If you consider yourself a Hayao Miyazaki fan and yet, you had no idea that he had a new movie in theaters, don’t be too hard on yourself. How Do You Live? was released with no trailer or any other form of promotion save for a single image, a decision made by producer Toshio Suzuki to ensure that audiences would see the film without any preconceived notions.
The film, which takes its title from Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel but has an original story written by Miyazaki, is purportedly Miyazaki’s final film. Which, of course, was said about 2013’s The Wind Rises. But there is a definite sense of finality about this one. First, there’s Miyazaki age; the man turned 82 this year. And second, Suzuki described the film as Miyazaki’s gift for his grandson, a way to say that “Grandpa is moving on to the next world, but he’s leaving behind this film.”
So does the world’s greatest living animated filmmaker end his illustrious career on a high note? Read on for some reviews from the film’s recent release in Japan.
How Do You Live? is a weird film that feels like a mix of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle with a pinch of From Up on Poppy Hill. It tries to do a lot with the slice of life and fantastical themes but kinda doesn’t get there until the end.
Of course, half of what makes the fantasy elements so powerful is the animation. It’s truly astounding. Every frame of this film feels like a separate work of art — one that only becomes grander when put together as part of the greater whole. It’s a film you could watch a hundred times and still discover new things in the background of any given scene. It cannot be understated how the little visual details take the film from real to surreal — like a heron flashing a toothy grin or wooden dolls vibrating as if in sympathetic laughter. It’s an animation tour de force unlike anything seen in the past decade. And as for the music, it fits the visuals perfectly. Joe Hisaishi once again brings his A-game to another Studio Ghibli film, creating a score filled with both whimsy and tension.
Miyazaki has accepted his time has come and gone, and this is his plea to be remembered by the next generation. With this understanding, everything from the film’s complex yet thematically resonant story to particularly its non-existent promotional campaign made sense. Releasing a film without a single trailer, screenshot, or even synopsis feels like career suicide, a sure chance a film will fail. It’s a strategy that could only succeed at the hands of a studio and director who earned respect like these two. In turn, this campaign is a final plea from Miyazaki to the public who admire him and his work.
In tone, the movie is almost gothic. I’ve never seen a Ghibli movie that feels so distant, almost dour. And, indeed, I’d hazard that parts of this movie are even off-putting. This could easily be the least accessible Miyazaki movie. His penchant for the gross and gooey, seen in many of his previous films, is here unbounded.
So, however, is his visual flair for beauty both unearthly and of-this-world. Suzuki Toshio, Ghibli producer and constant hype-man, has said that here, unrestrained by partner companies or desire for monetary return, Miyazaki was allowed to make a film just as he wanted to.
The film is full of Miyazaki’s signature obsessions, quirks and thematic concerns. There are the usual visual treats, like cute yet eerie creatures, great-looking food and gravity-defying flights of fancy — primarily hand-drawn and moving with the fluidity and sense of weight that mark the master animator’s work.
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.
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.
The film’s fantasy elements look absolutely beautiful, and they naturally include shots of the classic impossibly delicious-looking Ghibli food. But they come with a kind of wistfulness for days gone by, paired with a full, unsentimental realization that there’s no getting them back. Which all feels like a director taking one last look at his career before bowing out. How Do You Live? has all the makings of a perfect swan song. Whether it really is that — whether Miyazaki’s retirement sticks this time — is something we won’t know for a while. In the meantime, his fans can watch this movie over and over, always finding something new and exciting in it. Final movie or not, it’s still a Hayao Miyazaki joint, and those have nearly endless rewatch value.
Thanks to its ambition, variety and depth, it is difficult to think of How Do You Live? as Miyazaki’s last film, the testament that we have all been led to expect. Treading both old and new ground, it illustrates how the director’s creativity is a deep well that never seems to dry up. It might be absurd, but at this point I just want to wish for another film in that vein, that would build upon its strengths, continue to tread the new roads it opened, and correct some of its faults. It is a difficult work, and as written, I do not think that it will work for everyone – I’m not even sure it worked for me. But this difficulty and ambiguity might be its best quality, Miyazaki’s ultimate showcase of talent, nuance and imagination.
How Do You Live? is now showing in Japanese theaters and has broken at least one box office record. GKIDS will release the movie in North America later this year as The Boy and the Heron. No trailer is currently available.