Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron | Reviews

The story follows Mahito, a 12-year-old boy struggling to cope with the loss of his mother during World War II
Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron

The Boy and the Heron (known in Japan as “Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka,” meaning “How Do You Live?”).
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Running time: 124 minutes
Release Date: July 14, 2023 (Japan), December 8, 2023 (United States)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Studio: Studio Ghibli

The story follows Mahito, a 12-year-old boy struggling to cope with the loss of his mother during World War II. Sent to live with his new stepmother in a rural mansion, he feels adrift and alone. However, his life takes a fantastical turn when he encounters a talking gray heron who leads him to a hidden tower. Inside the tower, Mahito discovers a portal to another world, a realm where the living and the dead coexist. This magical land is filled with whimsical creatures, breathtaking landscapes, and profound truths about life and death. Guided by the heron, Mahito embarks on a journey of self-discovery, confronting his grief and learning to live again.

The film tackles complex issues like loss, war, and the meaning of life with a delicate touch and Miyazaki’s signature blend of wonder and wisdom.

It is not an adaptation of the 1937 novel How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino, but it borrows its title and some thematic elements.

The Boy and the Heron weaves a complex web of themes, beckoning audiences to reflect on life’s profound mysteries through Mahito’s extraordinary odyssey. Highlighted here are some of the most striking themes:

1. Grief and Loss: Mahito’s initial journey is driven by the profound grief of losing his mother. The film portrays his emotional turmoil with sensitivity, avoiding melodrama while capturing the raw pain and confusion a child experiences.
2. Acceptance and Letting Go: Through his experiences in the other world, Mahito confronts his grief and learns to accept his mother’s death. He encounters spirits who represent his unresolved emotions and must navigate challenges that mirror his inner struggles.
3. Family and Belonging: Despite initial resistance, Mahito gradually forms a bond with his new family, his stepmother Natsuko and her young daughter Himi. He learns that family can be found not just in blood ties but also in shared experiences and emotional connections.
4. Identity and Self-Discovery: The film explores Mahito’s search for self-understanding as he grapples with loss and change. He faces challenges and makes choices that shape his identity and define who he wants to be.
5. Mortality and the Meaning of Life: The other world, with its unique blend of the living and the dead, prompts Mahito to contemplate the nature of life and death. He encounters characters who grapple with their own mortality and challenge him to find meaning in his existence.
6. Nature and Environmentalism: Miyazaki’s signature love for nature shines through in the film’s stunning animation. The other world is filled with vibrant landscapes and fantastical creatures, reminding us of the interconnectedness of all living things.
7. The Power of Imagination and Storytelling: The film itself is a testament to the power of storytelling. Mahito’s journey is sparked by his grandfather’s fantastical tales, and his experiences in the other world blur the lines between reality and imagination.
8. War and its Aftermath: The film subtly touches upon the impact of war, showing its lingering effects on individuals and communities. The setting in post-World War II Japan adds depth to the themes of loss and rebuilding.
9. Responsibility and Choice: Mahito faces important choices throughout his journey, with consequences that affect himself and others. The film underscores the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and choices.
10. Facing Fear and Embracing Hope: Despite the challenges and darkness he encounters, Mahito ultimately chooses to face his fears and embrace the hope for a brighter future. This message of resilience and optimism resonates with viewers of all ages.

The Boy and the Heron invites viewers to embark on an emotional journey alongside Mahito, offering beautiful visuals, thought-provoking themes, and a heartwarming message about love, loss, and finding meaning in life.

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Whispers of the Heron: Miyazaki’s Odyssey into the Heart of Melancholy

by di Fiaba Di Martino

The road to farewell is long, a truth known to Mahito, a twelve-year-old in World War II Tokyo, whose mother becomes an unattainable image after being killed in an air raid. It’s a path tenderly traced by Hayao Miyazaki, whose worlds have always been tinged with the notion of ending, yet never undermined by it; the fantastical always offering a sufficient shield. That is, until this coming-of-age novel, which takes Genzaburô Yoshino’s How Do You Live? (1937) as a blueprint, starting from the stark reality (autobiographical: the father’s guilt, already present in the testamentary but not final The Wind Rises, 2013) and attempting to break free. To no avail.

