First look review: Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘How Do You Live?’

The mysterious new Studio Ghibli’s anime just came out in Japan – and we’ve seen it

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen
Staff Writer, Time Out Tokyo
How Do You Live?’
Photograph: Studio Ghibli

Time Out Tokyo writer Emma Steen queues to be the first to see Hayao Miyazaki’s eagerly awaited new film ‘How Do You Live?’ and finds a mature, complex masterpiece from the anime legend

In a world where every new blockbuster is preceded by a barrage of trailers, star-studded premieres and carefully orchestrated promos, the arrival of a big-ticket film shrouded in complete mystery feels unimaginable. But that’s exactly what father of Japanese anime Hayao Miyazaki has managed with his latest, and purportedly final film, How Do You Live? (titled The Boy and the Heron’ overseas).

The legendary Studio Ghibli co-founder, now 82 years old, has announced his retirement countless times throughout his career, but has always found his way back to the drawing board. Now, a decade after his last full-length feature, 2013’s The Wind Rises, How Do You Live? debuted in Japan on July 14. 

Shunning traditional marketing – well, any marketing – Studio Ghibli hasn’t released so much as a still from the film. According to producer Toshio Suzuki, the aim is to allow audiences to see it without preconceptions – a move that has heightened expectations to feverish levels for Ghibli’s army of fans.

Loosely inspired by Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel of the same name, How Do You Live? follows a young boy called Mahito as he relocates from Tokyo to the countryside with his father during World War II. Mahito's mother has tragically and suddenly died and his father has married Mahito’s aunt, who is now expecting a child. Despite his stoicism, the young Mahito’s struggles to adjust to this new life are palpable.

It’s a mature, complex masterpiece, weaving together the director’s past, present and future

The only distraction are the peculiarities of his new home, including a menacing talking grey heron and a mysterious tower in the vicinity, with a staircase that has been closed off. When Mahito's aunt mysteriously disappears into the forest one day, he tries to find her, only to be whisked away to an enchanting – and occasionally dangerous – spirit world.

Despite its ‘G’ rating in Japan, Miyazaki’s latest has a markedly more mature tone and  provides more unsettling moments than the likes of Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro. At one point, Mahito deliberately injures himself to evade school bullies and there are freaky creatures, including anthropomorphic man-eating parakeets, to rival No-Face and the Stink Spirit in Spirited Away.

That tonal maturity was reflected in the make-up of the audiences I observed on its opening day in Tokyo, where it was overwhelmingly adults who rushed to fill the cinema seats. Sure, it’s not school holidays yet, but it’s a reminder of Miyazaki's place in the hearts of a whole generation who grew up on his iconic animations. This one, like those, comes with a moving score from master composer and long-time Ghibli collaborator, Joe Hisaishi.

There are numerous Easter eggs from Miyazaki's past works strewn throughout the film, too, even if the plethora of ideas occasionally distracts from the storytelling. But there’s visual brilliance in abundance in a coming-of-age fable that’s brought to stunning life by Miyazaki's painstakingly hand-drawn animation.

As international audiences await their turn to experience How Do You Live?, Miyazaki's latest film stands as a testament to his enduring legacy. It’s a mature, complex masterpiece, weaving together the director's past, present, and future – a beautiful enigma that promises to be worth the wait.

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