Last Friday, the highly anticipated final film from Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki (that is, unless, he decides to come out of retirement again for the umpteenth time), How Do You Live?, was at long last released in Japan. That same day, film distributor GKIDS announced that it had acquired the North American distribution rights for the film, and set it to come out later this year. The big kicker is that it will be released not as How Do You Live?, but under a different title, The Boy and the Heron.
Upon learning of this title change, I’ll admit that I was not thrilled. GKIDS, which has overseen the North American distribution rights for Ghibli’s library since 2011, has always been adamant about preserving the films as close as possible to how they appear in Japan; so much to where even when watching the English dubbed versions of the films, the titles will be shown in Japanese.
But to give GKIDS the benefit of the doubt, it’s not the first time that the title for a Ghibli film was altered from its original Japanese when prepared for an English language audience. To give a few examples, 崖の上のポニョ(Gake no Ue no Ponyo) — or Ponyo on the Cliff — became just Ponyo, and 千と千尋の神隠し(Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) — or Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away — became Spirited Away. Understandably, the title changes appeared to be more so for adjusting the length of the title if anything. This was also back when the distribution rights for Ghibli’s library were still under Disney.
An interesting example can be found in the form of もののけ姫 (Mononoke Hime), which wound up being half translated as Princess Mononoke, because there was no English equivalent best suited to replace such a word as “mononoke.” Another exception is the movie 紅の豚 (Kurenai no Buta) — or Red Pig. For its English release, the movie was renamed Porco Rosso, which is Italian for “Red Pig” and makes sense given the film’s setting.
If anything, perhaps GKIDS’ decision to change the title was to avoid confusion with the novel that was inspiration for the film. While the details surrounding Miyazaki’s latest have been kept very secretive, it has been noted that he pulled inspiration from a favorite book from his childhood, How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino. Despite the 1937 novel being an inspiration for the respected auteur, the film is not based on it. In fact, it’s been said that the book itself exists within the universe shown in the film.
While it is completely understandable if that is the case for the title change, I also feel that it’s a little too late. Speaking for myself personally, I’ve come to well associate the book with the film and the role it plays; so much to where they share a title. In fact, when the book was published in English for the first time in late 2021, it was already being marketed for its influence on this long awaited film.
Beyond whatever undisclosed reasoning GKIDS has for the title change, I must say that it’s very unoriginal from what it’s called in Japan. The Boy and the Heron sounds boring, whereas How Do You Live? gets you thinking. Not to mention it’s appropriate for a filmmaker, whose previous film, The Wind Rises, was marketed with the following tagline: “We must live.” I just hope the reasoning has nothing to do with the possibility of “westernizing it.” If so, then we as an international audience have learned nothing from the past few years of consuming media from East Asia.
Regardless of what it’s called or how an audience member chooses to call it — whether that be The Boy and the Heron, How Do You Live?, or the Japanese translation of the latter, 君たちはどう生きるか (Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka) — this swan song from Miyazaki is already bringing in positive reviews, even without a marketing campaign for it. According to Deadline, critics have been hailing it for its mature themes and animation.
This is a filmmaker whose work has been nostalgic for those of us who grew up with his films, and inspirational for those who work as creatives themselves. While I won’t simply shrug off GKIDS’ decision for changing the title of Miyazaki’s final film, it doesn’t lessen the anticipation that I among other viewers have for when it does come our way.
This article was written during the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strike. To support the strike, please donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.