Mamoru Hosoda is back. The director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children’s first film in three years, The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no Ko), premiered this past weekend in Japan and proceeded to take the number one spot at the box office with an opening far surpassing all of Hosoda’s previous films.
But at what price? The Boy and Beast may be Hosoda’s most successful film yet, but it’s also his most by-the-book. While his previous films felt like the work of a singular voice, The Boy and the Beast feels like a film assembled by committee.
The boy of the title is Ren, a nine-year-old who, refusing to enter the custody of his cold distant relatives after the death of his mother, runs away. Finding himself alone on the streets of Shibuya, Ren is approached by a hooded beast named Kumatetsu, who offers Ren the chance to become his apprentice.
Ren refuses, but when cornered by police, flees and follows Kumatetsu into the portal between Shibuya and Jutengai, the beast world, and decides to take Kumatetsu’s offer after witnessing him engage in an epic battle against another beast.
Though Kumatetsu and Ren agree to become master and disciple, it’s a personality clash from the outset – Ren refuses to tell Kumatetsu his name, so Kumatetsu calls him after his age (“Kyuta,” for “nine” in Japanese). Plus, Ren – now Kyuta – has no idea how to be a disciple, and Kumatetsu has no idea how to train one.
Nevertheless, the two start to rub off on each other, with Kyuta transforming from a weak boy to a great fighter, and Kumatetsu himself becoming more responsible and adult-like thanks to Kyuta.
The real drama begins years later, when Kyuta, now a teen, accidentally finds his way back to Shibuya and saves a high school girl named Kaede from a group of bullies. She thanks Kyuta by offering to tutor him in what he’s missed out in school. Shuffling between the human and beast world, Kyuta has an increasingly difficult time deciding his place, especially when he learns the location of his long-lost father.
Make no mistake: The Boy and the Beast is exceptionally assembled. Animated by Hosoda’s Studio Chizu and legendary key animators like Takeshi Koike, Toshiyuki Inoue and Hideki Hamasu (the list goes on), The Boy and the Beast’s animation is second-to-none. Also extremely impressive is its photo-realistic depiction of the streets of Shibuya, accurate down to the last graffiti-covered wall. From a technical perspective, this is Hosoda’s most impressive work yet.
While the screenplay and original story are both credited to Hosoda, there’s an obvious debt to The Jungle Book, in which the orphan Mowgli must choose between his adopted home in the jungle and the village of men.
And appropriately enough, The Boy and the Beast feels, for lack of a better word, Disney. All of the main characters are played not by anime voice actors, but actors from the Japanese mainstream (and are even modeled to look like them), Shibuya is littered with product placement (not to mention the product placement outside the film) and the theme song is by megastars Mr. Children.
Maybe these can be waved off as unfortunate but necessary prerequisites for big-budget filmmaking, but one truly disappointing element of the film was its treatment of women.
Unlike Hosoda’s previous films, The Boy and the Beast is a Man’s Film, with Kyuta’s friend Kaede as the only female role. And Kaede, unlike the three-dimensional leads of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Wolf Children, Kaede is a virtual damsel in distress who practically devotes her whole existence to her rescuer Kyuta.
Hosoda is playing in the big leagues now. And if The Boy and the Beast’s opening weekend is any indication, he’s doing a pretty good job of it. The Boy and the Beast is an impressively animated film that’s more epic than anything he’s done yet.
But I hope he hasn’t forgotten the little guys.
Matt Schley is Otaku USA’s man in Japan and e-News editor. He can’t stand raw tomatoes but loves tomato juice. Tweet at him @rhymeswithguy.