[WIP] Meandering & Milestones.. What Defines a 'Good' Film?

Posted on January 13, 2024

I recently watched Miyazaki’s The Boy 🙇🏻 & The Heron 🐦 (I’ll call it TBATH) and really really liked it! It’s hard to pin what the story is “really” about since there are a few interpretations that I saw floating around (and even officially endorsed) but the plot synopsis sort of goes like: the lead has a life changing event where their mother dies in a fire. This leads them move back into their mother’s childhood home and discover a magical tower that helps them deal with their grief. I wanted to discuss a particular aspect of the film that made me reflect more broadly on how a movie (or maybe media in general) is created for an audience. I’ll keep the first two sections abstract, shallow, and spoiler-free and then I’ll get into specifics with SPOILER-FULL examples.


What struck me about watching the film was that it did not leave me wanting. Not in a bad sense but in a way where in most films, you feel a sense that you need resolution. While in a practical sense you would not want to skip to the end, most movies leave me with the feeling that an end is coming that will resolve the conflicts that were created in the first half hour of the movie. However, with TBATH, I did not feel like I was waiting for something. It felt freeing to not have to subconsciously wait for the next milestone in the structure of the movie. As viewers, we have become experts in the language of cinema. Although most of the times we do not consciously acknowledge the various ways we understand the art, we have intuition for the structure of movies - how it will build, what conflicts might occur and when, what tropes might be introduced to tease us towards a resolution, and the few minutes of living in a post resolution world within the cinematic boundary. This is not a criticism of the movie industry or a grumpy cry that all movies are the same old story packaged in different forms, but a recognition that we do understand how it goes. A movie abiding by our intuitions might still shock us, make us happy, sad, and let us feel the whole range of emotions. Just like in life, where we have a general understanding of what our lives would entail - go to school, teenage drama, college, becoming an adult, etc; this doesn’t prevent us from experiencing the “spice.”

Nonetheless, this milestone-based structure of movies is still an idea that when broken (or usually stretched) can provide a fundamentally different way of experiencing art. So when TBATH bends the idea of a milestone-based narrative, it can feel jarring, confusing, boring, or even ordinary!


To make it clear, TBATH does not completely subvert the idea of milestone-based structure. It does have a coherent plot - a beginning, a middle, and an end in the traditional sense. It does adhere to the 3 Act structure of most movies - Setup, Conflict, and Resolution. I doubt Miyazaki’s primary focus was to make an artsy Knight of Cups-style existentialist non-narrative mess. However, the autobiographical nature of TBATH I think lends itself to a meandering structure that focuses foremost on the vibe (emotions, themes, people) rather than a solid well-paced plot. Some sections of the movie feel slow, some feel like they’re not contributing to advancing the plot, and sometimes you might end up thinking to yourself “Why am I being shown this? What’s the significance of this to the overall plot?”

So what makes this enjoyable? Would I not want the plot to advance in a timely fashion so I can see what happens next in the story? Movies are visual story telling so it makes sense right?! You’re right! It makes sense for most movies where the context can only ever add to the movie. Although some think otherwise, I claim that TBATH requires knowing the context to fully appreciate. The fact that the protagonist of TBATH is a self-insert for Miyazaki - his life, his point-of-view, his thoughts, etc. makes the meandering make sense because you can fill in the correct story beats and milestones yourself!

Imagine you are at a friend’s dinner party. You enter the party, you see a room with identifiable furniture, paintings, and plants; however today it’s dimly light with only some fairy lights scattered around the edges. You look around and you can barely hear anyone over the loud music but you recognize most people. You glance to the left and see your friend talking to someone; you cannot hear the words exchanged between the two but your friend’s body language is instantly familiar and comforting. You scan around to see where the drinks are until you spot a crowd of red solo cups, most of them empty or with a little bit of something still left inside. You head towards the drinks but are interrupted by a face radiating with drunken positivity. They ask what drink you would like before making some small talk intended to comfortably situate you and lower your guard.

This is how you should experience the narrative of TBATH! I am not referring to the particulars of the above imagery but the vibe that you’re not there to make it through the experience but to feel welcome as a guest within the experience. The movie is not intended for you; it’s not a service for you but an experience taking place for you to witness, discover, and emphatize with. Just like the party is also primarily not FOR you. It’s for everyone you see in it and it’s your job to make the most of your experience as much as it is the host’s responsibility. There is a delicate push and pull within the movie - the intention is not to completely exclude the viewer from consideration and also not to make the viewer the focus.


TODO: Still collecting my spoiler full thoughts.. wait a few days =))

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