As the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki has worked with director Hayao Miyazaki on many films. With The Boy and the Heron, he was able to help bring Miyazaki’s semi-autobiographical fantasy story to life.
In his most personal work to date, Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron follows the story of a young boy named Mahito, who has recently lost his mother. Along with a cunning and deceptive gray heron, he journeys to a mysterious world outside of time where the dead and the living coexist. Suzuki says the core of the story had to change when Miyazaki’s mentor and friend, Isao Takahata, passed away. This led to a focus on the strange friendship between Mahito and the heron.
DEADLINE: Where did the story come from?
TOSHIO SUZUKI: [Miyazaki]’s never done a film where he himself is the protagonist, so he felt that he needed to do that while he’s alive. His past works had a female protagonist, but this time he wanted to tell his own story, so the protagonist was going to be a boy. As a producer, I wasn’t sure of that because looking at a lot of, not just animation, but live action films, I thought that female protagonists would draw more audiences. That’s why I wasn’t too sure with the idea of having a boy protagonist, but Miyazaki insisted that this time, because it’s based on his himself, he’s going to tell a story of a real life boy. Not just an ideal character who’s very perfect and positive, he wanted to portray someone that has these very complex feelings inside him, sometimes ill will or malice, and how that boy at a young age would overcome those things.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the character of the Heron?
SUZUKI: This was by accident. In his home, he has a small garden and every morning he would go out into the garden and smoke cigarettes. That’s how he starts his day. One day, this heron just happened to land in his garden and was drinking the water from a small pond. The Heron would randomly appear, like he would appear one day but the next day he won’t, but then he appears again. Eventually, he started to come every day. So that was when Miyazaki decided that for the sidekick of the protagonist, the lead character, he would do a Heron.
There was another incident that convinced him to make the Heron the sidekick. Every Sunday, he would join the neighborhood in cleaning up a neighborhood river. When he was there at the river, there was a heron that came flying by, and he noticed that it was the same heron that comes in the morning and drinks water at his garden’s pond. So, he felt very close to that heron for that.
DEADLINE: What were some memorable moments while working on this film?
SUZUKI: The most memorable moment during the making of this film was that the core narrative of the story changed midway. This film for Miyazaki was autobiographical. He was telling his own story at the beginning, and It was about the boy and the great uncle, with the great uncle character that was supposed to be the centerpiece. That character was based on [Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata]. However, unfortunately, Takahata passed away during the making of the film, and that was very shocking for Miyazaki. For a long time, he wasn’t able to continue working on the storyboard, so we decided to change the centerpiece of the story from the boy and the great uncle to the relationship between the boy and the heron.
To add to that, Takahata was his senior animator, he was his colleague, he was his peer, he was his friend. But more than anything, he was the person who actually discovered his talent and brought that talent out, so he owed him so much. So in the beginning, the story was meant to be how Miyazaki, or the protagonist, would come of age. It was about growing and maturing into his own, under the guidance of his senior. That was the theme of the film. But then, because of Takahata’s passing, he just immediately threw that away and the story turned into a film about the blossoming friendship between the boy and the heron.