Hayao Miyazaki’s films are some of our favorites with the Academy Award-winner Spirited Away topping our list of spiritually literate animated films. This new one is true to his form, with some themes – grief, death, the afterlife, rebirth – seeming very appropriate coming from the genius of an 82-year-old filmmaker. As in his other films, he uses hand-drawn 2D animation which is downright wonder-inducing. The color palette is diverse and often surprising.

The boy is Mahito Maki, and the time and place are World War II and Toyko. In the opening scene, a fire is raging in the city and Mahito, recognizing it is at the hospital where his mother is, races through the streets. But he cannot save her and plunges into grief. He will be haunted by guilt and images of the fire.

A year later, his father has married his mother’s sister, and they have moved to a country estate. Mahito is mostly on his own there as his father is busy at his factory that makes airplane parts for the war. His stepmother is pregnant and wants to befriend Mahito, but he is not sure. To make things worse, he is bullied at school and pestered at home by a grey heron. The latter keeps implying mysterious things like his mother is waiting for him.

On the grounds of the estate is a sealed tower which, the house maids warn him, has been the scene of bad events in the past. But when the Grey Heron leads him there, Mahito follows, entering the kind of alternative subconscious world that Miyazaki has often given us in his films. True to his style, it is filled with odd creatures which at times seem dangerous and other times friendly and helpful. The heron, it turns out, is actually an old man who becomes his guide through several portals and alternate realities. Other allies include a girl who can turn into fire and a fisherman who is feeding the warawara, adorable mashmellow-like little beings that are human pre-souls.

There are other birds too: a flock of pelicans which seem friendly enough until they swoop down and eat the warawara. Most menacing is the Pelican Army who seem to be protectors of a magician who governs the place but actually seek power themselves. Mahiko encounters all of these while looking for his stepmother, who has disappeared and is assumed to be in the tower.

Mahito’s experiences on Earth and in the tower worlds can be seen as a spiritual journey. He starts off alone and deep in grief, unable to connect with his stepmother. He travels from the familiar surroundings of the estate to the mysterious corridors and alternate worlds inside the tower. He is tested by the elements: fire, air (wind storms), water, and earth (a magical and powerful stone). He identifies allies and avoids potential enemies. He takes responsibility for another, his stepmother, and realizes that he must embrace those who love him. And, to reference T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets, when he ceases his exploring, he arrives where he started and knows it for the first time.