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Where the wild things are, it’s a question posed in director Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast and answered by Ren, a sad little boy whose entire world has shattered.  His anguished, angry flight into the center of a neon-bedecked Tokyo night reveals mysteries and places he could never have dreamed of.

It stands to reason that every good leader should have at least one good apprentice.  Someone to assist with the tediums of life.  Someone to cheer and provide moral support for their master.  Someone for that leader to teach all he has learned.  What difference does it make, really, if that apprentice should be of an entirely different species, as long as the heart and devotion is there?  So it goes with Ren, a young boy heartbroken and bewildered by the sudden death of his mother, and the very large, bearlike Kumatetsu, a brash streetfighter looking to raise his profile a bit.  There’s something special Kumatetsu sees in the wounded human boy, and he impulsively offers the child an alternative to the sad existence without his mother yawning before him.  Ren also sees something in the bearlike, rough-mannered, ill-tempered beast that he wants to be.  Following Kumatetsu through the back alleys of Tokyo into a world he didn’t know existed, Ren moves into Kumatetsu‘s shabby, cavelike hut, is given a new name, Kyûta, and devotes himself to learning whatever he can from the burly creature.

The Beast Kingdom is a parallel land seemingly out of time and human comprehension, existing just down the right dark street.  Its denizens seem normal enough with their busy outdoor markets and working folk, but just a little bit different: Instead of noses, they have snouts.  In place of skin, they are covered in fur.  Where humans have hands and feet, they have hooves and paws.  Upright on two legs and perfectly capable of speech, the creatures are eerily humanoid, yet not.  Still, it was the huge creature’s interest and concern for the runaway waif that brought Kyûta to this world and so with Kumatetsu is where the boy will stay, despite the opposing voices of the townspeople, who are frightened of the human boy and what he might become when no longer a child.

Kyûta‘s arrival comes at a pivotal time in his new homeland.  The Beast Kingdom’s great Lord is about to retire.  This will leave a vacancy for a worthy candidate to fill and it’s down to two choices.  One is the respected, morally upright and universally beloved Iôzen, while his opponent, Kumatetsu, is none of those things.  The opposites must face off against each other in a martial arts battle before the entire town for the office.  They have until the Lord of the Beast Kingdom decides on a departing form into which he will pass his next life, to train for the big fight.  Considering the dotty, will ‘o the wisp nature of the great Lord, this could – and does – take years.  

Throughout this time, the young human boy trains to become as strong and tough as his master, a desire not helped by Kumatetsu‘s incomprehensible teaching methods (or utter lack thereof), so Kyûta learns by watching the beast, clocking and imitating his every move.  Eventually, not only does Kyûta adopt his master’s fighting prowess, but the child’s entire approach to life is formed by his nearness to the furry fellow as boy and beast become an unlikely family.  The townspeople’s obvious scorn and disregard for his teacher’s brutish, unvarnished ways, angers Kyûta, who more than identifies not only with Kumatetsu’s lack of polish, but his refusal to be tamed; so the new apprentice makes it his mission to gain some respect for his master.  The boy’s devotion to Kumatetsu and the stunning martial arts skills he acquires over the years, forces the not only the populace to look at Kumatetsu differently, but the beast to look at his own life and its meaning in another way because of the human boy’s involvement in it.

From his first feature, 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda showed that he was a rare animator who not only created quality artwork, both computer generated and hand-drawn, but instilled intelligent and heartfelt narrative into his stories.  With each proceeding film, 2009‘s Summer Wars, which was a mind-blowing, visual fiesta, or 2012‘s exquisite, emotionally heartwrenching, Wolf Children, Hosoda surpassed himself as a director.   All the qualities are here to make The Boy and the Beast a superior offering: The great premise of a child in a magical, anthropomorphic Wonderland, finding sanctuary from the tragic reality of his life, thanks to the rough, surrogate parentage of the gruff Kumatetsu.  Hosoda gives us a tender and sensitive connection that the two wild hearts share of having each been left alone from a painfully early age.  The martial arts action between the rough Kumatetsu and the genteel Iôzen that still sees them go to beast mode is meant to up the excitement ante.  We also have the humour and whimsical nature that leavens all Hosoda projects (I loved that the Beast Kingdom Lord seemed like a daft but wise, grown-up version of Summer Wars’ King Kazma, as well as another possible Summer Wars connection later on).  The voice acting is exemplary, with Japan’s great leading man, Kōji Yakusho, audibly having a great time, taking huge chomps out of the script as the loud, brutish Kumatetsu.  Shota Sometani is more extroverted vocally as the teenage Kyûta than I’d ever seen the young star onscreen.  I also appreciated the inclusion of seiyuu Kappei Yamaguchi, beloved by me as the voice of another boy caught between the beast and human worlds in Inu Yasha.  Here, Yamaguchi plays one of the half-wild Kyûta’s furry friends.  And keeping a close eye on the cute, there is the creation of Chiko, the tiny, rodentine ball of white fluff that is Kyûta’s first inkling of the Beast Kingdom and his lifelong familiar.  I want one!

Sadly, The Boy and the Beast is somehow the weakest of Hosoda’s films narratively; having not much more than that initial premise to hold on to, as the second half of the film, when Kyûta grows into a young man seeking to discover where he really belongs, feels both rushed and flat.

Stealing back into the world he’d left behind, Kyûta begins to wonder what human life has to offer and he finds a lot of his answers courtesy of a young female student called Kaede.  Hosoda has previously created wonderful female characters, both mighty and gentle in each of his films, yet the insertion of the bland, boring Kaede adds nothing to this tale.  She is really just there to be sort of a do-gooder Jiminy Cricket for Kyûta’s gradually becoming a real boy.  In a painfully clumsy parallel, ostensibly meant to mirror Kyûta’s time away from other humans, she talks more about herself and her own loneliness in the middle of a family that ignores her, than the audience - and one presumes even Kyûta, a stranger to humankind’s overly tender aches and pains after so many years - could care about.   It is obvious Kaede is meant to be Kyûta’s first love interest, though no chemistry exists in our view of them.  She is also meant to be the encouragement for him to stay in the human world, though her arguments as to why he would be better off struggling in this unfamiliar place, compared to the comforts of his home in the Beast Kingdom are hollow and trite.  Attempting to adapt Kyûta to life amongst his own seems like more trouble than it’s worth. 

The movie’s big conflict of a disastrous, otherworldly complication spilling from the Beast Kingdom into the human world that only Kyûta can fix, feels jammed in sideways as a further motivation for a tragically weak last act.  Nor is it as interesting as the relationship between the boy and his beastly parent, which Hosoda seems to short change.  A lot of the connection he spent building between Kyûta and Kumatetsu from the beginning is sacrificed and their story is actually rushed once the boy becomes a teenager, possibly to further Kyûta‘s curiosity about his human life, but that choice cheapens that important bond.  We can chalk it up to teenage rebellion, but the way the development is written makes Kyûta seem terribly ungrateful for all Kumatetsu and those in the Beast Kingdom have done for him.  That aspect shakes a lot of our identification with Kyûta’s motivation and risks the boy’s likability, as well as the heart of the story.  So, too, we have to scratch our heads at the final result, which, while strangely pat, does not play out at all satisfactorily because it really doesn’t feel like all that’s come before has been worth it.

While superior to most American mass-distributed animated features in terms of its artistry and imagination, for Mamoru Hosoda, The Boy and the Beast rates lowest on a competitive scale against his own films, so, while disappointing, that’s still pretty good.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 4th, 2016

 

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