The isekai, a fantasy subgenre where protagonists find themselves in a parallel universe, once a temporarily healing device, reveals its fallacy in The Boy and the Heron. Developed over a troubled five years (including pandemic years), it’s the film with which the sensei wonders if his cinema still holds relevance today, or if it has fragmented. For him, the act of creation is a cross, an unending torment because harmony can exist only momentarily, and only between images; not, however, those of The Boy and the Heron, a world-work openly dark, almost a thematic stylization of his imagination, unafraid of its own sprawling symbolism.

The structure of this other world is complex in its archetypal roles (male and female: the former ambiguous and tormented, the latter maternal and impertinent) and its allegorical manifestations: the all-too-human unpredictability of the grey heron (a mythological and heraldic enigma), the violence of the parakeets, the depressive imprisonment of Mahito’s stepmother, and the dilemma of the pelicans and Warawara, expressing not just a prenatal threat (one is in danger even before coming to light, perhaps due to the unconscious joy of desiring it) but also a poetic truth of the author: nature is not a benign mother, not humanly connoted, it simply is.

Man, on the other hand, possesses free will, an original sin hinting at self-destruction (Mahito’s wound) but also at responsibility. It’s this awareness that remains the treasure of Miyazaki’s worlds, yet they do not resolve within it, cultivating their mystery beyond the frames (where does Yubaba go at night? What’s the origin story of Lady Eboshi? And of the heron?). Life always moves off-screen, a resolution unattainable: one must then accept what is, in an exercise (a cinematic haiku) of frugality and pacification.

And yet, not finding it, Miyazaki finally wonders what remains. What can his walking houses, flying kingdoms, and trains on water tell us, and him, today? Perhaps, that with hope one survives, but one can no longer live on hope alone. The Boy and the Heron is a film that is, before anything else, quintessential, like the haunting score of Joe Hisaishi.

FilmTV, No.52, December 27, 2023

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Review of “The Boy and the Heron,” a film by Hayao Miyazaki

by Alessandro De Simone

In 1943, amid World War II Japan, twelve-year-old Mahito’s mother, Hisako, perishes in a fire. His father, Shoichi, remarries the deceased wife’s younger sister, Natsuko, and they move to her country estate, living with some old maids. Mahito grieves his mother’s death, struggles to fit in at school, and has a tense relationship with Natsuko, who is already expecting. Moreover, a gray heron seems to haunt him…

Hayao Miyazaki’s potentially final film in his illustrious career, “The Boy and the Heron,” was initially rumored to be inspired by Genzaburo Yoshino’s famous novel, “How Do You Live?” Despite whispers of another project in the works, given the seven years it took for “The Boy and the Heron” to hit theaters, it’s better to focus on the present.

Ultimately, Yoshino’s novel serves more as a pretext than a direct source. The Japanese Master uses it as a springboard to narrate a series of deeply personal stories about himself and his family. There’s the father’s pride in contributing to the war effort, the long illness of the mother, the significance of memory and storytelling—all set against the backdrop of Miyazaki’s wondrous worlds, populated by the myriad monsters and spirits of Japanese tradition.

“The Boy and the Heron” is a grand metaphor for life and death. Poetic, captivating, perhaps even reflective of its creator’s advancing years, but for an artist who has given so much to world cinema, this and more is permissible. Miyazaki continues his discourse on environmental preservation and the importance of connecting with nature to rediscover our roots. As always, there’s a whole world to uncover, but more than in his previous films, the real focus here is on life and death, the beginning and the end, our origins, our destinies, and how we should honor the beautiful gift of walking on Earth.

These are no small matters. “The Boy and the Heron” is, in many ways, a far more complex film than its predecessors, offering those with their whole lives ahead tools to navigate the future with a bit more insight. For others, it’s an invitation to reflect on what has been and to move forward.

And from here, the question arises naturally: how will you live?

