Bird’s-Eye View: Studio Ghibli cinematographer Atsushi Okui on making The Boy and the Heron take flight

The boy, the heron. 
The boy, the heron. 

As The Boy and the Heron swoops into cinemas, Gemma Gracewood explores horror, heron behavior and how to live with Hayao Miyazaki’s longtime cinematographer, Atsushi Okui. Plus: an update from Studio Ghibli on Miyazaki’s daily routine.

Whether we can recreate the images inside of Miyazaki’s head, or even if they’re different, as long as we can surpass his expectations then that’s okay. That’s what we’re aiming for.

—⁠Atsushi Okui


A pair of gray herons regularly perch atop the cypress on my street, standing unnervingly still, holding their flimsy-looking S-shaped necks firmly in place. But they also spend much of their time raucously fraarnking to the world, or gregariously go-go-going with their mates. Every so often, to prove they are in fact a bird, they’ll take off and climb high, slowly flapping those wide, pleated wings, before parachuting determinedly to their prey. 

I thought a lot about my neighbor herons while watching Hayao Miyazaki’s astonishing feather-forward fantasy, The Boy and the Heron, in which the titular bird is a rambunctious, not-all-he-seems busybody with unclear motivations towards Mahito, the boy, who has left tragedy behind in WWII-era Tokyo to move to the rural home of his new stepmother. Cinematographer Atsushi Okui thought about the birds a lot, too; he would observe the behaviors and movement of the herons in his own neighborhood parks while taking walks during the making of the film.

“They don’t actually fly that often!” he complains lightheartedly over Zoom, with the help of a translator. Fortunately, Miyazaki had done his own share of bird-watching, and Okui “was able to fall back on the storyboards that Miyazaki-san created” to assess flight patterns and camera movement.

Mahito runs for his life. 
Mahito runs for his life. 


But it’s not all about the birds. There is also the boy. “This is a film filled with a lot of Miyazaki’s own personal ideas,” Okui says. “Until now it was all about capturing the liveliness and freedom that came with the characters, whereas with this film it’s more about expressing their innermost thoughts.” The Boy and the Heron draws both from Miyazaki’s own childhood memories of being evacuated from bombed-out cities—his tuberculosis-stricken mother often away in care—and from Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel, How Do You Live?, which traces a fifteen year old’s lessons in how to be human, as his uncle helps him navigate life’s struggles.

It is, writes Connor on Letterboxd, “a celestial depiction of confronting, enduring, and ultimately understanding the deep trenches of grief.” To be human is to love and lose, and to realize at a certain point that we are our own worst enemies—and certainly the Earth’s. We sleep and meet our lost loves in dreams, we wake and meet ourselves and we go on trying to fix the chaos we’ve created, hoping that our descendants will do better than us, ad infinitum. This is the essence of The Boy and the Heron, which Miyazaki and his team flesh out in an aesthetic maelstrom of parrots, fussing great-aunts, floating warawara and fiery scenes.

I hadn’t really thought much about how I should live my life until that point. It’s important to continue living true to yourself. As I think of it now, I think that’s most important.

—⁠Atsushi Okui
A classic Miyazaki gaggle of characters. 
A classic Miyazaki gaggle of characters. 


“The drawings of people [take] on a looser and stranger shape than the very strictly codified house style, almost ghoulish in appearance,” writes Letterboxd’s animation correspondent Kambole Campbell of the film’s art style. He could just as well be referring to the overall structure: after a staggeringly dark overture, it settles into an eerie tranquility before taking full flight into otherworldly fantasy, finishing abruptly on a truly breathtaking note. Telmwns writes that a “couple of scenes genuinely scared shit out of me like I was watching a horror movie.” Steph agrees: “I think it’s time Miyazaki gave up on the feel-good stuff and just writes a full fledged horror freak show like I know his heart desires.” 

Okui expresses some thrill at these reactions. “It wasn’t intentional to create a horror-like film, but I can understand how people would feel that way while watching it,” he says. “In comparison to some of Miyazaki’s previous works, the boy has a darker side to him. It was important to ensure we could capture the boy’s darkness, his shadow, especially in the early scenes of the film. Compared to [Miyazaki’s] previous works, we were really trying to be even more careful in expressing this darkness visually.” In practical terms, that meant taking the animators’ hand-drawn art and pushing the blacks to their deepest levels once the pictures were converted into data. 

