With The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda has fused the pathos of Wolf Children with the vibrant chaos of Summer Wars. Hosoda has been anointed Miyazaki’s heir by all and sundry, but his comfort and skill both with endearing comedy and deep emotion truly justify the comparison. The Boy and the Beast may be the most Ghibli-esque yet of his films, but it retains his distinctive stamp of contemplative melancholy.
For the first time Hosoda presents us with a fantasy world, although one that exists alongside modern Japan. Young Ren has run away from his guardians after the death of his mother, and while wandering the streets of Tokyo he meets Kumatetsu, a humanoid beast from the neighbouring bakemono realm. The irascible and lonesome Kumatetsu is competing to take over as the new lord of his realm, and needs a pupil to help him. Seeking escape, Ren follows and starts a new life learning kendo with Kumatetstu, even though his new master has no idea how to teach his skills or raise a child.
One of the many reasons anime films are so refreshing is that they’re blockbuster entertainments which don’t feel the need to overwhelm us with action, immense stakes, and a frenzied plot. The Boy and the Beast is a gentle film that focuses on its characters, but it’s still ideally paced and absorbing. Wolf Children proved that Hosoda can develop fully-rounded, credible characters, which is why that film was so unexpectedly powerful. Hana, Yuki, and Ame were conflicted, multi-faceted characters with evident inner lives, making the outcome of their journeys beautiful and devastating. It remains the most moving anime I’ve ever watched.
The Boy and the Beast doesn’t reach those heights, but Hosoda doubtless didn’t plan to. The middle section of the film where Ren reconsiders his origins in the human world is raw and striking, veering more into the stark territory of Hideaki Anno and Satoshi Kon. But Hosoda handles tone so deftly that it never feels out of place in an otherwise warm rather than wrenching film. Instead, it’s earned due to the subtle character building early in the film. In an age when screenplays are often of secondary concern in blockbusters, anime frequently reminds us of their impact in even a popular movie filled with spectacle.
And The Boy and the Beast offers plenty. The level of detail in the bakemano realm and Tokyo is stunning, particularly the frequently seen Shibuya scramble crossing. And the third act features a confrontation that’s visually exhilarating with pounding sound effects. This sequence alone makes it worth taking advantage of Madman’s theatrical screenings.
In the context of the film though, the final act is where The Boy and the Beast stumbles. Although it begins with an exciting and unexpected twist, the antagonist’s resentments aren’t sufficiently developed or even that justifiable. For a film involving a character training in martial arts, an action climax makes sense. But this one isn’t a terribly natural outgrowth of what’s come before. The screaming villain and telekinesis are also more pedestrian anime tropes than Hosoda typically employs.
Fortunately, the characters still make the journey fulfilling and the resolution satisfying. Kyuta is an amusingly tempestuous lead, his constant shouting matches with Kumatetsu electric and funny rather than a contrived bore. Hosoda economically builds a sound basis for Kyuta’s frustrations and alienation, making his struggle to bond with Kumatetsu especially touching.
And Kumatetsu himself is a treat. I was skeptical about the character from the trailer and design, fearing he would be one-note. But I should have trusted Hosoda: he’s cantankerous, vulnerable, stubborn, and selfless. The character animation and Kōji Yakusho’s vocal performance are so evocative of Toshiro Mifune’s performance in Seven Samurai that it was surely a template for making a hapless but obnoxious swordsman character likeable. A little derivative, sure, but it pays off.
The Boy and the Beast isn’t the soaring masterpiece we might have hoped for after Wolf Children, but Hosoda clearly focused this time on making the film unabashedly entertaining as well as poignant. The character interplay, the beautiful detail, and some wonderfully weird motifs (look forward to the whale) are a delight, and even less-than-perfect Hosoda is still a privilege to watch.