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Life Lessons From The Boy And The Heron

I recently watched The Boy and the Heron by Hayao Miyazaki, which is the fifth-grossing Japanese film of all time and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film. But aside from the beautiful animation and rich story, the film gave me a lot of food for thought and life lessons, which is what I want to share in this article.

 


Warning: There will be spoilers, but I will not explain the plot of the story (Wikipedia already did that). It's certainly helpful to watch the movie before reading this article, but it's not necessary as I will explain any required context. Also, any movie lines I quote are from my memory since I watched this in theatre, so the wording may not be exactly right, but the message should be the same.

 

1: A peaceful world starts with my peaceful heart.

Near the end of the movie, the main character, Mahito Maki, had the choice to inherit and continue the magical world created by his granduncle. The foundation of this world is a tower of small stones created by the granduncle.



But his tower was about to collapse soon, and only someone of his bloodline could inherit this world by creating a new tower with new stones. Hence, the uncle collected some stones and asked Mahito to build a new tower.

 

Mahito looked at the stones and sensed that there was malice in these stones, so he refused. Indeed, before meeting his granduncle, who lived at the top or "heaven" layer of this magical world, he experienced the lower levels of this world (one of the living beings there called it "hell"), where he witnessed a lot of suffering. I think it's very understandable that he didn't want to be responsible for a world that causes suffering to so many living beings.

 

Later, even closer to the end of the movie, Mahito meets his granduncle once more. This time, his tower is really about to collapse, meaning the whole magical world was about to collapse. The granduncle said, "I found some pure stones without any malice in them. Please, build your tower and continue this world."

 

This time, Mahito said, "I can't. The stones may not have malice, but I still have malice inside me." While saying this, he pointed to a scar at the side of his head.

 


For context, Mahito is a young boy living in a time of war, and he lost his mother in a factory fire. When he heard the news, he immediately ran to the factory to try to save her mother, but he was unsuccessful, and this traumatized him.

 

His father then remarried his mother's younger sister (because the sister would more likely care for Mahito than an outsider, and also to keep the family wealth in the same family) and moved to the countryside (because it's safer there during the war and because they have a big residence there). Mahito then had to deal with trying to accept his new stepmother, which is really hard since he really misses his original mother.

 

He then goes to school, but he is different from everyone because he comes from the city, and his family is much richer than the village kids. His classmates are prejudiced towards him and bully him, and he ends up fighting with them. On his way home, he picks up a stone and hits the side of his head with it, creating a big wound. As a result, his father thinks that the students attacked him and tells him to rest at home instead of going to school.



From all of this, we can see that Mahito is a young kid who went through a lot of suffering, and in his pain, he also did violent things such as fighting with other kids and injuring himself. He sees the evil inside of him, and he understands that his heart will taint the stones, so that even if the stones are pure, once he uses them, they will become impure, and the world he creates will still have suffering. One aspect of Miyazaki films is the purity of young children. In this sense, Mahito doesn't want to cause suffering to others, so he refuses to inherit and continue his uncle's magical world.

 

This reminds me of a Buddhist teaching:

"A peaceful world starts with my peaceful heart."

So often, people try to achieve peace through methods, whether it be politics, economics, technology, military, etc. But whether or not these methods have a positive or negative effect depends on the intention (or "heart") behind them.

 

To give a simple example, the western world heavily emphasizes communication. Communication is a method, not an attitude or intention. If we communicate with the intention to defeat others in an argument, then our bad intentions will taint our communication skills, and our strong communication skills would just create more conflict.  If we have good intentions but lack communication skills, then at least the results won't be harmful, but the effect might still be lacking. Thus, we need both good intentions and good methods to achieve good results. However, having good intentions is the most fundamental and should come first.


2: Love and morality starts with those closest to us

When the granduncle heard Mahito's refusal, he said, "Why would you want to go back to Earth? That world will burn in flames soon!" Clearly, the granduncle is also aware of the war situation on Earth, and he probably also experienced a lot of suffering during his time on Earth, which is why he wanted to create his own, better world. Unfortunately, the stones that helped him create his world are evil. He lives in a heavenly area, but the living beings below suffer. Perhaps that's also why he wanted a new successor who could better the world he created.

 


Mahito replied, "Yes, but there is goodness there too. I've learned how to make friends. And I can learn to love others. I need to go back."

 

More context: There is a magical heron or manbird that led Mahito into this world to find his stepmother and bring her back to Earth. Originally, he didn't trust this heron, but throughout their journey in the magical world, they gradually became friends. He also met the younger versions of his mother and a servant maid in his house, and they all helped him along his journey. Thus, his heart gained more love and gratitude, and he naturally didn't want to abandon his family on Earth, which is where he belongs.