CIAK, September 23, 2023

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Miyazaki has returned, bridging reality and magic, good and evil

Our review of the new animated film from the Japanese master, “The Boy and the Heron,” premiered at the Rome Film Festival

by Gian Luca Pisacane

“How will you live?” It’s the question Miyazaki poses today, and one we’ve always asked ourselves. The inquiry, much like the original title of “The Boy and the Heron,” may evoke Genzaburō Yoshino’s 1937 Japanese novel. Yet, we’re far from the book’s shores here. The story follows Mahito, a twelve-year-old boy who moves after his mother’s death. Struggling to fit in, he’s bullied. One day, a heron suggests it might ease his pain, fill his void. It’s the beginning of a quest in a fantastical world, steeped in magic. Few have embodied the zeitgeist like the maestro from Studio Ghibli. Pictorial reality blends with fiction, emotion springs from the symmetrical strokes of Eastern animation. Yet, philosophy remains central. Beyond the laws of logic, the challenge is to overturn the rules of physics. Poetic delicacy is crucial to understanding the blurred line between good and evil, never stark, never absolute. Surrealism and religious iconographies ranging from Shintoism to biblical references abound: one sequence glaringly hints at Lazarus.

The film hovers between intimacy, a romantic spirit, and looming apocalypse, carrying a testamentary power. At the Venice Film Festival, presenting “The Wind Rises,” Miyazaki had declared his retreat from filmmaking. Fortunately, his intentions have changed. But in “The Boy and the Heron,” the passage of time is pivotal, an inescapable element. Existence is portrayed as an illusion, a blow to the head from which hallucinations or moments of reality might spring. Everything is cyclical, beginning and ending at the same point, with no spatial boundaries. Japan’s history merges with personal growth and grief processing. The loss of a parent is the driving force, pain the starting point for a new journey.

“The Boy and the Heron” once again showcases Miyazaki’s genius and creativity, reflecting his cinematic journey. It depicts enchanted places and stages the battle between light and darkness. It might just be the antithesis of “My Neighbor Totoro.” The narrative structure is similar: an ill mother, a new home, a mysterious neighbor. But if Totoro has become the emblem of Studio Ghibli, the key to deciphering every existential quandary with tenderness, the heron represents the ambiguity of connections, the trust lost and regained, with a plea to look beyond the surface.

In “The Boy and the Heron,” there are elements of “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” the tragedy of “Princess Mononoke,” the perilous curiosity of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” But above all, there’s the unique, unmistakable gaze of a master capable of reinterpreting every universe, even his own, making it fresh and contemporary with each burst of color. A must-see, premiered in Italy at the Rome Film Festival, and hitting theaters on January 1st.

Famiglia Cristiana, October 24, 2023

* * *

We Watched Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” in Tokyo

The experience of diving into the Master’s latest film, in the original language and in a cult cinema of the Japanese metropolis

by Andrea Giordano

The sacred viewing space for Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron,” at least for those in the know, is Tokyo’s Toho Cinemas (yes, the one with Godzilla peeking out from above), not far from Shinjuku, a stone’s throw from the bustling Kabukichō district. Amid the chromatic chaos and lights of the shops and bars, the cosplayers inviting you into maid cafés, the ritual of big-screen cinema unfolds. Here, just days after its Japanese release, you can catch the new film, directed and penned by the Master, inspired by a tale from writer Genzaburô Yoshino, a decade after “The Wind Rises” swept us away.

It’s an event within an event (domestically, it’s already raked in nearly $54 million), marked by a drumbeat of merchandise just outside the various screening rooms, where you can snag everything from branded Studio Ghibli objects to mugs, games, and mouse pads, touching on nearly all the films released so far. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At Uniqlo, the famed Asian clothing giant, you can already find a few T-shirts (offspring of a specially crafted capsule collection) celebrating the ongoing homage, yet they evoke Totoro and other characters, other nuances.

The ticket bears the original title (translated into English) “How Do You Live?”, a direct question, open, perhaps a further existential reflection by Miyazaki himself on the meaning of things, of relationships, of art, and the future, including his own. These are hypotheses, impressions, especially as in the American and European market, it will soon change, definitively transforming into “The Boy and the Heron” (it opened the Toronto Film Festival), and in Italy, it’s known, will debut on January 1, 2024, distributed by Lucky Red.

