period, when Soseki was alive, Japanese people experienced inner conflicts between modernity and vernacularity, individualism and society, or inner-self and self-existence. They say Soseki's literature thematized such a dilemma. That theme is important when we analyze this film and Hayao Miyazaki's late career.



2. The Woman on Fire

In the introduction, Mahito sees Hisako's image on fire. That image has some possible inspiration sources.


2-1. Izanami

There is a famous Japanese myth chronicle called Kojiki. In a chapter of childbirth, Izanami, a motherly deity of Japan, got burnt to death after giving birth to a fire deity called Kagu-tsuchi. I suppose it is one of the inspiration sources for Hisako's death.

It has some links to other parts of the film. When Kagu-tsuchi was slain by Izanami's husband, Kagu-tsuchi's blood touched rocks. Those blood and rocks gave birth to some other deities. It is said that those newborn deities represent swords and lightning. That is an allegory of flint stones, fire, and smithery. It reminds us that "stones" in the film have the power of lightning. Plus, Mahito bleeds when he hurts his head with a stone. Those scenes represent the mythical connections between fire, stones, blood, and lightning. It is also linked to wars.


It reminds us that Hayao Miyazaki already depicted the sin of fire in Princess Mononoke. He got interested in smithy in his childhood. He liked watching local blacksmiths. Later, when he had a job interview at Toei Animation, he showed his sketch of a blacksmith. In The Great Adventure of Horus, he utilized that image. He depicted smithy in Future Boy Conan as well. It is one of his earliest signature visuals.


2-2. The Phantom Shield

It seems to me that the film has some references to Soseki Natsume. I looked up familiar scenes in Soseki's novels and found one in an early short called The Phantom Shield.

The Phantom Shield is a lesser-known side of Soseki's works. It is a princess-and-knight romance set in the era of King Arthur's tales. The protagonist is a knight. He has to join an attack on a castle in which his lover lives. He tries to save her, but that attempt fails. In the climax battle, he finds her on fire and loses himself.


There is no English version available, so let me translate that part myself:

The scorched high tower had been leaning with flames against the wind for some time, but when the time came, it collapsed, leaving two-thirds of its structure on the rock, as if it were falling into an abyss.
When the surrounding flames burned the ground and the sky in an instant, William found a woman standing on a fence, her fiery hair shaking in the wind.
"Clara!" William shouted, and the woman disappeared. Two burned-out horses came flying through the air.


I suppose that paragraph indirectly influenced the scene. The depictions of mothers include not only mother-and-son relationships but also a romantic undertone. (Miyazaki's memo for the film staff clearly says that he's gonna thematize Oedipus complex. It seems thatMahito's romantic feeling toward Natsuko was intended from the beginning.)



3. Soseki's Images and Stories Like Haiku

Hayao Miyazaki has said that he loves Soseki Natsume's novels, especially Kusamakura/ The Three-Cornered World. It made me think that a scene from the film looks a bit similar to a hotel passageway scene from the novel:


She had tied the red obi which was around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl's indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old-fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around bend after bend along what appeared to be passageway, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were the same red obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving about on a canvas.

That paragraph is based on an in-real-life mansion called "Maeda's Villa." Hayao Miyazaki once visited Maeda's Villa with Ghibli's staff members. Mahito's house is not necessarily similar to Maeda's Villa, but I think Soseki's text inspired him. (Miyazaki himself said that he used to live in a local villa during WW2 just like Mahito did, but he also said that his villa was not as big as Mahito's. I tried to find a similar mansion or villa in Japan, but I couldn't. Old Mitsui Family Shimogamo Villa looks a bit similar, but I'm not sure.)
Maybe some people think it is not a good idea to compare this film with The Three-Cornered World, but there is a reason for it. The Three-Cornered World is called "a novel like haiku poems." That poetic aspect is very interesting when we analyze the film. The "novel like haiku" has a double meaning:
1st, in The Three-Cornered World, Soseki developed some scenes based on his own haiku. When Miyazaki had a talk session with journalist Kazutoshi Hando, he heard about those self-references:


Hando: I think The Three-Cornered World is a masterpiece.


Miyazaki: I agree. It is a great novel.


Hando: I often talk about this when I drink. When Soseki wrote that novel, he brought out the haiku poems he made in his youthful days. He read them and thought, "Yeah, let's use these haiku." He depicted the visions from them. For example, after quoting Tao Yuanming's poem,

"Beneath the Eastern hedge I choose a chrysanthemum. And my gaze wanders slowly to the Southern hills."

he wrote a weird phrase:

"There is no girl next door peeping over the fence, nor is there a dear friend living far away across the hills."

I didn't get why he suddenly mentioned a peeping girl. When I checked his haiku collection, I found this terrible haiku:

"Warbler, tell me why the girl next door peeps."

