One of the problems with success can be that it sets a baseline that can be very hard to live up to. That makes sense. When you have a big hit audiences often don’t just want what the liked with a twist. They want your next work to be bigger, better, deeper, broader, and richer. Anything less can be seen as a failure or step backwards. It can also lead to sequels and follow-up works that overreach their bounds trying to outdo their simpler predecessor. It often leads to big bloated affairs that are merely a pale imitation of what worked. J. D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye or Dave Chappelle and Chappelle’s Show are prime examples where an artist was so successful that they run away from the spotlight out of fear that they could not follow-up their big profile success.
Mamoru Hosoda has a lot of high-profile successes. I actively have to rack my brain to think of negative reviews for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars and all of his films are practically magnets for awards. He is a name that often get brought up when people ask who the next Hayao Miyazaki will be. Heck, even we brought up that idea on the blog. That means lots of eyes are all over whatever he does comparing it what he has done before, what all the best animators in Japan are doing, as well as just putting up his work against the best animation from around the world. You don’t really get that sort of critical analysis if you’re doing the latest Jewelpet movie. This can put a lot of pressure on a director and a movie.
If anyone can live up to that heavy burden it would be Mamoru Hosoda. The real question is not if Hosoda has the potential to overcome this wall of expectations. It is rather can this particular movie do it?
The Boy and the Beast marks a departure from Mamoru Hosoda’s other original theatrical releases. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children were written by or co-written with Satoko Okudera in which Mr. Hosoda worked on the concept and helmed the director’s chair. In the Boy and the Beast Mr. Hosoda also became its sole writer.
Ren runs away from his oppressive extended family after his mother died. While living on the streets the boy is chosen as a disciple by a slovenly bear man named Kumatetsu who is currently locked in a power struggle in the spirit world. Kumatetsu hopes that taking on a student will help him in fight against his far more popular and distinguished rival. At first it seems that Ren and Kumatetsu are hopelessly mismatched but as their bond grows they gain tremendous strength from each other. As the fated day of the duel between Kumatetsu and Iozen draws near will the various conflicts within Ren pull him away from his adopted mentor when they both need each other the most?
A sense of place, a sense of self are at the core of this spirited away tale. Most interesting was that the spirit world and the human world reside nearly side-by-side, and while other stories might paint them as wildly different, in The Boy and the Beast they don’t seem that different at all. They both teem with life and house vibrant cities. Ren feels awkward and at ease in turns in both. The human world looks dark and the spirit world light at the beginning. As Ren gains his independence, the human stops looking as foreboding.
The strongest element from The Boy and the Beast is the thread about boys and their fathers. The bond between Ren and Kumatetsu shines like the sun. When Kumatestu encounters Ren for the first time, it is unclear why but he senses a connection with this boy. Later, when little Ren watches Kumatetsu fight Iozen, and everyone is rooting against Kumatetsu, Ren yells out “Don’t you lose!” The weight of those simple words is electric, as if Ren is talking to himself.
We know so little about Ren, but he has just lost his mother and hasn’t known his father. Kumatetsu is exactly what Ren is seeking at this desperate time in his life; someone who is strong, physically and mentally, who can take on the world, who can’t be beaten down, someone who feels in control.
There is a great succession of scenes between Ren and Kumatetsu as training starts. Once Ren begins shadowing Kumatetsu, he soon realizes that he can predict Kumatestu’s moves. While Ren doesn’t have the physical strength or the technique with a sword, he still an advantage to barter with. As Ren grows, he learns form and Kumatetsu learns to dodge. This culminates really well with each of them yelling at the other to “teach me better!”
Hyakushuubou and Tatara become Ren’s uncles as Kumatetsu takes on more of a parental role. Hyakushuubou is the kindly uncle who often acts as a bridge between various characters in the group. The monk steers Ren and Kumatetsu towards being contemplative when their more hot-headed tendencies get a hold of them. More importantly he is a good person to just sit and listen to Ren who so often feels ignored or dismissed. Tatara on the other hand is far less accepting of Ren at first and even protests that maybe Kumatetsu should dump his problematic apprentice. He also acts as a sounding board for Kumatetsu since he is a bit more on Kumatetsu’s wavelength as opposed to the serene Hyakushuubou. The important thing is that Mamoru Hosoda makes sure that neither character directly influences Ren and Kumatetsu. Both of the protagonists come to their major points of growth on their own. Hyakushuubou and Tatara merely guide them towards those revelations.