A great start to the year, indeed. There’s talk of this being his final bow, although recent reports hint at possibilities for the Master to return to his drawing board, pencil in hand, to create in his unique way once more.

A Journey Out of Time

In the theater, during the second evening screening, the crowd is sparse; the film was released in Japan on July 14th and, naturally, comes without subtitles. The images themselves must speak, explain each passage, become interpreters. A premise: Miyazaki’s great strength, in his uniqueness of line, style, themes, isn’t just about a certain, unmistakable, recognizability, but a way of communicating, a language full of symbols, references, universal metaphors, conveyed beyond the looks, the faces, the landscapes, the painterly evocations, the suggestions. Between the real and magical, between superstition and fairy tale, Miyazakian cinema, having influenced Pixar (Up is the airborne tribute to “Howl’s Moving Castle”), defends its modus operandi from a bygone era, weaving through circular topics, transitional, and returning, tied to humanity, transformation, transition. Physical and internal, sometimes about improving and accepting one’s inner self, coming to terms with it, in certain cases absolutely, learning to live and overcome certain selfishness and egocentrism. Like in this testament, existential and imaginary, to be revisited multiple times.

Hayao Miyazaki, we watched his latest film “The Boy and the Heron” in Tokyo The first scenes immediately engage two senses, visual and auditory, and will be central moving forward. There’s the sound of some alarm sirens, of an air raid, of an ongoing conflict, out there, World War II (another recurring theme) awakening the sleep of a boy named Mahito Maki. He runs towards a nearby hospital, engulfed in flames, where his mother is inside. He tries to save her, aiding as he can, but it’s too late, everything collapses and she disappears among the flames. It’s a shocking, traumatic beginning, the start of a series of nightmares where he tries in vain to save her. Four years pass before we find him again, older, with his father, moved to a new town, to a country house where his current stepmother, his aunt, lives. The boy peers out the window at the surroundings, spots a gray heron, seemingly paying him special attention, and the interest is mutual.

He follows it, until entering a sort of abandoned tower, hidden behind some trees. He wants to enter, but is stopped by one of the elderly nannies serving the family. Nonetheless, he won’t give up crossing the threshold, following that bird, a sort of talking, multifaceted Virgil, concealing its hybrid identity. In that world, he finds secrets, substrates of multiverses, malevolent creatures: it’s a fantastical Matryoshka, a sort of wonderland, where the boy feels he must find a reason for the guilt that pervades him as a survivor.

“The Boy and the Heron” speaks of Hayao Miyazaki’s present (he’s 82 years old today) but also projects into the past, wrapped in the doubts and mysticisms of its protagonist, torn between something real and the recurring hereafter, divided between the pain of a loss and the need to resolve it. It’s not an easy viewing, it should be deciphered carefully to catch its content essence, the dark and enigmatic scheme, the depth of feelings and choices, from the colors to the frames, arranged as usual in their own palette order. Everything, as said, returns: the theme of flight, war, childhood, the relationship between man and nature, human values, the relationship between life and death, between good and evil.

Nothing is placed there by chance. In a whirlwind of narrative elements, Miyazaki’s visual splendor reigns supreme, as does the ability of an animation beyond any cliché (the film could go to the Oscars and win). It’s a passionate letter on how we should live cinema and life, without regrets and prejudices, always with wonder in our eyes.

Like those of a boy and a heron. It’s the lesson of a Master, who hasn’t yet stopped dreaming.

Wired Italia, September 17, 2023

* * *

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron is a beautiful relic — and the end of an era

The latest Studio Ghibli film is out in North American theaters after premiering in Japan earlier in the year.

by Alicia Haddick

The year is 1997, and famed Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki announced plans to retire following the release of Princess Mononoke, a film that set new records at the box office for Japanese animation and revolutionized the medium. The year is 2001, and Miyazaki announced plans to retire following the release of Spirited Away, saying he can no longer work on feature-length animated films. The year is 2013, and Miyazaki announced plans to retire following the release of The Wind Rises, saying that “If I said I wanted to [make another feature film], I would sound like an old man saying something foolish.”