I was like, "I see. He used this haiku." That is why he called it "a novel like haiku." The plot of the novel is not important. You can start reading from whatever part you want.


Miyazaki: When I read it for the first time, I didn't get why the painting artist character only makes haiku. (Laughs) Anyway, I love that novel.


The Boy and the Heron includes a lot of self-references to Miyazaki's films and manga. I personally believe that it is his way of "films like haiku."


2nd, as Hando said in the talk session, "a novel like haiku" also means a novel without a solid plot. Soseki himself explained it in a speech:


"What is novel? Does it have any definition? There are various types of novels. Novels about some hard truths of the society. Novels about philosophies. Novels about some harmful effects of modernity. Or novels about dreamy visions without any plot. There are more types, but I cannot say that those novels are based on beauty. I feel they are indifferent to their dirtiness and unpleasure."
"I intended the opposite in The Three-Cornered World. I just expected that a sense of beauty would remain in readers' minds. I didn't have any other purpose. That is why the novel doesn't have any plot or development."


We cannot say that The Boy and the Heron has no plot or development. However, we also notice that the connections between scenes and scenes are very loose. We don't firmly understand what Mahito solves and obtains in each scene. I suppose Miyazaki's purpose is in vague impressions and beautifulness rather than logical interpretations of the plot.



4. Ghost Tower

If you are a hardcore Miyazaki fan, you immediately notice that the Granduncle's tower is a reference to Ranpo Edogawa's "Ghost Tower."

Ranpo's Ghost Tower is a novel written in 1937, but it is also an adaptation of Alice Muriel Williamson's "A Woman in Gray." Ruiko Kuroiwa adapted Williamson's novel in 1899, and Ranpo remade it in 1937.


Hayao Miyazaki read the Ranpo version in his childhood and loved it so much. When we look back at his career, we can see its influences on his works. Especially The Castle of Cagliostro includes many references.

In The Boy and the Heron, when one of the maids explains the tower's history, she says that Granduncle disappeared in it. That story is probably a homage to Ghost Tower's plot.
We should also consider that Ghost Tower is an adaptation of the Western novel. The architecture of the ghost tower is Western-style as well. It reminds us that Ganduncle's face doesn't look like Japanese at all. Maybe those characteristics show Miyazaki's or Japanese people's ironical attitude toward imported culture. "Animation" is one of those imported things. It was common for wealthy Japanese families to build Westernized annexes in their lands, but maybe the contrast between the main house and the Westernized tower also represents Miyazaki's attitude. That is also what Soseki Natsume faced in the Meiji era.



5. How Do You Live?

Before Mahito enters the tower, Miyazaki inserts a scene where Mahito finds a book gift from Hisako. He reads that book and suddenly changes his attitude toward Natsuko, his stepmother. Miyazaki doesn't explain what kind of book it is. I suppose many audiences get confused.
How Do You Live? is a children's literature released in 1937, the WW2 era. It was a part of a children's book collection. Genzaburo Yoshino, the author of the book, was a Marxist. Before writing the book, he was arrested due to his political activities and lost his job. When he suffered from poverty, his friend novelist Yuzo Yamamoto hired him as the editor of the children's book collection. After the war ended, Yoshino explained the situation:


It was a time of terrible backlash. Freedom of speech and publication was rapidly being curtailed, almost on a daily basis. Even liberalist authors like Yamamoto-san got complaints about his Asahi Shimbun serialization from the MP. Deletions and bans of publications became commonplace. Only anti-communist and nationalistic speech was rampant. Yamamoto-san’s child was in junior high school in those days. He realized that there was no appropriate book for junior high school-aged kids. That is why he came up with the children's book collection. He was also deeply concerned about leaving children in the midst of fascism and thought that we could still convey the truth to them. Even though the government curtailed freedom of expression to the extreme, we could still tell the truth to children. That is his theme for "Nihon Shokumin Bunko."


Considering that context and Miyazaki's comments on the "wind," we can clearly understand why he quoted the book.
How Do You Live? is a story of a teenager called Copper. One day, his uncle gives him a notebook with his comments. Copper sometimes writes his thoughts in the notebook, and his uncle replies. Through the communication in the notebook, Copper learns ethics and social science from his uncle.
In one chapter, Copper and his classmates face school violence by upper-class students. They promise that they will stand together against the students. However, Copper breaks the promise. When one of his friends is suffering from violence, he gets scared and runs away. He is ashamed of his cowardness and skips school. He does not want to hear, "You are not my friend anymore." from his friends. Then, his uncle tells an important thing to him:


"I understand the feeling you expressed, that you want to mend your relationship with Kitami and the others. But you must understand, Copper, that you can't think of that right now. What you must do now, before anything else, is first to apologize to Kitami like a man. To convey to your friends how deeply sorry you are feeling and to do it honestly, without excuse. What happens after that is not for you to think about now."