 

This reminds me of a Confucian teaching from The Classic of Filial Piety:

"To love others yet not love one's parents violates morality."

 

If he says that he has a loving heart because he wants to create a world without suffering, but in doing so, he abandons his family on Earth without saying a word, causing his dad and stepmother to grieve over the loss of their child, wouldn't that be rather contradictory? How can you truly have a loving and noble heart when you cause suffering to the people closest to you, to the people who love you the most, to the people you received the most kindness from? I think if Mahito really made the choice to inherit the magical world, thus never being able to leave and see his family again, he would probably have an uneasy conscience and regret his choice.

 

Similarly, I used to put work and friends above family, and as a result, family conflict was always a nagging burden at the back of my mind, leading to an uneasy conscience. Once I learned Confucianism, I prioritized family first, and my conscience became at ease.


3: Attitude towards problems

Both Mahito and his granduncle agree that Earth is a terrible place with a lot of suffering. His granduncle chose to abandon Earth and try to create a better world. Mahito, on the other hand, chose to accept Earth the way it is, let go of blame and resentment, and focus on the possibility for goodness and improvement in the world, starting with his own kind heart. Just like how the kindness of others changed him, if he can spread this kindness, he can definitely make his world better.

 


The original Japanese title of this film translates roughly to "What kind of life do you want to live?" or "How do you wish to live your life?". Mahito's choice to return to Earth really made me think. Suffering is a fact of life. The world is full of problems. So how will you choose to deal with this fact? I think Miyazaki really wanted the audience to ponder this question.

 

This made me think of a quote from Captain Jack Sparrow:

"The problem isn't the problem. The problem is your attitude towards the problem."

 

When we see problems in the world, in our organization, in our group, in our family, do we simply blame others and stop there? Or do we take initiative and responsibility to improve the situation for everyone's benefit? The latter is what Mahito chose.


4: The importance of life education

A big question I had after watching the movie was, "Why was Mahito able to change from a miserable young boy, who felt helpless and upset at the world, to a noble young man who could take initiative and responsibility to live in and improve a world of suffering?"

 

The answer lies in a scene near the beginning of the movie. When Mahito and his father moved to the countryside residence, his stepmother was already pregnant. The servant maids told him many times to go see his stepmother, but he refused because he still didn't accept her as his new mother. After being told many times, he finally went, but even in that encounter, he still refused to embrace her.

 

Later, he saw his stepmother walking into a nearby forest, which should seem very strange because his stepmother was really weak and sick from being pregnant, so why would she walk into a forest? The scene looked like she was possessed. Despite seeing this, Mahito didn't care. He just continued on with his day. He went to his room and accidentally found a book left to him by his late mother.

 

The name of this book is also the name of the movie in Japanese: "What kind of life do you want to live?"



This is actually a real book, and the director Miyazaki said this book had a big impact on his life when he was a young boy. The movie didn't explain the content of the book, it just showed that Mahito read the book all day and had tears in his eyes afterwards.

 

By evening, he had finished the book, and the housemaids were all concerned that they couldn't find the stepmother, so they were all outside searching for her and shouting her name. When Mahito heard the maids outside searching for his stepmother, he stood up, ran out the room, and told everyone that he is also going to look for his stepmother.

 

In other words, this book really changed his attitude towards life, which then changed his destiny. If he hadn't read this book, then perhaps he would have turned out like his granduncle, or worse.

 

This really makes me think about the importance of life education. Nowadays, our education system teachings us knowledge and skills, like language, math, science, history, geography, etc. But we don’t receive formal education on how to live a good life, on how to have good relationships, on how to make wise decisions.

 

Some people are fortunate to have wise parents or mentors to help on this front. But we can't rely on others to save us. We have to take responsibility for our life and do this learning in our own time, which is why I spend my free time learning ancient philosophies such as Stoicism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. What I learned in school helped me get a job and make a living, but what I learned from ancient philosophy enabled me to upgrade my thinking and to gain wisdom, happiness, and peace of mind.


5: Sincere kindness transforms people

The English title of this movie is The Boy and the Heron, and that's because aside from Mahito, the other leading character of this movie is a man-bird magical heron. It is this heron that lures Mahito into the magical world and accompanies him on his journey.

 

At the beginning of the movie, Mahito was very suspicious towards the heron and even made a bow and arrow to shoot the heron. He was able to shoot an arrow into the heron's beak, which reverted the heron into a man-bird form, thereby preventing him from flying. Since he couldn't fly away, he had no choice but to accompany Mahito.

 


Later, they encountered an area guarded by man-eating parakeets. The heron told him that if he wants to pass this area, he needs the heron to create a distraction to lure away the parakeets. In order for that to happen, Mahito needs to fill the hole in his beak, which will allow him to fly again.

