The Boy and the Heron has been heavily touted as director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, which, at age 82, would make perfect sense. But Miyazaki already threatened retirement once before, and the wily craftsman is known to give zero farts about expectations. Yet the fanciful, self-reflexive Heron—which premiered at the New York Film Festival on Sunday—tracks as a career-capper, should it be one. And if it is, it would likely mark the end of one of cinema’s greatest collaborative partnerships: that of Miyazaki and composer Joe Hisaishi, whose work deserves as much praise as that of the better-known animator.
For those who have yet to see the film, I’ll keep details on Heron’s premise light. But know that the film actively echoes many of Miyazaki’s past works, from a Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind-esque ardor for the natural world to shape-shifting bodies a la Spirited Away, and even a scene set on a grassy knoll that looks straight out of The Wind Rises. The film’s themes of childhood trauma and grief—our young protagonist Mahito recently lost his mother in a wartime fire bombing—recall My Neighbor Totoro, and the scenes of peril hew closer to Princess Mononoke.
Mahito is a boy of few words, emotionally closed-off from his father and aunt, whom his father has married following his wife’s death, much to his discomfort. Instead, the film relies on its striking piano score to eke out the feeling from Mahito. When he gazes intently at the tower he’s warned away from, the one from which a mysterious heron keeps leaving to come taunt him, you can almost see Hisaishi’s fingers curl over the keys. He plinks out single notes with a sense of trepidation and curiosity; the music builds into a score both melancholic and determined. Mahito’s refusal to grieve has left him without purpose, but Hisaishi’s piano underscores that this tower is about to provide him with one.
The technical simplicity of the music is necessary. To overwhelm Mahito’s story with, say, a multi-piece orchestra would risk creating an artificial sense of grandeur that the film itself already possesses. Worse, it could obscure the intimate beauty of the animation, script, and voice acting. A scene like the one in which “Prayer Song” plays would be much less harrowing with a heavier hand conducting it. The piece plays when Mahito and his family are at their lowest, a moment where the fantasy world’s threat to the real one has never been more clear. Hisaishi’s skittish piano playing makes perfect sense, a mood setter that a lesser composer might find too muted.
Each piece of score strongly evokes the unspoken; that is perhaps Hisaishi’s greatest talent. When he performed “Ask Me Why,” from the then-unreleased film, earlier this year during the stateside leg of his current worldwide tour, the audience was as hushed as they were for any other track, even though it was the first time many of them had heard it. It was just Hisaishi and his piano, playing something hopeful and sweet, but still slightly sorrowful. Out of context, “Ask Me Why” is beautiful; in the film itself, it colors in the story’s lines to create something even brighter.
Despite his inimitable talents, the composer of nearly every Studio Ghibli release has been nominated for the most prestigious award in cinema, the Academy Awards, a grand total of zero times. This perhaps should not be surprising, considering Studio Ghibli itself has only won a single Oscar (the only non-Western animation studio to do so). But it’s nothing short of infuriating nonetheless. A movie like Spirited Away, the recipient of that sole Academy Award, would suffer without Hisaishi’s score; “One Summer’s Day” is one of the most gorgeous, memorable, and evocative compositions in modern cinema. Watching The Boy and the Heron, it’s obvious that Hisaishi’s has the same powerful impact here.
Hisaishi’s incredible contributions to filmmaking can no longer be ignored on a mainstream scale. And his success isn’t only defined by qualified metrics; that tour of his continues apace, selling out across the country and world, moving fans to tears as they hear the master play lifelong favorites in grand halls. (I feel like a cheapo dummy for not getting a ticket when I could have.) If Heron is Hisaishi’s last bow on a Ghibli movie, to pass up a chance to honor him is nothing less than a massive failure. But an awards body doesn’t really need to validate Hisaishi or the film for us to know the truth and beauty that is his work on it.