"You must not repeat this mistake again. Gather your courage, Copper, and do what you must do. No matter what you do, you can't change the past. Think of the present instead. Go and do what you have to do now, and be brave. When it comes to this sort of thing — Copper, when it comes to this sort of thing, you simply must not give in."

Copper writes an apology to his friend. Then, his friends gather at Copper's house and say they don't mind it. It is the climax of the story. Mahito is reading that part when he cries.
That is probably the reason why he suddenly changes his attitude. He has acted insincerely to his stepmother. He does not say anything, but he is aware of his cowardness. The message of "How Do You Live?" changes him.



6. The Gate of Hell

When Mahito enters Granduncle's tower, he sees the words "fecemi la divina podestate" engraved on the arch. Needless to say, it is the famous warning of the gate of hell from The Divine Comedy. It looks like the rest of the warning is engraved on other arches.
Since we know that it is Mahito's journey to another world/ afterlife, it feels like we don't need any explanation. However, I personally think it has a bit deeper meaning.

Let's talk about Soseki Natsume again. Soseki wrote a short called "The Tower of London" in 1905, a very early career. It is a fantasy based on his experience of studying in London.

The protagonist visits the Tower of London. In the tower, he sees a woman and her little son talking about the Dudley Carving. Then, he experiences a delusion of Lady Jane Gray's execution. That Jane Gray's face looks like the woman he saw in the tower. When she gets decapitated, he snaps out of the delusion.
That is the story of The Tower of London. When the protagonist enters the tower, this paragraph appears:


After a while I begin to suspect that a long arm will come out from the opposite bank and pull me in. Having stood until now completely motionless, I suddenly start to want to cross the river and go towards the Tower. The long arm pulls me more and more strongly. I instantly move my feet and start crossing Tower Bridge. The long arm pulls and pulls. After crossing Tower Bridge I rush at full speed up to Tower Gate. A great magnet of the past, in excess of one hundred and twenty thousand square yards, has completely absorbed this small speck of iron floating in the present age. When I enter through the gate and look back:

Through me you pass into the city of Woe:

Through me you pass into eternal pain:

Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of fabric moved:

To rear me was the task of Power divine,

Supremest Wisdom, and primeval Love.

Before me things create were none, save things

Eternal, and eternal I endure.

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

I wonder whether these lines are not inscribed somewhere. I have already lost a sense of normality.


Rather than the gate of hell itself, we need to focus on the tower and the delusion of Lady Jane Gray. I guess Hayao Miyazaki was inspired by the double image of Jane Gray and the strange mother when he wrote the story of Hisako and Natsuko.



7. The Melting Woman and Yamato Takeru

In the tower, Mahito sees an imitation of Hisako made by Heron. When he touches the imitation, it melts and turns into water. That visual has a possible inspiration source. That is Ototachibana from Ankoku Shinwa:

Ankoku Shinwa is a dark fantasy/ sci-fi manga made by Daijiro Morohoshi in 1976. If you are a Miyazaki fan, you probably have heard that name. Morohoshi is not a mainstream artist, but he has been known as one of the greatest manga artists to manga fans. Miyazaki even said that Daijiro Morohoshi reached the peak of manga expression. Morohoshi inspried Hayao Miyazaki too. For example, he released a manga called "Shitsurakuen" (Paradise Lost) in the '70s. It is said that Nausicaa's world is under the influence of that manga.
The melting woman from Ankoku Shinwa is called Ototachibana. Ototachibana is a character from Japanese legendary chronicles. She is the wife of Yamato Takeru, a legendary prince. In the manga, she lives until the modern era in a "stone" shell, a sort of suspended animation device. When she wakes up from the suspended animation and sees the protagonist, she calls him "Yamato Takeru" and dies. The protagonist learns that he is a reincarnation of Yamato Takeru.
There are many links between Mahito and Yamato Takeru.
For example, during the conquest of an east region, Yamato Takeru was attacked with fire. However, he got flint stones and counterattacked the enemies with fire.

When his ship suffered from a deity's wave on the sea, Ototachibana calmed the waves by throwing herself into the sea. Yamato Takeru mourned over her death and made this poem:

"You who inquired after my safety when we stood amidst of the burning field of Ono, Sagamu, with mountains rising high above."

A local legend say that he fought against an evil fish. When the fish vomited, Yamato Takeru suffered from its poison. He got cured when he drank "holy water."

That legendary evil fish once appeared in an anime. It is Toei Animation's "The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon." In that film, the protagonist fights against a fish called Akuru. Later, Toei used a similar idea in The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. It was also inherited by Future Boy Conan. Today, the giant fish is a traditional motif of boys' adventure stories in manga and anime.

