The Boy and the Heron: A Jungian Analysis

Sam W

Home | Blogroll (opml)

The long-awaited Studio Ghibli movie The Boy and the Heron was released at the end of last year, and I got a chance to see it in theaters (terrible seats though). I was struck by its Jungian themes. This post is to explain the process of Jungian dream analysis, as I have learned it, and analyze the movie through this lens. I think this will make a confusing movie make sense.

How did I meet Jung?

I met Jung through my parents, long-time subscribers of his theories and ideas. I mostly came by it through the Meyers-Briggs personality types, which I have come to revile the conventional theory of for Jung’s ideas of cognitive functions as primary components of personality. In any case, dream interpretation is a large component of Jungian psychological analysis, and it’s something I discuss with my parents quite often.

I have learned more about Jung outside of these discussions and initial impressions. I own (but haven’t finished) The Portable Jung, a collection of essays written by Jung and edited and compiled by Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces on comparative mythology). I also have read a significant portion of The Symbolic Quest by Edward C. Whitmont which is an introduction to Jungian analysis for those new to it. It covers many different aspects. I recommend this book over Portable Jung for a first-time reader.

What is Jung About?

Jung has a couple of basic ideas about the way the mind works. Being a former student of Freud, some readers of that theory may find these ideas familiar, but with an altogether different flavor.

The first big idea is that the mind is mostly unconscious (subconscious in Freudian terms - yes, ‘subconscious’ is a Freudian term), meaning that most of the contents of our mind are not seen by ourselves directly. We go through our lives with a very limited vision of ourselves, like a horse with blinders. We can see this in many ways: confusion of why we feel a certain way when an unexpectedly uncomfortable situation arises; the seemingly deep draw towards certain fascinations; the complicated angst of certain types of relationships, such as an authority figure (this is a ‘complex,’ yes, that is a Jungian term). All of these seemingly inexplicable feelings arise from parts of the mind not directly observed, and thus remain unknown.

Dreams are then seen as communications of the unconscious contents to consciousness. They are the mind stating the current situation, though in a convoluted and often unintelligible fashion. Thus they seem confusing because they do not report these contents in a straightforward message. It’s more like a fortune cookie than a scientific report. Why? I believe it is because this makes those contents more palatable and impactful (I actually don’t know what Jung thinks on this). By showing convoluted and sometimes nonsensical messages, the dreamer is then tasked with puzzling out what it meant, and the process of drawing your own conclusions makes the result more salient. It’s like when you are mad at somebody but are unwilling to admit it (or even personally recognize it). If someone comes up and simply asks you, “Why are you mad at them?” you might respond defensively and be unable to process your frustration. But if someone points out to you all the ways you have been acting out, you may ponder and come to the same conclusion. By puzzling it out yourself, you are in a much better place to accept and work through those feelings.

How does one analyze a dream? All the contents of the dream must be interpreted as 1. representative of some current situation (dreams don’t predict the future), and 2. having a distinct and personl archetypal relationship to the dreamer. A dream always communicates in terms of common but personal symbols to the dreamer, showing how the dreamer feels at that moment. The elements of the dream always have to be seen through their relationship to the dreamer in the dream. Let’s work an example dream that I’m going to make up.

Let’s say I dream that I am running through the forest, chased by a giant wolf, just out of sight. After some time I arrive at a cabin. I enter the cabin for refuge, and see an old man by a fire. The man then tells me to leave and fight the wolf. I wake up.

Ok, so a wolf is a big dangerous animal, and its chasing us, presumably to consume me. This is indicative that in our real life, there might be a person or engagement that is coming to ‘consume me’ in some way: to become the only thing we know. We should examine my real life for possible candidates that this could symbolize. Next, we find a cabin, a refuge. Similarly, we must recognize we have a refuge from this consuming force. We aren’t alone in the cabin, but instead some old man, typically a figure you would venerate or think of as learned and wise, tells us to confront this force. This means something, maybe even internal, is urging us to directly confront the consuming force. I think the overall message here, in modern terms, is that I have failed to set boundaries in some relationship, and something associated to that relationship looks to eclipse other aspects of my life. I must directly confront this problem and set boundaries.

There are many other ideas in Jungian analysis, in particular of the ‘typical’ symbols arising from human nature, or as it’s called, the collective unconscious. I won’t get into that too deeply here, but you should keep in mind people often share or have very closely related meaning for similar symbols: the wolf is often a voracious destructive force, the wise old man shares wisdom, and so on.

The Boy and the Heron

How then, do we analyze a movie through a Jungian dream interpretation lens? I think this works for the movie I saw, but does not apply generally.


The Boy and the Heron tells of a young boy in Tokyo during the Pacific war who lost his mother in the a hospital fire. He then embarks on a fantastical journey in an abandoned tower near his family’s historic home, and emerges with a new appreciation for family. If you want more details, read the Wikipedia plot summary.

On a first viewing, this definitely struck me as having a distinctly Jungian interpretation (I don’t know if this was intended). The structure of the story and several of its elements struck me as archetypical, dream-like, and symbolic. To see the movie through this lens then, I did the following: the fantastical elements of the movie should be seen as a symbolic dream to the movie’s main character, and I should understand this “dream’s” impact on the main character as I would for any other dream. With that in mind, let’s dig into it!

The main character has a distinct maternal complex (i.e. some mass of confusing feelings surrounding maternal figures in his life). He misses his dead mother, and after moving to the country with his aunt, gives her the cold shoulder. He reminisces on his mother, and engages in some self-harm. Something is bothering him, and it’s not hard to figure out what.

The fantastical journey, of which there are too many elements to remember and analyze fully, has an overall structure: penetrate to the base of this fantasy world, where he meets an incarnation of his great-(great-?)uncle, who has been managing this fantastical world, and asks the main character to take over his job. Along the way, the MC meets a young version of his mother, and they travel together, rescuing MC’s pregnant aunt. The movie ends with an interruption of the great-uncle’s offer, and all must flee the collapsing world. The MC leaves with a tighter relationship to his aunt, and seemingly having processed his mother’s death at last.

Several common symbols jump out at me: the fanstical world features heavily an ocean theme, often understood as the mass of common symbols of humanity (the collective unconscious). The great-uncle is also a wise old man archetype, one of the most common. So this is where I got the idea to see it as a dream.

I think the MC, by reconnecting with his family’s history, first in the guise of his young mother, and then through his great-uncle, learns the family history he is a part of. Though it may not be some grand history, it’s a history to carry forth. This is most telling when the great-uncle asks him to take on the role of caretaker of the fantasy world: the uncle wants the MC to carry forward the family history and not dwell so intently on what was lost. Indeed, a new purpose and mission for life can reinvigorate life, even in the face of loss. Moreover, by carrying on the legacy of his mother and the family history, the MC can do right by her, allowing aspects of the family to continue forward.

I think the movie is a symbolic expression of the MC’s internal journey and processing of his mother’s death, to answer the question “what am I to do without her?” The answer comes from family history, “express her as I live, creating new experiences for me to commune internally with her.”

Ok But Like Is this Correct? Is it Valid?

It’s a good question. I think it’s an interpretation. I would ask in return, what would make any interpretation of this movie ‘valid?’ I would say that if we draw meaning from the movie, it is fine. Media is a conversation that we can add to and take from it what we will. You can have other interpretations of this movie, and it doesn’t necessarily contradict what I said here (unless you specifically did that, of course). It’s just an explanation of what I saw in the movie and how it met my life at this moment. It’s as valid is it in practice: the MC learned how to reconcile his family history with the loss he experienced. What greater validation of this interpretation can there be than this, the central focus of the movie?