Despite what you may have heard, The Boy and the Heron is not Hayao Miyazaki’s final film. But if there’s anything that screams with all the fury and noise of a coda to the brilliant career of one of our greatest filmmakers, this is it.

Coming 10 years after The Wind Rises (his last final film), The Boy and the Heron is a chaotic, cosmic concoction that dares the audience to try to understand the mysterious inner workings of the anime auteur’s mind. Where The Wind Rises’ subdued and elegant craftsmanship showed a director with something to prove — that he is a serious artist capable of more than the childlike whimsy many have reduced him to — The Boy and the Heron shows an artist with nothing else to prove. This is a movie for Hayao Miyazaki and Miyazaki alone. And maybe for his grandson.

The Boy and the Heron is inarguably Miyazaki’s least accessible movie, an evocative, richly imagined wonder that operates purely on the director’s particular brand of dream logic. But at the same time, the film is intensely aware of this, employing a complex, emotionally potent narrative to caution against losing one’s grip on the real world. The Boy and the Heron might not be Miyazaki’s last word, as reports of the director coming to the office with new ideas have already started to circulate, but it truly is the triumphant, dazzling culmination of his career.

Miyazaki takes us down the rabbit hole to a wondrous alternate world filled with magic and silly little guys.

Studio Ghibli

The Boy and the Heron’s original title borrows from How Do You Live?, a 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino that details the spiritual and emotional journey of a 15-year-old boy through regular correspondence with his uncle. But Miyazaki’s film appears to share nothing in common with the book, apart from a teen boy protagonist who undergoes a dramatic life change. Instead, The Boy and the Heron follows 15-year-old Mahito Maki, who evacuates Tokyo with his father to move to a countryside estate after his mother tragically dies in a fire. It’s the height of WWII, and his father runs a successful air munitions factory (a wry nod to Miyazaki’s own conflicting feelings towards his fighter-plane-manufacturer father) and has remarried, to Natsuko, the younger sister of Mahito’s mother. Everyone seems to have moved on: His father’s business is booming, Natsuko is happily pregnant, and the kooky old maids who care for the sprawling estate have taken Mahito under their wing. Everyone except Mahito, who dreams every night of his mother surrounded by flames, calling for him.

It’s not the only vision that plagues him. The gray heron that lives on the estate grounds also appears to speak to him in a croaky, wheezing voice, goading him with the promise that his mother is still alive, trapped in the nearby derelict tower built by Mahito’s eccentric great-uncle. After a self-inflicted injury leaves Mahito bedridden, he sees Natsuko entering the tower and follows her and the heron to an alternate water-submerged world where birds are giant man-eating creatures and magic exists. Mahito embarks on a journey to retrieve Natsuko, encountering all manner of colorful characters along the way, including the swashbuckling sailor Kiriko, who protects the (fittingly adorable) spirits of the world, and a fire-wielding young girl named Himi, who looks eerily like his mother.

Natsuko and her army of elderly maids ward off the gray heron, which is attempting to lure Mahito to the alternate world.

Studio Ghibli

To call The Boy and the Heron thematically and visually dense would be an understatement. This film is positively bursting with all the ideas that Miyazaki has touched on throughout his career and introduces even a few more, which we barely have time to comprehend before we’re whisked away to the next awe-inspiring image. The environmentalist and pacifist themes that Miyazaki explored in previous films are present, too — especially in the water-covered world and in the war-torn backdrop of both the real world and the alternate one — but with The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki turns his eyes to the cosmos. Shadowy celestial beings pull the strings behind Mahito’s adventure, while cryptic myths have their roots beyond this Earth. Miyazaki takes the most ambiguous elements of his past films — think the “catching a star” scene from Howl’s Moving Castle — and expands them into a whole world unto its own.

But the most intriguing parts of The Boy and the Heron come when its director turns his eyes back on himself. Miyazaki has long shown himself to be a deeply empathetic filmmaker but has only recently become a more self-reflective one. And that self-reflection has not been flattering. Audiences long overlooked the subtle thread of nihilism that exists in Miyazaki’s works: the idea that humanity might actually be doomed and that children’s purity and innocence are our only saving grace. The Boy and the Heron takes that idea and builds a complex, convoluted narrative around it, with Miyazaki casting himself as part of the generation whose time has passed. “My generation should have left a better world for our children,” Miyazaki seems to say, “and maybe we have failed. But maybe we shouldn’t foist that burden on our children either,” he seems to conclude.

Mahito is one of Miyazaki’s most serious and somber protagonists.

Studio Ghibli

If Miyazaki’s time is over, his evolution as an artist is not. In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki’s art style is more frenzied and fluid than it’s ever been. The opening scene, in which Mahito races through the streets of Tokyo after a bombing sets his mother’s hospital aflame, is like a gauntlet being thrown — one that feels in direct response to all the cutesy AI filters that mimic a Miyazaki movie, or to everyone who thinks of the filmmaker as only a purveyor of cozy whimsy. Like the shattering earthquake sequence in The Wind Rises, this opening scene is bone-chilling. Mahito’s limbs fly as if he’s a boy possessed, the panicked people he passes on the street melt into inhuman shadows or oozing flesh (the latter feels like a horrific nod to the real-life casualties of the bombings), and the flames lick the side of the frame as if trying to escape.

Even when the story moves to the candy-colored brilliance of its alternate world, Miyazaki isn’t beholden to the familiar Ghibli house style he created, as if he’s on a mission to show his imitators and his heirs apparent that he’s not done evolving. The characters bend and stretch at will; their expressions morph from pleasant, comically large features to something more sinister. Miyazaki’s trademark silly little guys turn on a dime to be murderous. The cozy rural pastiche that Miyazaki has so long been associated with exists here, but it’s not the norm. Instead, the filmmaker pours loving detail into crumbling architectural ruins, lavish Victorian libraries, and ancient towering arches. There’s real awe in how he paints the vast ineffability of the cosmos, as if even he can’t fully comprehend the world he’s created here.

The Boy and the Heron is a creative achievement on a scale that Miyazaki has never shown before.

Studio Ghibli

In Miyazaki’s very first movie, 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro, a lake is drained to reveal exquisite Roman ruins — evoking the haunting and indescribable feeling of seeing a great achievement of civilization revealed to be hidden under the surface for centuries. That’s what The Boy and the Heron is for Miyazaki: the gleaming towers and sprawling golden city that was just waiting underneath the surface. Finally, we get to see it for ourselves.

In many ways, it feels like the rest of Miyazaki’s career has only been the tip of the iceberg that is his mind. Now, the director finally allows us a glimpse beneath the surface into all of its vibrant, swirling madness.

The Boy and the Heron premiered internationally on Sept. 7 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s set to be released in North America on December 8, 2023.