When Yamato Takeru died, he transformed into a "white heron" and flew away to his homeland. Some legends say he built tombs in that way.

Therefore, I think Mahito is deeply linked to Yamato Takeru's myth. It is interesting and surprising that Hayao Miyazaki utilized the motif of the Japanese imperial conqueror in his late career. Of course, we can assume it is an antithesis. It emphasize Mahito's final decision. I suppose it is the reason why Granduncle's "bloodline" is mentioned. Mahito says he will make "friends" at the end. I suppose "friends" is an antonym for "subjects" in this context.



8. Federico Fellini and Metafiction

When Mahito arrives at the tower world, a shot like Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 appears. It makes us think that The Boy and the Heron is Miyazaki's self-commentary on his life.
Miyazaki is not a cinephille. He seldom watches films. He tried to understand art house films only in his youthful days. Toshio Suzuki said on his radio show that he made Miyazaki watch Fellini's film:


Suzuki: I recently experienced a funny thing. I had an opportunity to show Fellini's films to him (Hayao Miyazaki.) After finishing them, everyone was surprised. There were some other people in that place. They were surprised because he watched through all those films without a blink. Then, he said, "Who is this? He thinks the same as I do."
- Which Fellini films did he watch?
Suzuki: He watched three films. He enjoyed them a lot. It was hard to guess what kind of film could entertain him. I thought Fellini would be the best choice from the beginning. The problem was which Fellini film I should pick.
- And in what order he watch them?
Suzuki: That's right. After all, I picked Fellini's latest film first. Then, I went back to 8 1/2. For the finale, I chose Juliet of the Spirits. That film is totally the same as his current situation, and he really enjoyed it. I was like, "Hooray!" If he didn't like it, that would mean I lost to him. Actually, he had not watched a film for almost 30 years. It was hard to choose movies for such a person.


From that conversation, we can guess that maybe Miyazaki was really inspired by 8 1/2. Then, it means that the characters of The Boy and the Heron can represent his real acquaintances. I don't pursue which character represents which person in this post, but it is one of the interesting topics of the film.



9. The Gate and the Plaque

Before Mahito meets young Kiriko, he passes through a golden gate and visits a tomb. At that time, he sees this phrase on the entablature:

"Those Who Learn From Me Shall Die."


That phrase has a specific inspiration source. It is Fusao Hayashi's "Yottsu no Moji (The Four Letters.)"

The Four Letters is a novel written from the perspective of a Japanese traveler. The story is set in Nanjing of the Wang Jingwei regime. The protagonist visits Nanjing and meets an old, intelligent politician from Wang Jingwei government. That man says he has killed hundreds of Chinese people. In other words, he is a "hanjian." He shows incredible intelligence, knowledge, and cultural sophistication, but also has a nihilistic mindset. At the end of their conversation, he shows a plaque on his house. That plaque says, "Those Who Learn From Me Shall Die" (学我者死.) Then, he laughs in a very loud voice. He knows that the situation will end soon and that he will be killed. He is enjoying such a life. The protagonist understands his cold nihilism and gets scared. After the end of the war, the protagonist learns that the man killed himself.

The phrase is based on Qi Baishi's aphorism, "Those who study from me will live and those who imitate me will die." (学我者生,像我者死) Some people say it is Miyazaki's message about his imitators, but I don't think so. Such a message does not feel like Miyazaki. Plus, it does not fit the rest of the film. Instead, I would like to analyze the "nihilistic" part.


Miyazaki has mentioned the pros and cons of nihilism in various places. In a review of children's literature, he said,

Our theme is to overcome cheap nihilism in our hearts. There are various types of nihilism. Deep nihilism comes from questions about the origin of our lives, but cheap nihilism is just an excuse for laziness.
We have said, "Life is worth living," in our films. We have sometimes made detours to movies for middle-aged people, but such an attitude for children will become more significant in the future...


"We shouldn't talk about despair to children." When we consider our kids, we have to think that way. Even if we usually say nihilistic and decadent things, when we face our children in front of us, we strongly feel, "We don't want to say that these kids were born in vain."


He also said this when he talked about Toei labor union in an interview:

I hate cheap nihilism, but I think extreme nihilism is not a bad thing. I stopped hating Japan when I read Yoshie Hotta's "Hiroba no Kodoku." I hate this country, but I have to live here anyway. I found his books at critical moments of my life. One day, he flew to Spain like, "I don't care about Japan anymore. No matter where I live, I am still Japanese. I don't need to live here to be Japanese." I was shocked by a book he wrote in Spain. He said, "Nations will disappear" in that book. It was so refreshing and eye-opening. However, we are also aware what happens in such an anarchy. People in other areas understood it a long time ago, but Japanese people developed a naive mindset through post-WW2 growth. We are gradually changing it a little bit.


