Over his past two films, “family” has been a hallmark theme of director Hosoda Mamoru. Whether it’s Summer Wars uniting generations together or a single mother raising two very unusual kids in Wolf Children, Hosoda explores the strength of familial bonds. This trend continues with The Boy and the Beast, but it’s certainly no rehash. Rather, this newest film addresses “family” by delving into the complex dynamics between the individual and the group, and does so in a way that somehow feels both immensely satisfying and a bit under-explored.
Ren is a young boy whose mother has passed away, and whose father is living elsewhere after a divorce. Understanding that his mother’s family sees him less as the child of his parents and more as their heir, he runs away from home only to encounter a large and gruff beastman. This half-human, half-bear fighter, Kumatetsu, is one of two candidates vying to become the next lord of his otherworldly home of Jotengai, and he’s desperate for a pupil because all others couldn’t handle his terrible temperament. He then decides to make Ren his disciple and gives him the name “Kyuta” (because Ren is 9 years old). Kumatetsu’s impatience and Ren’s anger means both have a lot to learn, but they gradually form a father-son relationship that thrives off of their mutually hostile yet well-meaning personalities.
What does it mean to be a family, or father and son? What do we do for those who feel like they don’t belong? What influences do we take from those around us, and in turn how do we influence others? These are all questions that The Boy and the Beast touches upon to varying degrees. Ren feels no connection to his mother’s family, and there is a clear conflict in values when they tell Ren that he will never want for anything, as if what’s most important to him on a fundamental level is material safety rather than the warmth of family. Kumatetsu is revealed to have grown up alone, learning how to fight and be strong all by himself, and this is what makes him such a terrible teacher. Throughout the film, Ren meets other characters whose specific circumstances are different but still feel lonely even when surrounded by others, or are confused about their identity relative to their family. In a way, there might be too many facets that The Boy and the Beast tries to explore, but I’m still on the fence about that.
The growing bond between “Kyuta” and Kumatetsu is one of my favorite parts of the film, because it becomes a showcase for how much the two characters truly need each other. At one point, Ren begins to copy Kumatetsu’s movements, to learn from him without Kumatetsu having to try and teach. Eventually, after the two come to an understanding, Ren even begins to unconsciously pick up Kumatetsu’s mannerisms: he growls when angry, talks in an extremely unrefined way, and seems more and more like the “child of a beast,” which incidentally is the Japanese name of the film.
If there’s one thing that I believe might throw viewers off about The Boy and the Beast, it’s that the film has a closer connection to reality than one might initially expect given its look and feel. I don’t want to go into too many details for the sake of those who have yet to see the movie, but I think this aspect of The Boy and the Beast contributes to that individual/group/family cluster of themes that the film explores, and grounds it the question of how people themselves, especially Japanese people, view their families and those close to them within the context of their society.
The Boy and the Beast does not have the flash and splendor of Summer Wars or the deep, moody atmosphere of Wolf Children, but it strikes a nice balance of light darkness and populates its world with colorful characters. Jotengai in particular is a vibrant, rural throwback to an earlier era of Japan (roughly Edo period?), and the beastmen who call it home are varied and full of personality. The lord of Jotengai, an adorable elderly rabbit man, is a highlight of the film, and I would honestly consider owning a figure of him. The animation often has a kind of pleasantly minimalist feel to it, even though there’s so much to look at, and the CG, while still noticeable in how it differs from the 2D work, is a step up from Wolf Children.
Out of all of Hosoda’s films, I think The Boy and the Beast might be my least favorite, but that is certainly no knock against it. I still think very highly of the movie, and I am impressed by the way it tries to tackle so many elements of the theme of “family.” Perhaps it’s stretched a little too thin, but I believe it was worth trying, and it’s gotten me thinking about the idea of the “sword within your heart”—a simple part of the movie that carries a lot of potential meanings. As for breaking down those meanings, I will save that for a future post.
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