The Boy And The Beast (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Studiocanal) Running Time: 119 minutes approx.
In the unofficial race to be crowned the “Next Miyazaki” the two names that appear at the top of most lists are Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda. While the former has been breaking records with his latest film Your Name, Hosoda’s current presence on the anime front comes from the belated release for this 2015 follow up to his acclaimed hit Wolf Children.
Set in Shibuya, nine year-old Ren is a runaway living on the streets following the death of his mother and absence of his father. Meanwhile in the Beast Kingdom the incumbent Lord Soshi has to choose between two powerful warriors to be his successor – popular boar-like Iozen and abrasive bear brute Kumatetsu. To stand a better chance of being chosen, Kumatetsu needs to take on a pupil to prove his worth as a warrior.
One night while visiting the human world, Kumatetsu finds Ren in an alleyway and offers him the chance to be his pupil. Ren naturally refuses but after being chased by the police he follows Kumatetsu through a small passage which leads to the Beast Kingdom, where humans are scorned. Recognising a kindred spirit in Kumatetsu, Ren agrees to become his pupil, beginning a unique relationship that will see both grow as individuals.
Hosoda has always embraced a heavy fantasy direction in his scripts, none more so apparent than in the sublime Wolf Children, but this time he reverses the human/beast dynamic in favour of the latter, yet the theme of belonging remains the same. One could read a similarity between this and Summer Wars insofar as both feature non-human worlds as their central setting but this isn’t Hosoda being deliberately self-referential.
The film is split into two halves. First is the early years of Ren, now renamed Kyuta, and Kumatetsu getting to know each other and bonding after a predictably rocky start, which sees both embark on a major learning curve in putting their faith in other people. For Ren, losing his mother at such an early age and with no father around, his existing relatives fail to recognise his pain leading to a heated argument during which Ren declares his hatred for people.
Kumatetsu is equally self-dependent and unsociable, his mighty stature and legendary temper being enough to leave a mark on people, just not a pleasant one. Having never met anyone as headstrong as Ren rankles Kumatetsu whilst his own inept teaching skills stoke the flames of hostility further. But over time they find a groove and an unlikely surrogate father-son bond inevitably develops between them.
In the second half of the film, 18 year-old Ren discovers the portal that takes him back to Shibuya where he meets Kaede, a cute bookworm and a bit of a loner herself. Having sent some bullies packing, Kaede rewards Ren by teaching him how to advance his reading, connecting over the novel Moby Dick, and goes about helping Ren signup to complete his education.
During this time Ren also reunites with his father, a meek man who has been searching for Ren since his disappearance nine years earlier. Tentative steps are taken towards establishing a relationship but back in the Beast Kingdom is Kumatetsu, rather perturbed that his star pupil is constantly going missing. Recognising Kumatetsu as someone who has essentially been a true father figure to him, a feeling that is mutual, Ren finds himself torn as to which of the two worlds his future is in.
Films like Wolf Children have shown that Hosoda is a master at delivering a touching family drama regardless of the esoteric setting, and even the familiar path this story initially follows can’t undermine the powerful denouement that surely awaits our conflicted protagonist. Except Hosoda does something rather uncharacteristic and takes a left turn, introducing a new subplot that summarily supplants the previous one.
Early on in the Beast Kingdom, Ren falls foul of Jiromaru, the arrogant youngest son of Iozen, only to be rescued by the kinder eldest son Ichirohiko, clearly a human in disguise. In the second half of the film, as Iozen and Kumatetsu officially square off to decide Soshi’s successor Ichirohiko suddenly acts hostile towards Ren, becoming the de facto villain for the remainder of the story.
There is a reason for this but it is very deus ex machina in its explanation and execution within the story, serving solely to provide a rival for Ren to prove his heroic qualifications and to facilitate a spectacular and emotional ending. Up until this point, the story has flowed nicely and coherently, not without the odd plot hole – such as the inter-connecting portal disappearing for years then becoming regularly accessible – but every detail mattered.
Quite what the rush was for the final two acts remains unexplained, notwithstanding the film’s 2-hour runtime, but it is quite unlike Hosoda to be so sloppy. It will be this sudden change of direction that will test the charity of the audience and its ultimate assessment of the film. It bears repeating that it is not so much a case of a tacked on ending, just one that suffers from little support as part of the narrative as whole.
Regardless, the final act is an action packed visual spectacle of superb and gloriously vibrant shonen fantasy bombast, in which Hosoda wrings every last drop from the emotional investment of the viewer during this dramatic climax. The quality of the artwork isn’t limited to the ending either – the opening prologue introducing the Beast Kingdom uses gorgeously rendered flame figures.
If one can look past the hastily constructed final arc, they will find it is not detrimental enough to completely write off The Boy And The Beast, and hopefully this will serve as a lesson learned for the future for Hosoda. Otherwise all of the familiar ingredients that make up an enjoyable film from one of anime’s brightest and creative voices remain intact to deliver another slice of ebullient, heart warming fantasy drama.
Japanese 2.0 Stereo LCPM
English 2.0 Stereo LCPM
Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
English HOH Subtitles
Rating – ****
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