In that sense, the nihilistic phrase on the gate is a foreshadowing. At the end of the film, Ganduncle says that the reality is a world of destruction. Mahito still chooses that unpleasant world. Maybe it also represents Miyazaki's ironical attitude toward his Japanese origin. Miyazaki chooses what he should choose rather than some other "rightful" things. It reminds me of Nausicaa's final decision in the manga version. In the climax, Nausicaa says that Ohmu's love came from nothingness/ nihilism.



10. Mahito's Name

When Kiriko hears Mahito's name, she says it means "true man." She also says that it suits Mahito's death smell. It is difficult to understand that line. Mahito is "眞人." It can be broken into 眞/ true and 人/ man, but why does it suit the death smell?

I suppose it is a reference to The Divine Comedy, but it doesn't work in non-Japanese languages.

In Canto 1 of The Divine Comedy, when Dante meets Virgil, this paragraph appears:


While to the lower space with backward step

I fell, my ken discern’d the form one of one,

Whose voice seem’d faint through long disuse of speech.

When him in that great desert I espied,

“Have mercy on me!” cried I out aloud,

“Spirit! or living man! what e’er thou be!”


In a 1910s classical Japanese translation, that paragraph was written as this:








In that old JP translation, "omo certo"/ living man was translated as "眞の人"/ true man. That is why I think Mahito is a reference to The Divine Comedy. It is a bit hard to catch the reference because "omo certo" is not translated as "眞の人" in other JP translations.


We can also think that it is a reference to Chalcedonian Definition:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man...

In that case, Mahito represents Jesus, but I think it is a bit too far-fetched.


The true/ living man smells like death. That is an ironic way of thinking. While wara-wara spirits are dead and going to be reborn, Mahito is alive and going to die. Mahito smells like death because he is alive. I guess it was inspired by Le Guin's The Farthest Shore. Miyazaki has already used an idea from that novel in the manga version of Nausicaa. The Farthest Shore is referenced again at the end of the film. When Mahito meets the Granduncle, he finds a stone on a hill and picks it. It is obviously a reference to the Stone of Pain from The Farthest Shore. 



11. The World of Art: Soseki, Shigeru Mizuki, Daijiro Morohoshi, or Paul Grimault

Miyazaki has sometimes used pre-existing painting art in his films: Monet in The Wind Rises or Millais and Waterhouse in Ponyo. However, this film has much, much more references than other films had. Tetsuya Matsushita, an art historian, analyzed those references in his stream. In this post, however, I don't pursue the details of those references and interpretations.

Those references made me wonder why Miyazaki did it so often, particularly in this film.
It seems that the art references are limited to the tower world. They don't appear in the real world. When I realized that fact, I thought maybe it was another reference to Soseki Natsume's novel.
We need to check The Three-Cornered World again. In chapter 6 of The Three-Cornered World, Soseki wrote,

I seem to remember that Lessing argued that poetry can only be concerned with those events which are relevant to the passage of time, and thus established the fundamental principle that poetry and painting are two entirely different arts. Looked at in this light, it did not seem that poetry was suited to the mood which I had been so anxiously trying to express. Perhaps time was a contributory factor to the happiness which reached right down to the innermost depths of my soul. There was, however, no element in my present condition which had to follow the course of time and develop successively from one stage to another. My happiness was not due to the fact that one event arrived as another left, and was in turn followed by a third whose eventual departure heralded the birth of number four. It was derived from the atmosphere which pervaded my surroundings: an atmosphere of unvarying intensity which had remained with me there in that one place from the very beginning. It is those words ‘remained in that one place’ that are important, for they mean that even if I should try to translate this atmosphere into the common medium of language, there would be no necessity for the materials which had gone into creating it to be placed in any chronological order. All that would be necessary surely is that they be arranged specially as are the components of a picture. The problem was what features of my surroundings and what feelings should I use to represent this vast and vague state. I knew, however, that once having selected these, they would make admirable poetry—in spite of Lessing’s contentions.


In that paragraph, the protagonist says that Lessing distinguished painting from poetry. And he says that he can combine those two different art forms. The key word is "time." The world of painting is, according to Lessing, a timeless world. Granuncle's tower exists across space and time. Maybe the tower world is the world of painting, and the real world is the world of poetry.


In another novel called "Sanshiro," Soseki depicted the same concept in a different way:

“I had an interesting dream while I was napping. I suddenly met a girl I’d seen only once before in my life. This may sound like something from a novel, but it will be more fun than talking about newspaper articles.”

“Yes. What kind of girl?”

“A pretty little thing, maybe twelve or thirteen. She had a mole on her face.”