 

Mahito said, "If I fill in the hole in your beak, how do I know you won't just fly away and abandon me?"

 

The heron said, "You can't know. It's your choice."

 

Mahito then took a tree branch and started carving a small cylinder to fill in the hole. He then put it in the heron's beak. The heron reverted to its bird form and excitedly said, "Haha! I can fly again. I'm outta here! So long!"

 


As the heron started flapping his swings, he reverted back to his bird-man form. It turns out the cylinder was a bit too big and didn't fully fit in the hole. The movie then shows Mahito carving the cylinder a bit more, with the man-bird looking ashamed and embarrassed.

 

Mahito then puts the cylinder into the beak again, this time fitting properly. The heron said, "Why did you continue to help me even after I betrayed you?" Mahito didn't reply.

 

This scene also made me think a lot. The first time Mahito helped the heron makes logical sense. If he refuses to help the heron, he has no chance of advancing on his journey, so he has nothing to lose by helping the heron. But after he learned that the heron intended to abandon him, why would he continue to help the heron? Mahito didn't say, so it's up to us to speculate.

 

Perhaps Miyazaki wanted to show the innate goodness of children and encourage people to return to the innate goodness that all of us had when we were children. In this case, I think Mahito didn't really need a logical reason to continue helping the heron. He did it purely out of kindness. He had no demands or expectations in return. If he can't advance in his journey, then at least by helping the heron, the heron wouldn't be stuck with him.

 

It is this kind of selfless, sincere kindness that moves and changes people. That's what makes people ashamed of themselves and become motivated to improve their moral character, which was what happened to the heron. Later on in the movie, Mahito gets caught by the parakeets, and the heron actually infiltrates their layer to save Mahito.



When Mahito told his granduncle that he made friends such as the heron, the heron was surprised to hear Mahito calling him a friend. At the end of the movie, the heron even said to Mahito, "Goodbye, friend."

 

Thus, if we have a negative relationship with someone, it doesn't have to stay that way. We can change the relationship through sincere kindness. When we continue to show kindness to others in spite of their unkindness, and without expecting anything in return, eventually, their sense of shame will arise, and they will change for the better. That can change a terrible relationship to an extremely great one, as was the case with Mahito and the heron.


6: Despicable people have lamentable circumstances

In the lower levels of the granduncle's magical world, Mahito encounters a person named Kiriko, who takes care of cute little bubble-like spirits called Warawara. When these Warawara mature enough, they will float up into the sky and seek birth on Earth.

 

One night, Mahito sees many Warawara floating up into the sky. Kiriko comes out and says with tears in her eyes that the Warawara have finally grown up, and that this event happens very rarely. It's kind of like a parent crying out of happiness when seeing their child all grown up and leaving the house.



Suddenly, a swarm of pelicans come and start eating the defenseless Warawara. Kiriko is angered at the despicable behavior of the pelicans, but there's nothing she or Mahito can do. Then another person in a small boat on the lake below starts shooting fireballs into the air, thereby burning the pelicans and Warawara. The pelicans then flee, and the remaining Warawara are able to complete their journey to Earth.

 

Later that night, Mahito hears a sound outside the house. He goes out and finds a heavily burnt and wounded pelican. The pelican says, "I'm in so much pain. Please, just kill me and end my suffering."

 


Mahito replied, "It's your fault for preying on the Warawara."

 

The pelican said, "We were brought here, but there's nothing for us to eat. There's no fish in the water for us to catch, so our tribe flies higher and higher in hopes of escaping this world, but we can't. When we see the Warawara, we can finally eat something, but then we get burned by fireballs. Our choices are either starve to death or get burned to death. It's truly hell."

 

After saying this, the pelican died. Mahito felt sorrow for the pelican and decided to bury it.

 

This scene reminded me of something my mentor often says:

"If one can be a good person, who would want to be a bad person? If one can be liked by others, who would want to be disliked by others?"

 

In other words, everyone is just doing their best to do what they think is right. No one is trying to be wrong or illogical or disliked on purpose. Thus, when we judge others to be wrong, illogical, or despicable, we are using our own standards to judge our limited understanding of them. If we truly understand others, we would be much more compassionate towards them. It's a good reminder for us to try to be more compassionate and understanding towards others, especially the people that we find annoying or difficult to understand.


Conclusion

I really enjoyed watching The Boy and Heron, not just because of the beautiful animations and rich story, but also because of the many deep life lessons embedded throughout. These are just my reflections and thoughts, and I'm sure there are many things I missed. If you have any other life lessons you took away from the film, I'd love to hear about them.


 

Weekly Wisdom #287


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