The year is 2023, and Miyazaki is an old man saying something foolish by releasing a new film, titled How Do You Live in Japan and renamed The Boy and the Heron for the international market.

The point is, it’s hard to say with any certainty whether this will truly be the moment when Hayao Miyazaki steps away from feature animation for good. He’ll likely never step away from animation entirely, directing a new short for the Ghibli Museum during his last retirement, Boro the Caterpillar. (In June Studio Ghibli executive Junichi Nishioka said that Miyazaki was still working on new film ideas.) Until a few days before the Japanese premiere, it was also hard to say what this mysteriously titled final film would actually be about, following a bold PR strategy of, well, not doing any PR. Only a single poster for the film featuring a heron was released before its theatrical debut, without so much as press or preview screenings, trailers, screenshots, or even a synopsis.

Riding the train in the early hours of Friday morning to be one of the first to catch this all-new Miyazaki-directed feature film, The Boy and the Heron appeared to exist only as some mythical entity rather than a real film. In the absence of any news and in light of the single image’s striking repetitiveness, Japanese fans even resorted to creating memes of the bird, riffing on the name and the mystery surrounding it. Honestly, a part of me wondered if the whole thing was some trick, a ruse soon to be exposed to the world at last.

Another part wondered: if this film actually was real, what story would prompt Miyazaki out of his latest retirement? And how would I even discuss a film like this when even saying it exists could technically class as a spoiler?

I have that answer now. To give the minimal necessary introduction, the film opens during the firebombing of Tokyo in World War II, a hazy memory of the moment that young boy Mahito witnessed the death of his mother as the hospital she was in burned to the ground. The experience is seared in his mind like the erupting flames he witnessed, never truly moving on from the pain of this sudden loss. When Mahito joins his father to move out of Tokyo shortly after the war to live with his new (and already pregnant) partner in a large traditional home full of peculiarities — like a mysterious heron and an old abandoned stone building in the woods nearby — he struggles to accept this new situation.

These opening moments feel unsettling and heavy, especially in flashbacks, only briefly relieved by the kindly gaggle of old ladies at the home or the famed heron. While it embraces the fantastical as it takes us to a whole new world in pursuit of a far-from-normal heron’s promise that Mahito can see his mother once more (while continuing to search for his new mother who recently went missing), the weight of this opening lingers.

In these moments, it’s a rich, dense fantasy in the vein we’ve come to expect, both in terms of the detail visible in every scene and its greater thematic purpose. You may come to Spirited Away for its eclectic and intricate spiritual bathhouse, but you stay for the human story and deeper undertones at its core.

Continuing this comparison, you could even say these musings on the complexity of the human condition are emphasized by the 82-year-old Miyazaki with this final film, creating something that feels more autobiographical and self-reflective than The Wind Rises. For all that film was technically a biopic, it felt as much a reflection of the man behind the production as it was the master aviator at its center. While fantastical and family-friendly elements litter The Boy and the Heron, filling it to the brim with whimsy that lightens its heavy moments and brings endless charm to its stunning animation, the frank nature in which it explores Miyazaki’s self-reflective musings on memory makes it as much a conversation with the man in the mirror as it is the audience.

The question the film’s Japanese title poses lingers throughout the experience. How do you live? On the shoulders of those who came before you. After decades of defining the animation industry in Japan, Miyazaki has accepted his fate. This is ultimately a story about the hows and whys that define our memory, a recognition that no existence can live without building upon the inventions, experiences, and memories of those who came before us. A recognition that to move forward means to move on and let go of the past while keeping their memories and lessons close for the next person to carry that torch.

The Boy and the Heron feels like a recognition by Miyazaki of his place as a relic in a modern animation industry that’s moved on without him. Studio Ghibli has firmly embedded itself within animation history and particularly Japanese culture, where movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service feel like rights of passage for Japanese children even before we discuss the park or museum or the copious merchandising. People who don’t watch anime or look down on animation as some childish toy likely still know and love at least one Ghibli film. Totoro was a character in Toy Story 3!

