Theological reflections on thought-provoking film

A still from The Boy and the Heron. PHOTO: TNS.
A still from The Boy and the Heron. PHOTO: TNS.
An anime classic reawakened questions for theological scholar Katie Marcar

I recently went to see Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece The Boy and the Heron in the cinema.

For the uninitiated, Miyazaki is master storyteller and animator, whose breathtaking imagination has generated such incredible films as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Like many of his other films, The Boy and the Heron is rich in its visual character, psychological depth and allusiveness. The film follows young protagonist Mahito as he struggles to adjust to a new life after the death of his mother. As the film’s plot develops, Mahito is slowly drawn towards a mysterious tower that forebodes danger but also something more, something akin to hope.

The film draws diverse inspiration from Japanese literature (Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel How Do You Live?) to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Added to this complex recipe are numerous allusions to Miyazaki’s own artistic oeuvre. The result is a stunningly beautiful film that does not easily yield itself to summary or interpretation.

The film prompts its audience to ponder over its symbols and interpret its riddles. Is fire, which killed Mahito’s mother when her hospital burned down, purely destructive, or can it also be used for good?

A friend who saw The Boy and the Heron remarked afterwards that he thought it was overhyped. This led me to reflect on the perennial questions about what makes good art: should art be instantly recognisable as such? When viewing a piece of art, should we instantly "get it"?

Is the effort involved in appreciating some art justified? Shouldn’t we just be able to go to the cinema and enjoy a good flick without the cognitive effort a film like The Boy and the Heron seems to require?

As a Bible scholar, these questions have worn a well-trod path in my mental circuits. If God wants to reveal himself through the pages of a book, why is some of it so difficult? Like The Boy and the Heron, the Bible is not self-interpreting. While I love a good thriller that grabs my attention at the first page, some books demand greater things from a reader, but they arguably offer more, too.

Indeed, part of the power of symbols, whether they come from the Bible or elsewhere, is that their very allusive nature is one of the things that somehow enables them to transcend their context of page or screen to enter our own worlds, or indeed our own lives.

In the film, Mahito’s grief over the death of his mother eventually prompts him to undertake a journey like Dante through the supernatural dreamscapes of Miyazaki’s imagination. Like Dante, Mahito visits worlds of nightmarish terror and fulsome joy.

The film asks questions about what happens to the soul after death, or before birth. Would we still choose to live our lives if we knew the pain and suffering we would experience (or cause)?

While not directly engaging in metaphysics, the film offers a vision of hope which shines all the more brightly for its unflinching acknowledgement of a world marred by war, grief and death.

After watching The Boy and the Heron, I scoured the internet for reviews, hungry to learn more about the meaning I knew must be encoded there. The more you know, the more you can appreciate this complex artistic work. Something similar happens with the Bible — once you get a taste of it, it leaves you wanting more.

That is the nature of all that is true, good and beautiful.

The Rev Dr Katie Marcar is a senior teaching fellow and research fellow in Biblical Studies in Theology at the University of Otago.