The Boy and the Beast
Following his 2012 release of Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda new film The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no Ko) tackles the subject of familiar relations once again. Instead of mother figures, however, Hosoda explores the role of the father and the impact caused by his absence.
Following the life of Kyūta (Aoi Miyazaki), a nine year old boy whose run away from his extended family following the loss of his divorced mother, he falls into the parallel world of beasts of Jutenkai. There he becomes the apprentice of bearlike warrior Kumatetsu (Kōji Yakusho), who wants to beat rival Iōzen (Kazuhiro Yamaji) for title of the lord of Jutenkai, the region of commerce and trade within the parallel beast dimension.
Kyūta and Kumatetsu are kindred spirits despite their abrasiveness and argumentative natures: both were separated from the their parents when they were young, and suffer from loneliness and a penchant for social exclusion as a result. But their mutual stubbornness push each other to improve, and by the time Kyūta (Shōta Sometani) becomes seventeen, his accrued strength is tested as he confronts the human/beast divide and find out where he truly belongs.
The Boy and the Beast functions quite well as a film for both kids and adults. The beginning scenes of Kyūta running away from his family are a touch too didactic in terms of theme (the scene of the extended family felt a tad oppressive and borderline cruel), but once Kyūta enters the realm of the beast, the film loses its sagging tempo and continues in stride. Themes of the emptiness without family, the multifaceted nature of strength, the construction of identity, and how an individual relates to society are explored in ways that are understandable for kids without insulting the intelligence of kids and adults alike.
The character designs are wonderfully rendered in the film. Kumatetsu sweats bullets and punches as if life depends on it, his body shifting to be at once like a bull and a bull-fighter. Hosoda’s work is all about the movement of the characters, and his expressive movement is roaring full force here, with characters rarely if ever going off model (I only noticed it happen one time, when Kyūta’s hand becomes somewhat glove-like while holding a broom). All of the primary characters have lovely attention to detail, while background characters (and there are a lot of them, which many scenes of large crowds) look perfectly fine. The film uses CG for vehicles and background characters, and looks quite well, never detracting from the film and only really noticeable if you’re looking out for it. Digital techniques are also used for sweeping camera movements through such large crowds to a strikingly immersive effect. Watching this film in a theatre was gripping, particularly in establishing shots pulling the audience into a stadium from above, or pulling the audience into the street level marketplace of a busy shopping district. You feel the rush of the movement, and the confusion that confronts Kyūta as he he struggles to establish himself in a strange dimension. Hosoda also uses the lateral tracking shot he uses wonderfully in Wolf Children to powerfully unveil a scene in The Boy and the Beast as well.
The voice acting in the film is very (stereo)typical, as per the usual in Japanese voice acting, where actors play roles by vocal archetypes and other character conventions. (This is not a detriment, merely a notation of the form.) Kōji Yakusho in particular brings such a joyful energy to his performance the intensity of fight scenes ratchets up to a higher level.
Clearly a successor to Hosoda’s previous films Summer Wars (2009) and Wolf Children, the director continues to hone his craft. He does not merely repeat themes of his past work (family and the individual’s relationship to society), but builds upon his previously established work to achieve new nuanced interrogations of the subject of family. While the film starts out quite solemn, it does this to good effect in establishing the true despair and loneliness Kyūta and other share in the face of parental loss. The theme of family can sometimes grow tedious in “family-friendly films” like this, but The Boy and the Beast succeeds in earning its pathos, and will probably make you leave the theatre smiling.