Acclaimed anime director’s first film in 10 years drew big audiences on opening day, despite the surprising lack of promotion.

When a film director reaches the top of their game, they don’t really need to do much to promote their newest movie, with the argument being that fans will be eager to see their work regardless. That’s been the strategy behind Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, How Do You Live? which debuted in Japanese cinemas today with no trailer or story details released beforehand, and only two images to entice audiences.

This unique approach to releasing a film was a risky one that could’ve rubbed audiences up the wrong way, but it appears to have paid off, with many screenings on opening day fully booked out. Our reporter Seiji Nakazawa was one of the lucky ones to see the movie today, and given that this is Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film in 10 years, Seiji was keen to find out if the movie had the same signature Ghibli flair we’ve come to know and love, or whether it was a departure from his usual films.

Seiji arrived at the Shinjuku Wald 9 cinema at around 8 in the morning to ensure he could get a seat at one of the showings on its first day. At cinemas in Japan, “◎” means there are plenty of seats available, while “〇” means there are some seats available, and “△” means there are few seats available.

▼ Before the first showing of the day, ticketing machines usually display “◎” for most movies, so this was already proving to be an in-demand film.

Browsing through the available seats, Seiji found that the best spots in the centre were already pretty much taken (marked in black below), which was surprising for a weekday morning.

After selecting a seat and purchasing his ticket, Seiji looked around the theatre for a movie programme but alas, he was unable to find any for this film. The only thing to suggest a Ghibli film was being shown at all was the poster outside the theatre, which sat alongside other film posters. Even that wasn’t much, as it wasn’t really an image that jumped out to draw attention — in fact, it was kind of hard to make out, looking like some sort of bird-human.

However, after seeing the movie, Seiji developed a newfound respect for the bird, which is actually a mysterious grey heron, a central character that the protagonist meets in the film.

As for the film itself, Seiji’s no-spoiler review can be summed up by saying it’s Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus.

The movie is a culmination of years of dedication to the craft of writing, creating and directing anime, displaying glimmers of past Ghibli works in its adventure scenes, but with a gravitas befitting the heavy subject material that marks Miyazaki’s skill as a director.

Some reviewers believe it tugs at the heartstrings of the viewer more than any other Ghibli film, with big questions raised in the narrative that have some likening it to Christopher Nolan’s epic 2014 movie Interstellar.

It’s one of those movies that’ll stay with you long after the credits roll, and it requires a few days to process. If you’re keen to know more about the film, with a few spoilers but no major ones, feel free to read on after this quaint photo of the cinema that Seiji visited.

Okay, from here on in, proceed with caution — as we said we won’t be giving away any major spoilers, but if you’d prefer to walk into the movie totally blind, feel free to skip this section.

For those who do want to know a little more about the movie and its until-now top-secret storyline, let’s start at the very beginning.

The story is set in Japan immediately after the war, and the main character is a Japanese boy named Mahito Maki, who lost his mother in a hospital fire during a Tokyo air raid. After moving to the relative safety of the suburbs of Tokyo with his father and mother’s sister, who’s now pregnant with his father’s child, Mahito feels increasingly alone until one day he discovers a book titled How Do You Live? Soon after, a talking grey heron appears, leading Mahito to an abandoned house in the woods, under the premise that he’ll be reunited with his mother. They then embark on an Alice-in-Wonderland-style adventure filled with cute and creepy characters reminiscent of the ones seen in Miyazaki’s 2001 movie Spirited Away.

▼ The heron is one of the less intimidating characters in the film.

Image: Twitter/@JP_GHIBLI

Seiji says the beginning of the film has a world-feel that’s similar to The Wind Rises, although the world in this movie quickly becomes less bound to reality. The fantasy world that the character escapes to is like a dream, but a bad one — the world that Chihiro is spirited off to in Spirited Away is far more charming by comparison, because in How Do You Live? the main character battles more frightening foes, which represent sinister inner demons.

It’s a far more frightening tale than you’d expect from a Ghibli film, not only in the feel and look of the characters, but also because the message of the movie ends up scratching the surface of reality in a more pertinent way.

Seiji could relate to the central character, which made the film hit home for him as well, and though he’d love to go into more detail about the story and its deep layers of meaning, if he were to reveal any more about the film he’d end up releasing some major spoilers.

▼ One thing he will say is that the biggest shock in the film for him was the ending.

In Seiji’s personal opinion, How Do You Live? is Hayao Miyazaki’s best work in at least the last 20 years. While some people might prefer the warm-and-fuzzy feel of some of Miyazaki’s most famous movies, like My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, in terms of prowess and impact, Seiji believes this is Miyazaki’s magnum opus.

As we reported way back in 2017, when the then-76-year-old Miyazaki first came out of retirement to make this movie, the reason he wanted to make the film was to leave a legacy for his grandson. This very personal goal colours the film while also exploring the complexities of the human condition, making it one of his most important works to date.

Its message will resonate not only with his grandson as he grows older, but also with people throughout Japan and around the world — even long into the future, when Miyazaki is no longer physically present. If that was the goal, as suggested when Miyazaki’s thoughts of mortality prompted him to make the movie, then he has certainly delivered.

It’s a movie every Ghibli fan needs to watch, and no doubt they will, even without any advertising.

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