This past weekend was the start of the Children’s International Film Festival. As previously mentioned elsewhere, there were two Japanese animated films showing: one was The Case of Hana and Alice. The other, shown on the festival’s opening night, was The Boy and the Beast. As a fan of director Mamoru Hosoda’s previous work, I was pretty excited to attend the screening of his latest film. Does this recent effort shine like its predecessors? Well, yes and no.
Editor’s Notes: In the interest of full disclosure, this review is based off of a screening of the movie provided by Funimation. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed here are fully our own.
After his mother dies in a traffic accident, a boy named Ren runs away from home and wanders the streets of Shibuya. He has a run in with a bakemono (“beast”) and follows him to the world of beasts. The film follows his exploits after he becomes unable to return to the human world. He takes on the difficult task of becoming that same beast’s pupil. From there, the film shows how their relationship goes from one full of friction to one of care.
How is this film different from the others? To begin with, it lacks a strong focus. Past films from Hosoda have a set premise: with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the premise is that a girl develops the ability to time travel and exploits it for her own interests; in Summer Wars, a boy goes with one of his classmates to her family reunion and gets involved in a major incident involving the sort of social media site he helped develop; Wolf Children explores the difficulties of a single mother raising children who are both human and wolf. This movie meanders about quite a lot, never really settling on a set direction to go in. It certainly isn’t due to a lack of opportunity. Kumatetsu, the “beast” from the film’s title, wants to prove his strength against Iozen, who is his rival to becoming the lord of their town in the beast world. However, Kumatetsu doesn’t really care about becoming the lord: he simply wants to prove he’s stronger. The “boy” of the film, Ren (or Kyuta, as Kumatetsu names him) decides to be Kumatetsu’s pupil since the beast is alone like he is, but despite that decision, it takes quite some time for him to take that position seriously, in part because of Kumatetsu’s poor teaching skills. From these two areas, you expect to see a growth in both characters, perhaps in their increased desire to help one another. That isn’t the case: instead, Kyuta teaches himself for the most part, as well as teaches Kumatetsu. What doesn’t work is that, while we see a growth in Kyuta, the same can’t quite be said for Kumatetsu. Kyuta develops better focus and maturity, but Kumatetsu is still the rough guy that goofs off and does as he pleases. If the movie decided to do something with that, it might be better, but in the end, all that grows is the relationship between them. While you could argue that Kumatetsu becoming closer to Kyuta is an indication of character development, it still ends up feeling a little dissatisfying.
Beyond that, the film incorporates Kyuta finding a way to go between the human world and the world of beasts. Add into that his relationships with a high school student who becomes a kind of tutor for him and his estranged father, and you end up having a lot of different things to look into. The issue with it is that there isn’t enough balance among all of these different things addressed, especially once the film decides to incorporate a “villain” of sorts. My assumption is that Hosoda wanted to explore a lot within this film. There are elements of his previous films in this one: the exploration of parenthood from Wolf Children, the action from Summer Wars, and the more fantastical elements touched upon in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. There just isn’t enough of a balance in screen time for all of these components to work, nor is there strong enough writing for what is there. Kumatetsu doesn’t grow as a father figure for Kyuta, and his lack of desire for the position of lord doesn’t compel you to want to see him win, especially when it seems like his opponent is the better candidate for the position. As for the action, while there are nicely choreographed fight scenes, the climax comes out of nowhere. There are certainly moments of the film that lack subtlety; however, there’s also a major lack of foreshadowing with regards to the “villain’s” motives for carrying out his actions, which ends up looking like a huge shift in personality that comes out of nowhere. We wind up getting all of the information told to us via exposition after the fact, which is far less engaging. Overall, the general story the film tries to tell is a bit of a mess.
Does it offer anything beyond the story? I certainly think so. While Hosoda may not be the strongest writer just yet, he definitely is a strong director. Like its predecessors, The Boy and the Beast has a number of well-choreographed scenes: Kyuta’s fast movements when trying to dodge others, the swift camera movement when he’s wandering through the maze leading to the world of beasts or through some pots, and the use of camera shifts that keep two individuals in the same scene both together yet separated. They all lead to interesting scene compositions that look impressive. Even within the problematic story, there are a number of wonderful moments: one of my favorites is when they go on a journey to ask different sages what it means to be strong. That section has a nice balance of beauty and comedy, and successfully conveys the idea that strength can be many things. While I wish that idea was more fully explored, I still appreciate its placement in the film. Another portion I thought was creatively done is right before the official fight to become the next lord takes place: we are shown the outside of the arena, and from there, the camera floats over it and enters into the central opening. It’s a creative choice that works quite well.
As far as the animation and art goes, it’s a bit of a hit-and-miss: the designs of the beast world and its inhabitants are creative and well-done, but the film also incorporates a lot of CG, and it doesn’t always work very well. For instance, while a scene involving flower petals transforming into a butterfly looks amazing, a later scene involving a CG-rendered whale suffers from frame rate issues. The characters, too, are hit-and-miss: Kyuta and Kumatetsu certainly receive the most attention, and while I dislike the lack of growth on Kumatetsu’s part, they both are still well-crafted characters in their own right. There are also likable secondary characters, as well, but they aren’t nearly as fleshed out as the main two. Some are used for comedic effect, which is successfully accomplished: the current lord of Kumatetsu’s beast town, an elderly rabbit, is one of my favorites. Others are used as elements to the plot, such as a high school student who reintegrates Kyuta into the human world. She’s the strongest of this type of secondary character, with others not faring quite as well. Needless to say, the “villain” of the film is the weakest of the bunch, lacking subtlety in design while also lacking any explicitness in motive prior to his actions. The film’s soundtrack follows the intended mood of each scene rather well, sounding grand when it should and fun when the comedy is at the center of the scene. The voice work also nicely captures the essence of the characters, making the comedic moments shine even brighter as well as trying to keep the audience invested during the clunkier moments.
With a problematic story, strong direction, somewhat weak secondary characters, and animation that is both pleasing to look at yet at times out of place, would I recommend seeing The Boy and the Beast? While it depends on what you’re looking for, I would edge on the side of yes. Is this Mamoru Hosoda’s strongest film? Not at all. However, there’s still quite a bit to enjoy. At the end of the day, it is a fun film, and though the story is in disarray, there are still a number of funny as well as just plain nice moments to enjoy. I certainly didn’t leave the theater thinking I had wasted my time. In fact, I may end up watching this film a few more times. I’m curious as to what Hosoda wanted to do with this film, and maybe some more viewings can enlighten me, even if it’s just a little bit more. If you want to see the movie for yourself, it opens in theaters on March 4. Theaters playing the film as well as ways to purchase tickets can be found on Funimation’s website for the film. If you end up seeing it, let us know your thoughts on the film. I eagerly await your opinions.