With a stirring prologue of fiery silhouetted rivals destined to compete for the chance at eternal glory, Mamoru Hosoda’s 5th directorial feature opens big and loud, a vibrant campfire legend come to life. A purposeful departure from his domestic fantasy family dramas, but still exploring themes of divided worlds, what follows is an epic albeit meandering adventure.
Runaway nine year old Ren dodges curfew officers in the bustling streets of Shibuya, having just escaped the foster care of relatives following his mother's death and his father’s previous estrangement. When a beastly hooded figure emerges from the shadows and demands Ren become his apprentice, he manages to escape, but not for long. Soon, he finds himself tumbling through dark alleys and emerges into Jutengai, the world of the beasts, a bustling Mediterranean city with a population of 100,000 and a ban on humans.
Ren quickly falls back into the care and apprenticeship of the now unhooded beast Kumatetsu, bear-headed layabout rival of the golden boy lion Iozen. The two beasts are fighting it out for the chance of becoming ruler of Jutengai, to be chosen by the current leader Soshi, an elder rabbit, who has decided to reincarnate as a deity and leave his post to a worthy heir. After breaking apart an impromptu fight between the beasts, Soshi is willing to make an exception and allows Ren to stay in Jutengai, despite him being a human and thus vulnerable to ‘the darkness’, a demonic disease of the heart that Ren has seen flickers of.
The world of the beasts becomes Ren’s home for some years as he grows up, makes friends, learns the way of Kendo but finds the world he left behind call back to him…
The fact that The Boy and the Beast covers so much ground is half of what makes it so joyous and energetic, but also half of the overstuffed complexity that ultimately keeps it from the elegance and focus of Hosoda’s two greatest films, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children.
Kumatetsu is a fantastic creation and the animators and Kōji Yakusho’s voice performance imbue him with life that carries a lot of the film, making this Hosoda’s funniest movie by far. Also, the fight scenes are spectacular, brilliantly edited and stripped back, each punch coming loud and big and felt. This is mostly down to how the animators have given the beasts tremendous weight and centre of gravity that despite the fantasy setting, elicits the kind of tension found when watching real boxing matches. The depiction of the two worlds is, from a purely visual perspective, equally spectacular, Hosoda's familiar realistic city scenes are just as impressive as the lived-in and bustling world of Jutengai.
Throughout the film there are many nods and riffs on folktales and religious myths but it all ends up feeling like one piece too many for it to gel. Many elements are introduced, many of which depend on their duality and mirroring within the two worlds and each one is returned to, some ending up feeling like dutiful knocking over of pins rather than vital elements of the story. Some of this bow-tying even steps on the exploration of characters introduced in the second half of the film, robbing us a little of getting to know them properly as they collide somewhat inelegantly with plot.
It is not just depiction of two separated worlds but a decisive shift in film making styles between them that Boy and the Beast has its most unique, yet hard to love moments. The world of the beasts is an energetic, transporting and exciting other world to inhabit, and the world of the humans has a meditative and decidedly gentler pacing that not only contrasts but at times jars as the film loses and gains momentum flitting between the two. It's as if it's torn between the joy of a speeding race car or a leisurely walk in the city. Only Hosoda could so confidently lay a big loud 1970s-style animated adventure next to a family drama in the same movie, but it's not entirely certain if it's successful.
Despite those hiccups, Hosoda refuses to be limited by the influences in his palette. His naturalistic eye perfected in previous films is used here to depict the trials of adolescence, some scenes wholesale riffing on memorable moments from Wolf Children. These scenes, whilst individually engaging, attempt to morally muddy a film that has until this point been colourful in character and theme, and the story told in the latter part of the film is ambitiously bittersweet, with emphasis on the bitter. This tonal shift might leave behind some parts of the audience, who fell in love with the Jungle Book feel of the first half, and it's in considering things like this it becomes apparent just how much The Boy and the Beast is trying to do. In line with the film’s ideas about duality however, it thankfully avoids a saccharine ending, and there is the implication that everyone still has a long way to go.
Unfortunately there is just a sense of second-guessing present that Hosoda has never before expressed, with characters explicitly explaining things that are already clear or in general saying things that don't need to be said. Speculation has arrived at the absence of Hosoda's longtime scriptwriter, Satoko Okudera, and it certainly raises the question whether her involvement would have produced a leaner story and script.
Reviewed following subtitled screening at BFI London Film Festival, October 2015. THE BOY AND THE BEAST is in limited release in US Cinemas from March 4th 2016 and will be released in the UK via STUDIO CANAL, date TBA. Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Funimation in the US.