At about the halfway mark Ren finds the path back to Earth and Shibuya. There he meets a girl named Kaede who helps reintegrate him into the human world after being away for so long. Their friendship eventually turns into a romance. There is nothing particularly horrible about her and interactions with Ren but at the same time they also don’t seem extremely compelling. Part of me wonders if this arc was merely added because it was just seen as they way things had to be done. I have heard that there is a distinct pressure for American movies to always add a romantic subplot whether it is needed or not. Part of me wonders if that was the case here as well. Kaede is never utterly distracting but one wonders if her role in the plot could have been better handled by exiting characters.
The way The Boy and the Beast tackles the pacing felt like a fable. The movie spent little time fully explaining characters and their situations, and moved briskly along from moment to moment as if to say “you know this story.” But just because I have heard it before doesn’t mean the story needn’t make me believe it all over again. In the beginning it worked, the understanding between Ren and Kumatetsu was poignantly portrayed. As the film added more characters and conflicts I found myself feeling like it was skipping over some primary connecting moments between characters and each other, characters and the audience.
Ren needed more of a bond in order to come to an understanding with Ichirohiko. Iozen’s story shouldn’t have been a montage flashback. Ren’s connection and return to the human realm needed more care. Did we need the little traveling tour in the beginning of the film? There were more than a few moments that didn’t connect properly.
The movie brings a lot of ideas to unpack: family, belonging, fatherhood, what true strength is, what it means to be human, adolescence, internal struggle with identity, some stuff related to Moby Dick, there is a love-ish story in there too, and probably more I haven’t though of. The movie became a little dizzying in scope and didn’t always do justice to each idea.
If anything I think the main problem with The Boy and the Beast was the fact that like Icarus it might have tried to fly to high. I have to wonder if he was trying to top his previous movies. While clearly the main theme of the movie is fathers and sons it is trying to tackle half a dozen other themes at the same time. I think that Kate’s idea that they should have had Ren’s father do lots of the heavy lifting contained within Kaede’s part of the story was a perfect solution. It would have reinforced the concept of Ren’s relationships with his rather figures as well as given a closer examination to everyone involved. If Hosoda had sacrificed some breath he could have channeled it much more into the depth of what was leftover.
It is easy to interpret this as the movie being bad, tiring, or boring which would be a bad take away. There is a good deal to praise about the film. Mamoru Hosoda still knows how to frame striking visual. Ren’s adventures in Jūtengai are warm and really build the fairly tale like feeling of the spirit world. The fights have a good weight to them especially when the combatants are transforming during the duels. The beast men were very iconic with Kumatetsu and the Rabbit Lord standing out. Kumatetsu is easily seen as fierce and imposing while simultaneously being sloppy and vulnerable thanks to his character design and animation. The Rabbit Lord is just utterly charming.
Most of all Mamoru Hosoda excels in showing the bonds of family. When the focus of the story is on the relationship between Kumatetsu and Ren the story really shines. The closer they get to being a proper family the closer you feel to both of them. If anything the main problem was they should have had more faith that they did not need much more than that.
It is not that Hosoda is necessarily slipping. If anything he might have just bitten off a little more than he could chew with this effort. I have every reason to believe that he has the ability to do something like this in the future if he takes a few key lessons from this attempt.
Quick question: Does anyone know what the flowers in the alleyways of Jūtengai represent when Ren enters and leaves the spirit world? The difference in decorations clearly means something in the language of flowers but I am not well versed enough in the symbolism to catch what I was supposed to see there.
Ultimately, I think that The Boy and the Beast tried to tell too many stories with too many themes. Since this is Mamoru Hosoda’s first shot at doing it all, it could serve as a learning experience. However, I’d personally like to see the return of Satoko Okudera as it seemed to be a great partnership.
For all the missteps I felt The Boy and the Beast took, it was still able to bring amazing depth to the bond between its central figures Ren and Kumatetsu. While it won’t go down as my favorite Mamoru Hosoda film, it was nowhere near being a disappointment.
I just want to mention one important fact that may have effected our review. Our experience during the film was HARDLY the ideal experience. I think anyone who has watched a film with a large group of anime fans will know that you will often have less mature members of the audience making unsolicited comments, hooting at key scenes, laughing at inappropriate moments, or generally being disruptive at the worst possible times. If is sort of concession you make when you walk in the door. It is hardly my favorite part of watching anime in theaters but most of the time it merely makes you roll you eyes from time to time. The Boy and the Beast was a whole different level of hell. Two girls in back of us would not SHUT UP throughout the whole film. They were clearly fujoshi because anything that even had the slightly resemblance of BL cause them to squeal and the actively booed the female love interest. On top of that they were just commenting on the film in general as if they were in their living room.
I want to say that the obnoxious audience members did not unduly affect our review but such a disruption does not help any sort of immersion. I do wonder if either of us would have gotten into the movie more if we had watched this at home or with a more polite group of people surrounding us.