Mar 10

Movie March – The Boy and The Beast

Sadly, no Beast Boy cameo

Welcome back to Movie March! All month long, we’ll be looking at and reviewing animated films from both the east and the west. Today it’s the turn of the latest film to be directed by Mamoru Hosoda, The Boy and The Beast.

I’ve talked about Hosoda’s work before, including reviewing Wolf Children when we did Movie March for the first time, making me interested to see if this could match the incredibly high bar set by both that and Summer Wars, another of his previous films. Throw in the fact this won the Japanese equivalent of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (actually, Hosoda has never failed to win the award in a year he had a film air) and man, I couldn’t be more excited. So enough introductions, let’s talk boys and beasts.

The film opens innocently enough, telling you of the current state of the world of beasts. The previous grandmaster is retiring so he can reincarnate as a god, and they need to appoint a replacement. There are two candidates, the disciplined and amenable Iouzen, and the strong but unpopular Kumatetsu. Though more than likely you’ll be drooling over the phenomenally pretty fire effects at this point instead. This film combines animation and special effects to perfection, and it helps make some scenes stunning to behold, such as this opener.

But they’re not the main characters. That would be Ren, a nine year old boy on the run from his potential new family, after his mother passed away in an accident and his father divorced her years ago. Alone and dejected in the Tokyo night, he bumps into Kumatetsu, who offers to take him on as his apprentice. Intrigued despite himself, Ren gives chase and winds up in the world of beasts.

While the film does do a good job of splitting itself between the two worlds it contains, they never feel like they’re allow to intersect. Ren is the only real exception, but even then he has an arc in the beast world, then an arc in the human world, and so on. I enjoyed the fact his human life was still addressed and a core element of the plot, but wished there’d been more beast-human moments. Heck, Ren ends up taking a different name in the beast world, Kyuuta, further ramming home how far apart the two worlds are.

Though that could be for the best. The beasts don’t exactly seem pro-human, to the point of minor racism. One scene that really stuck with me involved Kyuuta going out shopping, and two housewives asking him how long he was planning to stay in their world, in an accusatory tone. When he just walked off, refusing to engage, they called him antisocial. It’s a small touch, the scene lasts all of 5 to 10 seconds, but one that rings true with the world we live in in so many ways.

Anyway, the core story of the film… or one of them, at least, is that Kumatetsu needs to train a disciple before the big master vs master fight can occur. Kyuuta, with nowhere else really to turn in the world of humans, becomes his kind of adopted son. The two are at constant loggerheads in the beginning, but you do get to see his evolution as he tries to become stronger and learn what true strength is. Heck, his first steps aren’t a special technique or weapons training, but… well, steps. Footwork, to be more precise. It’s a nice progression, that ties well into a montage towards the end of the training arc where we see him transform from 9 to 17 years old.

This is where the more arc based nature of the plot I spoke of earlier really starts to emerge. Kyuuta ends up accidentally going back through to the world of humans for the first time in 8 years, and comes to realise that while he’s stronger than ever, his academic level is still that of a primary schooler. This is where Kaede, a girl he saves from bullying, comes in, as she acts as his teacher to get him back up to speed. While montages show him as splitting his time between the two worlds, the narrative focus becomes purely the human world.

And then after all that seems to be resolved, we jump back to the beast world for the master vs master fight alluded to in the beginning. And then it’s back to humanity for the final confrontation. Actually, that last arc is… weird… but not? It’s not that it doesn’t make sense or feels tacked on, but at the same time, it feels like an additional plot that needed more preparation time than it actually got. I don’t want to spoil anything, but you could have written out the final 20 to 30 minutes and not lost a whole lot from the experience (well, outside of more very pretty effects).

It sums up the writing as a whole really. For the main, it does a brilliant job of seeding elements early and bringing them back later. There were a couple of one-liners in the first act that I thought nothing of, that came back to be ultra important in the final stages. An early fight between Kumatetsu and Iouzen helps to establish so much in terms of how they fight and what traditions exist in the beast world. And you get to see how interactions, most specifically those with Kyuuta, impact everyone around him.

But there a few exceptions, most notably with the concept of “darkness”. Presented as something that only humans can have, it’s hard to tell whether the film treats it as a power or a negative part of the soul. Whenever you see darkness in the film, it’s showcased as ESP style powers… so you’re saying all human’s harbour telekinesis deep inside? And that’s a bad thing? Its… a weird one. Especially with some of the way’s the power can manifest. I get the message the film wants to say, but it feels clumsy in its execution.

This carries on even further to the characters. They’re mostly great, but with a few exceptions. Hyakushuubou and Tatara, a monk and monkey who hang out with Kumatetsu all the time help to provide explanations, clarifications and personalities for Kyuuta and Kumatetsu to bounce things off of, as well as a friendly ear for the numerous times when the two aren’t speaking to each other. Kaede has her own family problems that are the opposite of Ren’s (sorry if my jumping between his two names gets confusing) but work almost in parallel, allowing them to both support the other in a way others just couldn’t.

But then there’s Jiroumaru and Ichirouhiko, the two sons of Iouzen. I was expecting a bunch of interactions between them and Kyuuta, as a way to show how their parents train disciples differently. But it never really comes. The two are almost background, yet when we timeskip ahead we see Kyuuta and Jiroumaru as good friends. It’s not that they’re badly written, Jiroumaru transforms from bully to friend because of his respect for the strong, and Ichirouhiko’s personality is lightly seeded in the child arc, but the film implies a lot more depth and history than is ever shown in the minimal screentime they get. Which also makes <spoilers redacted>

Moving on to the presentation… well, visually, I’ve already raved over the effects, but the character designs do a great job of accomplishing a lot with a little, and there are plenty of times where the beasts feel more human in their expressions and mannerisms than any of the actual humans in the film. I loved the grandmasters in particular, who all managed to stand out in a world where everyone’s an animal. Elsewhere, Masakatsu Takagi returns to produce another excellent score after his stellar work on Wolf Children, though there’s nothing quite as strong as some of the tracks in that film.

Which in many ways brings us to the conclusion. The Boy and The Beast is an amazing film. I loved it, and can completely see how it won so many awards. But it never quite has the focus that Summer Wars and Wold Children had. Those two films knew exactly the story they wanted to tell, whereas this meanders a little. But don’t let that put you off, we’re talking the difference between a 9 and a 10 here. And much like those other two, this is a film I will come back to again and again. Mamoru Hosoda remains, as he has been for a while now, the top guy in the industry.

Three down! Stay tuned throughout the month of March for plenty more movie reviews, and if you’ve got any requests, hit us up on Twitter and maybe that’ll be the next film we review…