The Boy and the Beast (2015) / Animation-Fantasy
aka Bakemono no ko
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence and language
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast (voices): Shota Sometani, Koji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki, Suzu Hirose, Yo Oizumi, Lily Franky, Masahiko Tsugawa, Kazuhiro Yamaji, Mamoru Miyano, Haru Kuroki
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Screenplay: Mamoru Hosoda
Review published March 7, 2016
A huge hit in its native Japan, this latest animated gem from Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) delights the eyes, the ears, and the heart. Though a good deal of the hand-drawn animation fits in very well in the world of anime, there are some breathtaking moments interspersed in which the visuals captivate, merging the exaggerated styles with fluid choreography and some CGI-infused graphical realism in ways that make it easy to escape in the fantasy of the spirited tale.
The story involves a nine-year-old boy named Ren (Miyazaki, The Great Passage), who, after the untimely death of his mother after a bitter divorce, ends up filled with despair and rage, roaming the streets of Tokyo rather than live with his distant relatives. That's when Ren is spotted by a Kumatetsu (Yakusho, Shall We Dance), a hot-tempered ursine beast from another dimension where animal-men rule supreme, Jutengai. Ren ends up following Kumatetsu into an alley that serves as a portal back to the a supernatural place where shape-shifting humanoid animals with otherworldly powers, and where humans are not allowed because of their dark predilection for death and destruction.
An exception is made for Ren, redubbed as Kyuta (for his age, "nine") who has been taken in, rather reluctantly, as the Kumatetsu's apprentice, and given the undisciplined beast-man is one of two possible successors that will ascend to the rule of the fantastical domain, he has some leeway in this regard. Both are ill-equipped to handle their newfound roles as mentor and apprentice, especially as they butt heads constantly, but they soon learn to make it work to their benefit and actually do some learning and growing from one another.
From there, the story takes a few unexpected turns, including finding friendship, re-establishing old familial bonds, and a deep love of reading, especially in the thematically relevant Herman Melville work, "Moby-Dick", which comes into play both literally and metaphorically by the end of the film. The film also delivers many motifs of mirrored duality, told in two parallel worlds, featuring Ren's two rather figures, and another tragic figure revealed later in the film that suggests an alternate path that Ren could have been on had he not been taken in by Kumatetsu. Meanwhile, Ren must choose between two paths yet again, with the chance of quiet love and his down-to-earth biological father in Tokyo, or to continue to challenge himself beyond his wildest imagination under Kumatestu's instruction in Jutengai.
While Western audiences may find some of the thematic elements to be a challenge to grasp fully, and the younger set may grow restless as the film threatens to push toward the two-hour mark, for those who enjoy the anime work of Studio Ghibli and the many imitators, The Boy and the Beast should work as an enchanting and endearing tale of unlikely father-son bonds and surrogate families, while also extoling the virtues of striving to be a better self even when life deals you a difficult hand.
-- Released theatrically in Japanese (with subtitles) and in an English dubbed version
©2016 Vince Leo