That blurred distinction is a hallmark of Miyazaki, whose films (among them “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away”) are windows into the subconscious. In interviews collected in the book “Starting Point: 1979-1996,” Miyazaki referred to a universal “yearning for a lost world” he refused to call nostalgia, since even children experience it. We long not for what we remember, but what we’ve never experienced at all, only sensed beneath reality’s surface. In dreams, yearnings break free, and Miyazaki’s films capture that exhilarating terror. “Those who join in the work of animation,” he said, “are people who dream more than others and who wish to convey these dreams to others.”
Elements of “The Boy and the Heron” are familiar to Miyazaki devotees: a lonely child, the threat of violence (reminiscent of “Princess Mononoke”) and a bevy of fantastical, only sometimes cuddly creatures that externalize some part of the protagonist’s desires. Arriving at the house with Natsuko, Mahito spots a giant heron. “How rare,” she remarks. “It’s never flown inside before.” Something isn’t right out here. The grannies warn him away from a tower on the property with an apocryphal-sounding tale about his missing granduncle. But that heron (voiced by Masaki Suda) keeps appearing, luring him toward the tower, taunting him with forbidden knowledge. (Robert Pattinson voices the heron in an English-language version that features Christian Bale, Gemma Chan and many others.) Mahito’s mother, the heron claims, isn’t dead at all. After all, did he see her corpse?
Mahito’s grief is a focal point for a child’s anxiety in chaos, stability wrecked by the adults who are supposed to be in charge. Safety is not part of Miyazaki’s dreamworlds. The film is set before the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the feeling of a world flying to pieces is destabilizing to Mahito. His terror manifests in his sleep.
Now 82, Miyazaki is so universally beloved that Studio Ghibli, the director’s animation home, didn’t bother advertising the film before its opening in Japan last summer. A brand unto himself, he retired with his 2013 film, “The Wind Rises” — then, changing his mind, returned. Magical, beautiful and uneasy, his films are beloved by children, but are certainly not just for children. With Miyazaki, the draw is subliminal, tapping an unsettling emotional well that seals over as we age.
Even by his standards, though, “The Boy and the Heron” is enigmatic, at least regarding plot. Better to watch as an exercise in contemplation than storytelling; this is the work of a man pondering life from its endpoint. It’s confounding, meandering through worlds that melt into one another. Magical fires rage, souls of the preborn and the dead mingle, and the fate of the universe is determined in ways unclear.