Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s greatest living directors, has been making movies since 1979, and has been retiring from making movies since 1998. He has definitively retired four times to date, after the completion of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo and The Wind Rises, but none of them stuck. The closest he got was after The Wind Rises was released in 2013, where he did leave the studio for some time, but in 2015 he announced his limited return to make a short movie for the Ghibli Museum, Boro the Water Spider. Not long after, while still working on Boro, it was announced — to nobody’s great surprise, though to a great deal of excitement — that Miyazaki would be returning to Ghibli properly to make another feature film, titled How Do You Live? This one, it was said, would truly be his last, his definitive, retirement film.
It took six years to complete this movie, and Hayao Miyazaki is now 82. It is possible this really is his final film. But I wouldn’t entirely count on it.
How Do You Live came out today (the 14th of July 2023, for anybody reading from the future; hi!). It’s been in development for six years, but until this morning, when the first set of movie-goers was able to see it, we have known these things about it:
1. Its title. How Do You Live? is the name of a book which particularly influenced Miyazaki as a boy.
2. That it is not based off the book the title came from.
3. That it has strong fantasy elements.
4. The poster, seen below.
These were the only concrete pieces of information we had. It was also reported that he had said to his producer and long-time friend Suzuki that he was making it as a way to say to his grandson, “Grandpa is moving on to the next world, but he is leaving behind this film.”
But now it is out and I have seen it. With the caveat that I am a huge fan of the vast majority of Miyazaki’s movies, so my opinion is definitely biased; this is a good film, and I am happy with it. If this is where his movie-making career ends, it has ended in a good — if strange — place.
For anybody who doesn’t want spoilers for this movie, from hereon in I will be discussing the plot in depth (though not every detail of it! It was a long movie!). Advance at your own risk.
How Do You Live? is a movie about grief. It’s a movie about a grief that is all-encompassing, and that has not been given the space to ever fully be processed, and about learning to accept it, and love it, and move past it. It’s also about a lot of other things, because Miyazaki’s movies always are — there’s a message there for anybody who wants it. But it is also very much a movie about grief.
Our main character, Mahito, a young boy living in WWII Tokyo, loses his mother in the opening scenes of the film. The hospital she is in catches fire, and although Mahito runs to the hospital to try and save her, it is engulfed in flames long before he can get there.
Flash-forward, and Mahito, now around ten years old, is being evacuated from Tokyo with his father. They are returning to his mother’s ancestral home for two reasons — one, his father owns the local factory, making cockpit glass for fighter planes, and two, his father has married his deceased mother’s younger sister, and she is pregnant with his child.
Mahito is a well-behaved child, but he shows very little emotion, and it quickly becomes clear that he is carrying a great deal of unexpressed grief for his mother’s passing. At the same time, the house they have moved to, although beautiful and quite opulent, feels deeply uncanny. It is populated almost entirely by strange old women and there is an entire building that is impossible to enter, but the most unsettling thing by far is the blue heron that seems to be following Mahito, which speaks with a human’s voice and smiles with human teeth, and when it eventually manages to force its way into his room, tells Mahito that his mother is not dead but has been captured and is waiting for him to come to her rescue.
This is the most disconcerting a Miyazaki movie has ever been, and at this point I was genuinely worried that this film might be a tragedy. It didn’t seem likely for any number of reasons, but Mahito’s misery was so viscerally expressed and yet so intensely contained, and the heron and his associates so unsettling but also so obviously offering something that Mahito both needed and wanted that it began to seem like there was no way for this character, as desperately lonely as he was, to get his happy ending.
During the heron’s stalking, Mahito goes to his new school for the first time, arriving — unwillingly — by motor car in front of his provincial classmates. He very obviously doesn’t fit in, and the children are hostile to him, culminating in a fight during his walk home. He is uninjured, but once the fight is over and he is alone, he takes a rock and hits himself in the side of the head, hard enough that blood pours down his face. This results in a wound that is deep enough to need stitches, and Mahito’s father, furious and believing that another child did this to his son (although Mahito claims he fell) declares that Mahito no longer needs to attend school.
Mahito’s new stepmother protects Mahito from the heron’s next onslaught, but is taken ill as a result. While crafting his own weapon to potentially use against the heron, Mahito sees her walking alone into the woods, towards the forbidden building, but he does nothing to stop her. However, when the word comes later that she is missing, he realizes that something is amiss, and joins the search.
He and one of the old ladies of the house go through the rapidly darkening wood and find a tunnel that mysteriously lights up before them. It leads to the forbidden building, a tall, domed building full of books, but once they’ve entered a door slams behind them and it is revealed that the heron has now trapped them there. He taunts Mahito with an illusion of his dead mother, but is forced on the defensive when Mahito manages to shoot him through the beak, disabling his magical abilities and forcing him into a half-heron, half-gnome-like form. He then reveals that Mahito’s stepmother has gone through to the other world, where she is now having her baby. Mahito demands to rescue her, but when asked if he loves her that much, only replies “she makes my father happy”. The disabled heron seems unwilling to comply with Mahito’s demands, until a shadowy figure, the ruler of the other world, appears and says that the heron, having been defeated, should indeed take Mahito to his stepmother. The three of them — Mahito, the heron and the old woman from the house — are pulled through the floor and fall into the other world.
From here, the film takes on a distinctly dream-like tone, with the world Mahito moves through making very little sense to him, but having its own clear rules and reasons. He makes friends and fights enemies, but quickly learns that even though some creatures — this world seems to be mostly populated by sentient animals — are doing things that are cruel, they are doing it to try to assure their own survival. His stepmother is here and does not wish to return, but when Mahito finally reaches her, he realizes, to his own surprise, that he does want her to come back with him, not only for his father’s sake but also for his own. There is also a mysterious girl who controls fire and helps him, giving him on the way some homemade bread and jam that Mahito says tastes just like his mother used to make. The heron is an unsteady ally, but ultimately chooses to save Mahito from the army of chubby, man-sized parakeets hell-bent on eating both of them, and is visibly touched when Mahito calls him friend.
The creator of the other world, Mahito’s ancestor, wants Mahito to recreate the world in better balance, believing that Mahito can do it better than he did, but Mahito, understanding himself better now, says that he cannot. Though this choice — and the actions of the general of the parakeet army — ultimately destroy the world, Mahito is able to accept his mother’s death and say goodbye to her in a way he couldn’t before, and make the choice to return to his own world with his stepmother, choosing that future for himself this time, rather than simply having it thrust upon him.
(The parakeets also come. Thankfully they get a lot smaller when they transfer across.)
The movie is long, at two hours and thirty minutes, but I didn’t feel a second of it. When we got to the end of the movie, the Mahito at the end was almost unrecognizable from the Mahito at the beginning, but I could trace every moment of the change he went through to get there. The movie is about grief, but it’s also about joy, and letting go, and, as all of Miyazaki’s movies are, about love. It’s also, I think, about endings, but about the new beginnings that can sprout from them.
Is this Miyazaki’s final movie? I don’t know for sure — I’m not sure if anything can really keep that man from working for long — but I am willing to say that this movie feels like more of a letting go than anything he’s made before. It is a joyful movie about endings, and if that is his last message to us, it is a fitting and wonderful one.
Rating: 10/10. Is it perfect? I’m honestly not sure. I’d need to watch it at least two more times, and preferably with subtitles. But has it left me feeling sad and joyous and achey in a way that most movies never do? Absolutely. So I give this a completely, utterly biased 10/10.
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