Miyazaki’s ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is No. 1 at the box office, a first for the Japanese anime master

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Animator Hayao Miyazaki was honored last November by the Academy and was mentioned at the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 22. Kyodo News photo

By JAKE COYLE
AP Film Writer

NEW YORK — For the first time in Hayao Miyazaki’s decades-spanning career, the 82-year-old Japanese anime master was No. 1 at the North American box office. Miyazaki’s latest enchantment, “The Boy and the Heron,” debuted with $12.8 million, according to studio estimates.

“The Boy and the Heron,” the long-awaited animated fantasy from the director of “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and other cherished anime classics, is only the third anime to ever top the box office in U.S. and Canadian theaters, and the first original anime to do so. The film, which is playing in both subtitled and dubbed versions, is also the first fully foreign production to land atop the domestic box office this yearThough Miyazaki’s movies have often been enormous hits in Japan and Asia, they’ve traditionally made less of a mark in North American cinemas. The director’s previous best performer was his last movie, 2013’s “The Wind Rises,” which grossed $5.2 million in its entire domestic run.

“It’s really a resounding statement for what animation can be,” said Eric Beckman, founder and chief executive of GKIDS, the North American distributor for Studio Ghibli films. “American audiences have been ready for a lot more than what they’ve been getting, and I think this really points to that direction.”

“The Boy and the Heron” for years was expected to be Miyazaki’s swan song. But just as it was making its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Junichi Nishioka, Studio Ghibli vice president, said the previously retired Miyazaki has begun working toward another film.

“The Boy and the Heron,” has been hailed as one of the best films of the year. The film, featuring an English dub voice cast including Robert Pattinson, Christian Bale, Dave Bautista and Mark Hamill, follows a boy who, after his mother perishes in World War II bombing, is led by a mysterious heron to a portal that takes him to a fantastical realm. In Japan, its title translates to “How Do You Live?”

“The Boy and the Heron” earlier collected $56 million in Japan despite zero promotion. Studio Ghibli opted to release the film without production stills, trailers, ads or billboards.

The U.S. and Canadian release included conventional advertising but was similarly handled with the care of something truly special as a Miyazaki movie. Throughout this year, all 10 of Miyazaki’s films with Ghibli were rereleased in theaters by GKIDS, which was founded in 2008 as way to bring ambitious animation to wider audiences.

“Working on a Hayao Miyazaki film is a huge honor but also kind of terrifying,” Beckman said. “We’re really just trying to do justice to the film.”

“The Boy and the Heron” wasn’t the only Japanese film that ranked among the top movies in theaters over the weekend. “Godzilla Minus One” followed up its stellar debut last weekend with $8.3 million for Toho Studios. Takashi Yamazaki’s acclaimed kaiju movie dipped just 27% in its second weekend of release, bringing its total to $25 million.

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