Blame Kubrick, perhaps. Okui notes that “the reason I entered the film industry is because a long time ago I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The way he visualizes shadows really left an impact on me. Perhaps subliminally that may have found its way into the film.” Alas, he can’t be drawn on favorite childhood movies despite having a hand in the creation of so many of ours. Born in the remote, mountainous Shimane prefecture, Okui grew up without television. “I remember watching it, but, hmmm… It was probably Japanese tokusatsu stuff in my childhood, things like Ultraman. I didn’t really watch much! Since my memories are more of playing around in nature, those activities are a greater inspiration for me.”

Granduncle, voiced by Shohei Hino (Japanese) and Mark Hamill (English). 
Granduncle, voiced by Shohei Hino (Japanese) and Mark Hamill (English). 


Okui has now been the director of photography and head of digital imaging for Miyazaki’s films since 1992, when he moved from Asahi Productions to Studio Ghibli to oversee Porco Rosso. Over time he has encouraged the renowned animation house to adopt digital animation tools for a more immersive big-screen experience, bringing the CG team fully into the room for production meetings that had been long reserved for artists.

“I’ve worked on a lot of films with Miyazaki, and each time the most important job is creating something that matches what’s inside of his head,” Okui explains of his role. “So I do what is called the ‘finishing work’; by the time the material has come to me it already has the imagination of the artists and animators, and I have to work out how to bring that all together. Whether we can recreate the images inside of Miyazaki’s head, or even if they’re different, as long as we can surpass his expectations then that’s okay. That’s what we’re aiming for.”


Ask any of Miyazaki’s collaborators about their work on his films, and they will almost always demur, claiming, just as Okui does, that they seek only bring to life what’s in the animation legend’s mind. There’s a mystique to his workmanship and a deference to his creative mastery that makes others reluctant to claim credit for their part in his spectacular fantasies. Yet the Studio Ghibli way is also very much to work collectively, with a steady routine shaped around shared lunches, annual trips away, bowling tournaments, and a legacy built on long and deep relationships.

And there’s always room for newer faces in the studio, especially when Miyazaki is doing the hiring. He negotiated with Studio Khara’s Hideako Anno to release Takeshi Honda from the grips of Evangelion with words to the tune of “I don’t have much time left, so I want you to work on this film!” Miyazaki has famously retired several times, but lately the famed animator has stopped talking about throwing in the towel—at least according to Studio Ghibli’s head of publicity, Junichi Nishioka.

Hugs all round for Miyazaki’s last movie... or is it?
Hugs all round for Miyazaki’s last movie... or is it?


“Before now, Miyazaki has often said that ‘this is the last movie’ whenever he’s made a new film, but this is the first time he hasn’t said anything like that,” Nishioka tells me, following the film’s opening night gala screening at TIFF. “He’s still coming into the office every day and thinking of ideas for his next film.” He adds that Miyazaki was so happy with how the collaboration with Honda turned out, “he’s really hoping that they can work together again for his next film.” Ghibli fans live in hope; a precarious theatrical landscape has been somewhat offset by Japan’s NHK television network recently buying a 40 percent stake in Studio Ghibli to secure the studio’s ongoing prospects.

Hayao Miyazaki.  — Photographer… Nicolas Guérin
Hayao Miyazaki.  Photographer… Nicolas Guérin

But, for now, how does Miyazaki live? “Miyazaki is healthy and he’s always taking walks around his house and around the studio,” says Nishioka. “He’s continuing with his daily routine as usual, as he goes about his time.” The artist and his film are both inspirations, not only to the Ghibliati worldwide, but also to those closest to him. “When I saw this film it really made me think about how I should keep living from now on,” Nishioka shares. “Miyazaki with this film wasn’t just wanting you to have fun or find it interesting, but was directly asking the audience how you should live. To ask such a question so strongly, I think, had the biggest impact on me.”

Okui, meanwhile, turned 60 just as production on The Boy and the Heron was wrapping. It’s an age of significance for Japanese men—kanreki, rebirth, a return to childhood—and the film’s central question left a deep impression on the cinematographer. “I thought about how I want to keep continuing this career, but how do you live…? I hadn’t really thought much about how I should live my life until that point. It’s important to continue living true to yourself. As I think of it now, I think that’s most important.”


The Boy and the Heron’ opens in North America (via GKIDS), Australia and New Zealand (via Crunchyroll) on December 7. The film will be in UK and Irish cinemas on Boxing Day (via Elysian Film Group, Anonymous Content, and Bleecker Street), with more regions to come in early 2024. 

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