Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.
Mamoru Hosoda has been one of the more reliable creators of coming-of-age cinema for the last decade. His first feature-length film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, dealt with high school friendships from the perspective of a young girl who discovers a tiny, futuristic artifact that gives her the ability to jump backwards in time. Along with being Hosoda’s first feature, it’s also the only film of his in the past decade that is not of his own imagination. It was adapted from a novel and written for the screen by another screenwriter. Despite all of the accolades that film received it has become an outlier in relation to Hosoda’s work since with each one being almost primarily of Hosoda’s own doing in regards to story and direction. The very prevalent themes in both Summer Wars and Wolf Children are hit, and hit to rousing effect, in Hosoda’s latest film, The Boy and the Beast.
Seeming to draw inspiration from his prior picture, Wolf Children – about a widow who fell in love with, and bore the children of, a man who was both a human and a wolf – The Boy and the Beast finds Ren, a recently orphaned little boy, discovering a parallel world existing within the alleys of Tokyo, in which beasts (animals with human characteristics, like talking, walking and, for a few, trained in kendo) occupy the civilization. Humans are disallowed from this world out of fear of what they bring, not out of hate of what they are. In his attempt to run away from the fate of living with his relatives, and the police, in the aftermath of his mother’s passing (and previous departure of his father, still nowhere to be found) Ren is found distraught in a back alley by Kumatetsu, a rough, short-tempered, bear-like beast who invites Ren to join him in his world and become his student.
For the part of Kumatetsu, whose motives are, initially, far from a genuine attempt to do a good thing, he must take a pupil to train in order to be considered for the role of new lord of his own world. Kumatetsu is in a two-beast race to attain the title of being lord of the land following the eventual, and voluntary, ascension of the current lord to become a reincarnated god. The other beast, a wise, lion-like creature (with numerous students, and two children of his own), seems the better candidate by a significant margin. He’s more refined, even-tempered, patient, and even the more skilled warrior between the two.
If Kumatetsu is to have any hope of defeating his rival in combat (a full-contact bout, with swords always sheathed, will decide who takes the throne) he must find a way to harness his over-aggression and anger, and for Ren – a troubled and angry youth himself – he must learn how to keep at bay the destructive, soul-devouring darkness that is the common trait in humans to bring into the beast world (and with it, cataclysmic consequences).
The two find that not only are they a deeply flawed teacher and student, but also gradually come to an unspoken understanding they are much one-in-the-same. They are outcasts and loners, and in their shared inner troubles they find common ground (despite their external frustration with each other), and eventually a salvation that forms over the next seven years.
In Summer Wars Hosoda focused much of his attention on the strengths of family, regardless of blood kinship. The family’s strength lies within the unit itself. It can be confrontational and combative – and, in fact, it should be – but it is always in the best interests of the greater whole. Everyone has something to offer, and it is the responsibility of those who possess it to maximize it. Wolf Children, also highly focused on family and sibling dynamics, dealt more with discovering an identity. Having two children of half-human and half-wolf genome, and being able to only relate to one of those two forms, a Mother finds difficulty in trying to teach her two children how to live their lives by suppressing their desires to occasionally transform into their wolf forms. Like all parents, her motives are in trying to protect her children from the outside world, but like all parents she realizes too late it’s folly to keep caged what needs to be released and understood. It isn’t just a cliche of every job interview ever – sometimes, your greatest strength truly is your greatest weakness.
In The Boy and the Beast Hosoda takes all of these themes and stirs them together seamlessly. Both of our protagonists have room to grow, and the time to grow together, and their journey to better themselves (despite themselves) is both heartfelt and humorous – like grandparents watching in glee their son or daughter having to deal with a child that is every bit what they were at the child’s age. Kumatetsu was also an orphan, and his bitterness towards the world stems from never having anyone to rely on or teach him. He has been on his own his whole life and has made it work, mostly. Because he was never taught though, he has no idea how to teach. Ren (renamed by Kumatetsu as Kyuta, translating literally to the number 9 as that was Ren’s age) constantly berates Kumatetsu as being a bad teacher because he can explain nothing, and Kumatetsu constantly berates Kyuta as being a terrible student because he can’t understand that everything is just something you *DO* like *THIS*. Heartfelt and hilarious when watching vicariously.
Hosoda has a sensibility and storytelling tendencies that feel very familiar to western cinema, but unique all their own. He challenges himself to tell familiar stories from different perspectives. Whenever I thought I knew what kind of film The Boy and the Beast was going to become I was only ever half correct. When I thought it was about a boy learning to become a man, it showed me that it was also about a man growing to become a man by taking on the responsibility of raising a boy. When I thought it was about a warrior learning to overcome his bad habits and learn good ones, it turned out to be about a warrior learning that his bad habits were only bad because they were habits. By the time I was synced with where the story was going I no longer cared that I knew where it would end up – I wanted it to happen. That is the sign of a great storyteller – when they work, not in surprises, but in giving you exactly what you didn’t know you wanted.
The Upside: Great story told exceptionally; funny, heartfelt, wonderful animation; unique even in its familiarity
The Downside: Those who have seen Hosoda’s prior films might find this too close to his last two films; some moments of dialogue are included for the younger audience to more easily follow along, but as an adult could have done without
Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.
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