Sanshirō was a bit disappointed when he heard her age.

“When did you first see her?”

“Twenty years ago.”

This, too, came as a surprise.

“It’s amazing you knew who she was.”

“This was a dream. You know these things in dreams. And because it was a dream, it didn’t matter that it was mysterious. I was walking through a big forest, I guess, wearing that faded summer suit of mine and that old hat. Ah, I remember—some complicated thoughts were going through my head. The laws of the universe are all unchanging, but all things in the universe governed by the laws inevitably change. Thus, the laws must exist independently of the things. Now that I’m awake, it sounds pretty silly, but in my dream I was walking along in the forest, thinking seriously about this kind of thing, when I suddenly met her. We didn’t walk up to each other; she was standing there, up ahead, very still. She had the same face as before, the same clothing, the same hairdo, and of course the mole. She was still twelve or thirteen, exactly as I had seen her twenty years before. ‘You haven’t changed at all,’ I said to her, and she said, ‘You’re so much older than you were!’ Then I asked her, ‘Why haven’t you changed?’ and she said, ‘Because the year I had this face, the month I wore these clothes, and the day I had my hair like this is my favorite time of all.’ ‘What time is that?’ I asked her. ‘The day we met twenty years ago,’ she said. I wondered to myself, ‘Then why have I aged like this?’ and she told me, ‘Because you wanted to go on changing, moving toward something more and more beautiful.’ Then I said to her, ‘You are a painting,’ and she said, ‘You are a poem.’ ”


I could not but think that Himi is a reference to that dream girl from Sanshiro. Himi/ Hisako appears in her young form. The Tower's world is full of painting art. Maybe those two different things came from the same idea.


However, whimsical world-building with painting art references is not an uncommon idea. For example, Kentaro Miura did it in a late episode of Berserk.

The most iconic, somewhat infamous, example is the manga artist Shigeru Mizuki. Mizuki mimicked a lot of art in his manga. Surrealist art is one of them. The paintings' mysterious atmosphere perfectly fit Mizuki's horror manga style.

The fine art references in The Boy and the Heron are not so different from what Mizuki did in his manga. They are pastiche.

Daijiro Morohoshi did the same thing in Paradise Lost, one of the inspiration sources for Hayao Miyazaki. Maybe the film's The Divine Comedy references were inspired by the manga as well.


Plus, the idea of the painting world reminds me of Paul Grimault's "The King and the Mockingbird." In that animated film, a shepherdess and a chimney sweep get out of paintings and run away from a painting of a king.

As fans already know, Miyazaki has been heavily influenced by The King and the Mockingbird, especially in The Castle of Cagliostro and Future Boy Conan.



12. The World of Children's Literature

As I mentioned earlier, Miyazaki once wrote a review of children's literature. He joined a children's literature club in his university days. He has met and communicated with some children's literature authors in his career. The Boy and the Heron includes some references as well:

When an old pelican dies, he tells the depressing history of his clan. It looks like a references to Princess Mononoke, but it is also a reference to Kenji Miyazawa's "The Nighthawk Star":


“Oh dear,” he said to himself, “here I am every night, killing beetles and all kinds of different insects. But now I’m going to be killed by Hawk, and there’s only one of me. It’s no wonder I feel so miserable. I think I’ll stop eating insects and starve to death. But then, I expect Hawk will kill me before that happens. No—I’ll go away, far, far away, before he can get me.”...


The nighthawk climbed straight up and up, ever farther up. Now the flames of the forest fire below were no bigger than a burning cigarette end, yet still he climbed. His breath froze white on his breast with the cold, and the air grew thinner, so that he had to move his wings more and more frantically to keep going...


A while later, the nighthawk opened his eyes and saw, quite clearly, that his own body was glowing gently with a beautiful blue light like burning phosphorous. Next to him was Cassiopeia. The bluish white light of the Milky Way lay just at his back. And the nighthawk star went on burning. It burned forever and forever. It is still burning to this day.


The film has another possible reference to Miyazawa's text. When Mahito visits a smithery, parakeets welcome him. However, it turns out that they actually want to eat him. That scene reminds me of Miyazawa's "The Restaurant of Many Orders.":


They stepped into the entrance hall, which was very splendid, being done all over in white tiles. There was a glass door, with something written on it in gold letters.


They were tickled pink. “Just look at that!” said one of them. “Things always turn out right in the end. Everything’s been going wrong all day, but look how lucky we are now. They’re telling us not to worry about the bill!"...


The two young gentlemen were so distressed that their faces went all crumpled like pieces of wastepaper. They peered at each other and shook and shivered and silently wept. There were chuckles on the other side of the door, then a voice shouted again,

“This way, this way! If you cry like that, you know, you’ll wash off all the cream you put on specially. (Yes, sir, coming, sir. We’ll be bringing it in just a moment, sir.) Come on, we haven’t got all day!”