Yet it’s also been 10 years since Miyazaki released his last film and nine years since Ghibli’s final feature, When Marnie Was There. For all the media at one point seemed determined to anoint the so-called “next Miyazaki,” only the spiritual successor made up of former veterans of Ghibli, Studio Ponoc, ever attempted to directly emulate the distinct visual and narrative playbook of the famed studio. Mary and the Witch’s Flower released to moderate success in 2017, but notably, the first trailer for the studio’s new project The Imaginary premiered before this screening with a visual and thematic approach that serves as a distinct departure.

The anime landscape today is defined by a different director: Makoto Shinkai. Films like Five Centimeters Per Second, Your Name, and Suzume, with their intense post-processing over highly realistic environments telling stories about love and distance through the imagery of fantasy and science fiction, are nonetheless impressive but are very distinct from the works of Ghibli in their own, more modern style. In recent years, with the success of Shinkai’s works, the comparisons have stopped. You can’t be the next Miyazaki when you’ve already eclipsed the man you’re being compared to.

When it’s not Shinkai or one of his many imitators, recognizable franchises reign stronger than ever. Anime has always relied on adaptations of other mediums, but the shift from historically lower gross for such films as mere fan service to the blockbusters of today showcases a stark difference. Last year, One Piece Film RED grossed almost 20 billion yen in Japan, making it one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time and placing it above Howl’s Moving Castle and all but two of Miyazaki’s works. The First Slam Dunk has similarly been breaking records and topped the box office for eight consecutive weeks upon release. And let’s not forget the monster 2020 success of Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, whose 40 billion yen domestic gross demolished Spirited Away’s record of the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.

The point is, we don’t see films like this being made anymore, for better and for worse. There’s no glee or joy in discussing Miyazaki’s fading stardom. Indeed, with The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki has produced one of his best films to date, a mature metafictional tale in a friendlier facade about memory and moving on from the past while carrying their precious experiences on their shoulders.

Yet the industry has moved on. This film feels thematically and visually like a lost piece of mid-2000s Ghibli media resurfaced from a vault and thrown onto cinema screens. No less impressive, but a piece of the past carried on the shoulders of those who built it, tossed into the world more to remember what we lost than to build upon what we have today. You could argue there’s irony in making a film about letting go and moving forward when a director can’t follow through with his desire to walk away, but maybe that’s why this movie had to be made.

Honestly, so moved and impressed I was by this movie, I’d love for him to betray its message and come back, just one more time. The creative well underneath Miyazaki remains full, and I’m sure he could create another 10 films and still have new ideas to explore. We’ve barely scratched the surface of his bottomless talent.

In the movie’s first act, Mahito finds an old copy of How Do You Live?, the children’s book that inspired the film’s Japanese title. The title page is signed by his mother with a message of how much he’s grown. He breaks down in tears. The adventure which follows proves that she was right, and the book stays with him throughout, another memory passed down for him to bear.

Just as Mahito needs to accept the loss of his mother, leaving that cinema on Friday morning felt like closing the book on an era of animation history we’ll never get back. The items passed on to Mahito by the characters in this fantasy world are ways to remember his adventure and reconnection to his mother, just as we can always rewatch these films. And remember we must, as it’s only by passing these memories down that they can live on long after the people behind them are gone.

Miyazaki has accepted his time has come and gone, and this is his plea to be remembered by the next generation. With this understanding, everything from the film’s complex yet thematically resonant story to particularly its non-existent promotional campaign made sense. Releasing a film without a single trailer, screenshot, or even synopsis feels like career suicide, a sure chance a film will fail. It’s a strategy that could only succeed at the hands of a studio and director who earned respect like these two. In turn, this campaign is a final plea from Miyazaki to the public who admire him and his work.

Memories only outlive us by sharing them with others, ensuring they won’t be forgotten with our passing. Similarly, if we want this era of animation to be remembered for generations to come, the onus is on us as an audience to champion its voice and share it with others. Ghibli and Miyazaki already have their place in history. If The Boy and the Heron is to join it, we have to want to pass it on, hold it close, and carry it with us.

And, after all that, move forward.

Note: this review was originally published in July to coincide with the film’s Japanese premiere. It has been updated and republished for the film’s wide release in North America on December 8th.

The Verge, December 8, 2023


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