‘The Boy and the Heron’ Supervising Animator Talks Hayao Miyazaki’s Most Personal Film

Article Image
Photo Source: Courtesy Gkids

“The Boy and the Heron” may not be Hayao Miyazaki’s final movie after all, but it is a perfect encapsulation of the master animator’s career. The semi-autobiographical film deals with themes of legacy and succession; it’s an artist’s reckoning with the many worlds the Studio Ghibli co-founder has created over the years. 

The filmmaker brought on a large team to help him realize his vision, making “The Boy and the Heron” his most collaborative project to date. Among them is supervising animator Takeshi Honda, who previously worked on Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” and “The Wind Rises.” His résumé also includes Hideaki Anno’s seminal 1995 anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” 

We caught up with Honda to discuss what it’s like to work with Miyazaki, the project’s inspirations, and the old-school techniques the team used to make the film stand out.

You were already slated to work on Anno’s “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time” when Miyazaki approached you about “The Boy and the Heron.” What made you say yes to this movie instead? 

I first heard about the film project before the new “Evangelion” went into production. I was asked by Mr. Miyazaki personally to be the supervising animator for a film he was making. But I needed to settle things properly with Studio Khara, where I was employed at the time; so I asked him to let me think about it for a while. Then Mr. Miyazaki told me, “I don’t have much time left. This may be my last film.” I had decided since it was a Miyazaki film, I would definitely work on it. But I felt an intense commitment on his part. 

The Boy and the Heron

The movie is very personal for Miyazaki—a lot of it seems to be based on his childhood. What conversations did you have with him about the story and its influences? 

As I was working, basically, Mr. Miyazaki was talking to me all the time; but he wasn’t talking much about his boyhood. He tended to talk more about the people who [made] a major impact on his life, such as [his mentor] Yasuo Ôtsuka and [his longtime friend, Studio Ghibli co-founder]Isao Takahata. He also griped about what went on during the productions of past films and what various people were like. I think the content of “The Boy and the Heron” is a depiction of Mr. Miyazaki’s feelings toward people he was associated with throughout his own life rather than a depiction of his own childhood.

The opening scene, in which the protagonist, Mahito, runs through the streets in the middle of a fire, looks amazing. What went into creating it?

Mr. Miyazaki had decided from the beginning [who would be] the animator in charge of the initial scene of the fire. This was Mr. Shinya Ohira, who could be called a genius animator. He is the type who brings his own style of drawing to the fore and is an absolute perfectionist. His taste in drawing is somewhat different from the rest of the film, and in a good sense; he has no intentions of matching the other drawings. 

Mr. Ohira’s drawings are difficult to correct even if we wanted to, as [they] seem to defiantly state: Change them if you dare. All I could do was give in to his talent. 

What was it like to work with Miyazaki and the rest of the animation team on such a large-scale project? 

Most of our production work used orthodox methods of the analog era rather than digital methods that incorporate recent CG technology, which Mr. Miyazaki isn’t used to handling. His feeling was that he wanted to adhere to hand-drawn animation as much as possible. 

This means that everyday behaviors must be drawn in an exact manner, which is hard to do. But my seat was right next to Mr. Miyazaki’s, which was helpful in getting confirmation from him right away. 

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.