Mamoru Hosada has in some respects done what it seemed next to impossible to do a decade ago — make a name for himself in the Japanese animated feature film space. With the glut of it’s-a-movie-of-the-series films — understandably because that’s where the money’s at domestically — features that find their way beyond Japan’s borders and onto our cinema screens are a little few and far between and there are only a handful of directors known in the mainstream outside Japan who aren’t Ghibli. With The Boy and the Beast, Hosada’s fourth feature since 2006, the director has served up an all-round entertainer with enough heart to warrant the effort to export.
Boy and the Beast is an angry-young-man-redeemed story, with rage — and freedom from it — as its central theme. Ren (Shouta Sometani), struggling to deal with grief and abandonment issues after his mother dies, takes to the streets rather than rely on the charity of his faceless relatives. It’s easy to imagine his possible future – probably not good – but instead of a life of small time crime he discovers, mostly by virtue of right-place-right-time, a different world entirely, stumbling through an alley and into a colourful city full of talking beasts. It is here that he latches onto loser heir-apparent, the exceedingly gruff and cranky Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho, Memoirs of a Geisha, 13 Assassins).
Kumatetsu is in his own way also a serious short fuse. One of two beasts tipped to take the throne when the Beast Lord (your obligatory wise-man character and all round Knower of Things in the form of a sweet little old bunny with a habit of disappearing and reappearing several times in the course of a single conversation) finally retires, he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of giving a crap. He lives like a slob, can’t apply himself to anything, and thinks barrelling through problems is a one-size-fits-all approach to life. A ‘broken pedestal’ if ever there was one, but Ren (renamed ‘Kyuta’ by Kumatetsu because he could care less if the brat refuses to give his name, or speak, or even eat) sees in him strength that Ren himself lacks. Even if it turns out to be a flawed strength, and that they both must embark together upon a journey that eventually shows them what true strength is, it’s enough for Ren and his turbulent little heart in the meantime.
Which is where the true delight of this film begins — in the montages meant to develop the connection between the two, replete with tempers clashing and heads butting and reluctant attachments forming, until it comes time for them to face up to their individual responsibilities and their place in their respective worlds. It’s a little bit Karate Kid (except Kumatetsu is not nearly so patient as Mr Miyagi) and maybe a little bit Jungle Book (the Disney version more than the Kipling novel) and it is both fun and not too emotionally demanding.
Visually, the film is no slouch. There’s a fluid sort of sketchiness to the action. CG panning and elongation in the fights make for some particularly fun scenes and the colours are bright and fanciful. The night cityscapes when Ren’s back in his own world fairly sparkle, giving the supposedly real world a hint of faerie where magic creatures lurk in the periphery while us ordinary folk hurry around oblivious, and the big finale is the kind of spectacular light show you kind of wish was possible, as long as you weren’t likely to get caught in any crossfire.
A bit of journalistic criticism has been levelled at this film — unfairly, I think. Hosada may not have catapulted himself into the lofty company of Hayao and Co. — yet — and Boy and the Beast might not be ground-breaking in either technique or narrative, but it’s solid. The film has at its core much of the principles upon which Ghibli has formed its successes — the practical challenges of everyday life as highlighted against a backdrop of the magical and fantastic, but he’s more dynamic, perhaps a little more direct, and not quite as heavily sentimental. His application of themes – fatherhood, loneliness, belonging, loss, personal responsibility, and a sense of your place in the world wherever that happens to be – is gently pragmatic. You choose, he seems to be telling us, whether you know it or not. But he’s also telling us, a little like another author who wrote a story about a child who stumbled into magical world, that’s okay, because even if you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will get you there, in the end.