“Yes, hurry up! The boss has his napkin tucked in and his knife in his hand and he’s licking his lips, just waiting for you.”

But the two young gentlemen just wept and wept and wept and wept.


The film also has references to foreign children's literature.

The parakeets' weapons/ tableware were probably inspired by Vladimir Suteev's illustrations from a Russian version of Gianni Rodari's "The Adventures of Cipollino." Miyazaki says that his art style is under the influence of those illustrations.


Plus, it looks like Miyazaki was inspired by H.J. Ford's illustrations from Lang's Fairy Books. Miyazaki says he suffered from technical gaps between H.J. Ford and the animators in his Toei era.

The stories look similar to some parts of the film as well. I suppose "The Goblin and the Grocer" inspired the idea of Himi's jam and butter. It would be interesting to compare the whole of Lang's Fairy Books with the film.



13. The Birth Room and the Taboo

In the stone birth room, Mahito finally finds Natsuko, his stepmother. However, paper dolls around her get in his way. They transform into snakes and kick him out. Later, Heron says that Mahito broke a taboo.
That scene includes two different references to Japanese ancient myth:
1st, it is a reference to Izanami. I already mentioned Izanami in the chapter about the woman on fire. After getting burnt to death, Izanami went to an underground world/ hell called Ne-no-Kuni. Izanagi, Izanami's husband, went there to get her back. Then, she told him not to look at her until she got permission to return. However, he couldn't wait and peeped in. Then he found out that she was entirely rotten with maggots and surrounded by eight thunder deities.

Now we can see why the stones' lightning rejects Mahito and Himi. It stems from the thunder deities around Izanami. The taboo stems from Izanagi's peeping.

2nd, it is a reference to another female deity called Toyotamahime. One day, a male deity called Hoori lost his brother's fish hook on the sea. He went to an underwater world to get it back. He met Toyotamahime there. They got married, and Toyotamahime got pregnant. She told Hoori not to peep in her birth room. However, he got curious and peeped in. Then he found that Toyotamahime returned to her original giant "wani" (shark) form.

As you can see, both of those episodes belong to the same Eurydice-like archetype. The thunder deities and the shark can explain the paper snakes: Thunder was related to snake deities in the old days. Dragons, Naga, Snakes, and Thunder. They came from the same archetype. I wrote "wani" (shark,) but it is called ryu/ dragon in a variation of the legend.

In any case, peeping is a taboo, and it is related to female deities and snakes/ dragons.




14. Sexual Fantasy and Boy's Tragedy


In an interview about Ponyo, Miyazaki said that he has to depict a tragedy of a boy someday:

I think facing the reality brings more pains that happiness, especially in boys' cases. I think boys are tragic entities. If I pursue the true nature of boys, I have to face the difficulty of turning a tragedy into an entertainment.


That tragicness is compared to Sosuke's simple happiness, and Miyazaki says that he has to depict the tragic boy. I personally think he finally achieved that goal in The Boy and the Heron. However, it makes us wonder what is the difference between Sosuke and Mahito. I think it is "sexual desire."


As I mentioned earlier, Miyazaki said to the staff that he's gonna thematize Oedipus complex. That desire is directed toward Natsuko. Sosuke didn't have such a sexual dilemma. Mahito faces the reality that Natsuko is someone who his father loves, and he gives up on his desire.


That theme didn't come from nowhere. As some people already know, The Boy and the Heron is based on John Connolly's book called "The Book of Lost Things." They share the same basic plot and, more importantly, they both includes incest motif:

‘Kiss me,’ David heard her say, although her mouth remained still. ‘Kiss me, and we will be together again.’ David placed his sword by her side and leaned over to kiss her cheek. His lips touched her skin. She was very cold, colder even than when she had lain in her open coffin, so cold that the touch of her was painful to him. It numbed his lips and stilled his tongue, and his breath turned to crystals of ice that sparkled like tiny diamonds in the still air. As he broke the contact with her, his name was called again, but this time it was a man’s voice, not a woman’s.


He looked round, trying to find the source of the sound. There was movement upon the wall. It was Roland. His left hand waved feebly, then gripped the thorn that protruded from his chest, as though by doing so he might concentrate the last of his strength and say what needed to be said. His head moved, and with a final great effort he forced the words from his lips.

‘David,’ he whispered. ‘Beware!’

Roland lifted his right hand and his index finger pointed at the figure on the altar before it fell away. Then his body sagged on the thorn as the life passed from him at last.

