Fatherhood is a very tricky subject to tackle. Any bond between a parent and child is filled with a number of deep emotions, but men quite typically present a stoic front. Show too little emotion, then the relationship comes across as shallow. Show too much emotion, and the relationship becomes artificial, bogged down by maudlin sentimentality. Of course, it’s doubly tricky when it’s a father/son relationship, as you have two sets of sealed off emotions to delicately reveal. Luckily, Mamoru Hosoda’s gorgeously realized “The Boy and the Beast” manages to walk that delicate line, using fabulously expressive animation and tight metaphor to tell the story of a boys relationship to his surrogate father.
Of course, this being a Mamoru Hosoda film, themes of family are wrapped in a whimsical magical realism. A young boy runs off from home after the death of his mother, his callous relatives and absent, divorced father offering him no comfort, and promptly stumbles into a parallel reality, inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. He’s quickly taken under the wing of Kumatetsu, a prideful, boorish bear swordsman in need of a pupil to make him eligible to compete to succeed the towns lord. Renaming the boy Kyuta, they begin a combative relationship that slowly changes them both.
The story complicates as it focuses on Kyuta’s adolescence, first romance, and search for a place in the human world, and contrasts the family life of the seemingly perfect father Iozen, a boar man who is Kumatetsu’s rival for the throne. Nonetheless, all plot elements serve to highlight the central relationships between Kumatetsu and Kyuta, and the central themes of the effects of loneliness and neglect on the soul, and the difficulty and necessity of repairing through emotional bonds. It’s a simple fable, richly constructed, and necessary to our current generation in which fatherhood is a lost art, and a toxically independent brand of masculinity the norm.
The animation is gorgeous, blending traditional animation and CGI, allowing subtleties of emotion to come out in the characters deeply expressive faces. Thick outlines and unshaded colors give the film a distinctive aesthetic, and backgrounds are rich and detailed. The architecture of the parallel world is particularly noteworthy, the sun-baked stones creating a perfect mirror of Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, in which the majority of the human world action takes place. Also worth mentioning is the use of sterile, detail lacking security camera footage for the human world, making a neat visual representation of urban isolation. Action is visceral and well choreographed, and character motion is smooth and natural.
Acting is equally strong, even simple lines packed with emotion without slipping into caricature. Special applause to Koji Yakusho, who fills the role of Kumatetsu with both aggressive pride and surprising tenderness.
The score is also evocative, done by Takagi Masakatsu, marking him as a force to be reckoned with along the lines of Joe Hisashi. Like Hisashi, he creates simple, building melodies that nicely mirror the characters emotional development. The films theme by Mr. Children is pleasant enough, but ultimately forgettable.
The writing is good, but slightly more mixed. Although solidly written, plotted, and populated, the film occasionally violates “show, don’t tell” and slips into redundant expository dialogue, vastly improving after the first act. Additionally, while working well within the universe of the movie, the use of Moby Dick as a recurring motif and metaphor is slightly confusing, and relies on a fairly clumsy interpretation of the book bluntly exposited in the second act. The script is incredibly economical though, all plot elements, metaphors, and motifs working like a well oiled machine to support the films emotional core. Additional kudos to the script for respecting the audience enough not to explicitly state the moral in any grand speeches (a rare feat for a family picture.)
Hosoda is often referred to as the next Miyazaki, and while I would agree with some other critics that the assessment is not entirely fair, I would disagree that he is somehow the lesser filmmaker. Miyazaki has managed to capture the American critical mind through his absolute rejection of anime tropes, while retaining a distinctly Japanese sensibility to his films. Hosoda, however, revels in those tropes, reappropriating them to serve, here as in his other films, themes on family and man as a social creature. While not inferior, to those not inundated in the conventions and history of anime, his films can feel distinctly modern and lacking in Miyazki’s timelessness. I would nonetheless argue that Hosoda’s films are no less valid or beautiful than Miyazaki’s, as a general body of work.
Possessing an incredible charm, “The Boy and the Beast” deeply invests the audience in the lives of its characters. Heartwarming and sweet, it manages to retain and articulate a distinct masculinity, while also portraying the pitfalls of unguided masculine pride. Hosoda has made another triumph of a film, which stands as a prime example of his skill and heart.
3 1/2 out of 4 Stars
Japanese with English Subtitles