David looked down at the sleeping woman, and her eyes opened. They were not the eyes of David’s mother. Her eyes were brown and loving and kind. These eyes were black, devoid of colour, like lumps of coal set in snow. The face of the sleeping woman had also changed. She was no longer David’s mother, although he still knew her. Now she was Rose, his father’s lover. Her hair was black, not red, and it pooled like liquid night. Her lips opened, and David saw that her teeth were very white and very sharp, the canines longer than the rest. He took a step back, almost falling from the dais as the woman sat up on her stone bed. She stretched like a cat, her spine curving and her arms tensing. The shawl around her shoulders fell away, exposing an alabaster neck and the tops of her breasts. David saw drops of blood upon them, like a necklace of rubies frozen upon her skin. The woman turned upon the stone, allowing her bare feet to drape over the side. Those deep black eyes regarded David, and her pale tongue licked at the points of her teeth.


It also reminds us that he has already tried to thematize sex in The Wind Rises. In the final limbo scene from the original script, Naoko says to Jiro, "Come with me." It was inspired by Valerie's line from Robert Westall's "The Promise." In a foreword for Westall's "Blackham's Wimpy," Miyazaki praised The Promise. It is another story about a boy and his sexual desire.


When we compare Mahito with Sosuke and Jiro, we can understand what kind position he is in. He is somewhere in the spectrum between Sosuke's happiness and Jiro's cold nihilism. And his sexual desire makes him face the boys' tragedy.



15. You Must Forget


At the end of the film, the Heron says Mahito should forget his experience in the Tower. That is a common rule of fairy tales. Human forget the fairy world, what Johon Connolly calls "his own heaven." I suppose the audience, myself included, is not expected to analyze details and inspiration sources. And I'm aware that this text probably contains some misunderstandings. However, I also think The Boy and the Heron causes such metafictional thoughts. The film tells us to have two contradicting attitudes: amnesia and pondering. That is the unique part of the film. It puts off the decision. It gives us mysterious stones and tells us to forget about them. It is a type of film that gives a different impression every time you watch it.



Works Cited


Miyazaki, H. (1997). Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa [Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind] vol.7. Tokuma Shoten

Miyazaki, H. (1996). Shuppatsuten [Starting Point] Tokuma Shoten

Hotta, Y./ Shiba, R./ Miyazaki, H. (1997). Jidai no Kazaoto [The Howling of the Era]. Asahi Shinbunsha

Miyazaki, H. (2000). Hotta Yoshie o Yomu: Sekai o Shirinuku tameno Rashinban [Reading Yoshie Hotta: Compus for Understanding This World]. Shueisha

Miyazaki, H. (2002). Kaze no Kaeru Basho [The Place Where the Wind Returns]. Rocking On

Miyazaki, H. (2011). Hon eno Tobira: Iwanami Shonen Bunko o Kataru [A Door to Books: Talking about Iwanami Shonen Bunko]. Iwanami Shoten

Miyazaki, H. (2013). Zoku Kaze no Kaeru Basho [The Place Where the Wind Returns 2]. Rocking On

Miyazaki, H. & Hando, K. (2013) Hando Kazutoshi to Miyazaki Hayao no Koshinuke Aikoku Dangi [Kazutoshi Hando and Hayao Miyazaki's Coward Patriot Conversations]. Bungei Shunju

Roman Alubum Excellent 60: Taiyo no Oji Horus no Daiboken. (1984) Tokuma Shoten

Natsume, S. (1905). London To [The Tower of London]. translated by Flanagan, D. Peter Owen Publishers

Natsume, S. (1906). Kusamakura [Three-Cornered World]. translated by Turney, A. Gateway Editions

Natsume, S. (1907). Nowaki. translated by Ridgeway, W. N. U of M Center For Japanese Studies

Natsume, S. (1908). Sanshiro. translated by Rubin, J. Penguin

Dante, M. Divine Comedy translated by Yamakawa, H. Aozora Bunko

Miyazawa, K. (1924-1934). The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa. translated by Bester, J. New York Review Books

Hayashi, F. Yottsu no Moji [Four Letters]. (from Sengo Tanpen Shosetsu Saihakken vol.9. Kodansha)

Yoshino, G. (1937). Kimi-tachi wa Do Ikiruka [How Do You Live?] translated by Navasky, B. Algonquin Young Readers

Hotta, Y. (1971). Hojoki Shiki [Private Notes on Hojoki]. Chikuma Shobo

Westall, R. (1982). Blackham's Wimpy [Blackham no Bakugekiki]. translated by Kanehara, M. Iwanami Shoten

Westall, R. (1990). The Promise [Kinjirareta Yakusoku]. translated by Nozawa, K. Tokuma Shoten

Connolly, J. (2008). The Book of Lost Things. Hodder & Stoughton






2023 Sept. 22: uploaded the first draft

2023 Nov. 3: added Chapter 14 and citations

2023 Dec. 7: added Chapter 15