Thanks to Summer Wars and Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda is as much a household name as Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai. Now Hosoda’s latest work, The Boy and the Beast, has finally reached the UK and I’m here to cast a glance at its promising tale.
Our story follows nine-year-old Ren, who has recently lost his mother and runs away from home after refusing to live with his legal guardians. After roaming the streets and stumbling upon a strange mouse/hamster creature, Ren is found by a mysterious beast-man known as Kumatetsu. It just so happens that Kumatetsu is looking for a student to become his disciple and he takes a liking to the young boy. With no home to go back to, just what kind of life will Ren face if he follows Kumatetsu? One thing’s for sure, he’s in for the adventure of a lifetime!
Ren ends up momentarily being caught by some police officers but quickly breaks free and follows Kumatetsu down a narrow alleyway. This brings Ren into the Beast Kingdom, a place that humans usually can’t find. There Ren witnesses a battle between Kumatetsu and his rival, Iozen. It turns out that Kumatetsu and Iozen are candidates to become the new lord of the Beast Kingdom. After watching Kumatetsu be badly defeated by Iozen, and seeing how overwhelming support is for Iozen, compared to Kumatetsu, Ren decides that he wishes to study under the bear beast.
The set-up of the movie doesn’t have a lot of meat to it, so it’s difficult to go into too much detail without spoiling things. What I will say is that for the first hour we’re treated to the fun antics of the father-and-son relationship that Kumatetsu and Ren forge. If Wolf Children is Hosoda’s story of a single mother raising children, then The Boy and the Beast is a good counterpart, showing how a single father deals with the task. However, unfortunately it’s not all smooth sailing for the movie.
Halfway through the story we experience a time skip to where Ren has reached 17 years of age. After bickering with Kumatetsu one day, Ren runs away and accidentally finds himself back in the human world. From there he goes to a local library and realises that he came to the Beast Kingdom so young that he hadn’t actually learnt how to read properly. He comes to befriend a young female student named Kaede and begins making frequent trips between the Beast Kingdom and human world so that he catch up with the studies he missed. Ultimately this means Ren eventually has to choose which world he really wants to live in: the human world or the Beast Kingdom with Kumatetsu. It’s a natural progression for the story, and one I would have been thinking about if the movie hadn’t done it itself, but also leaves The Boy and the Beast feeling a bit disjointed.
There is a fairly major shift in tone from the childish fun in the first half of the movie to a more serious and grown-up atmosphere for the second half. The plot only holds together due to the fact we’ve witnessed Ren grow up and that these conflicts do feel like problems a young adult would deal with. However, I wonder if a better story could have been told had Hosoda decided to focus on just Ren in the Beast Kingdom. This isn’t helped by the fact that Wolf Children already took the idea of young adults choosing which world they want to live in and doing it better than this story does. I wouldn’t say my criticisms are a huge knock against The Boy and the Beast as it’s still a very good film, but when all’s said and done, I feel that it just doesn’t quite reach the height of greatness I was expecting.
My issues with the plot aside, I really liked the cast of characters on offer. Kumatetsu is a grumpy, lazy old man and he’s definitely not a perfect father figure – but that works in the movie’s favour. While Ren is desperately in need of a father to teach him and take him in hand, Kumatetsu too needed someone to look after and teach for him to really grow. It’s wonderful to see how much Kumatetsu changes as time passes. Kumatetsu and Ren learn and grow together; they complement each other well and leave us with two well-developed and likable lead characters.
Animation for the movie has been handled by Hosoda’s own studio, Studio Chizu, which also produced Wolf Children. Overall the movie is very colourful and well detailed. The only real criticism I have is that the character design for Kaede is very similar to that of Hana in Wolf Children, and I worry that this is going to become a consistent problem with Hosoda’s work and his female characters.
Music for The Boy and the Beast has been provided by Takagi Masakatsu, who you’ll probably also recognise as working on the soundtrack for Wolf Children. Many of the scores make use of trumpets, drums, piano and violin. The music offers a very orchestral sound that I really liked and felt worked wonders for the on-screen action. It’s a collection of music that I can happily listen to away from the film and thankfully, for once, we have access to the soundtrack digitally through iTunes. The soundtrack is a real treat, so definitely check it out!
Where voice actors are concerned, everyone plays their parts well. Kumatetsu is voiced by Koji Yakusho (who primarily works in Japanese films) who plays the grumpy older man role with a lot of personality. Ren has two voice actors: Aoi Miyazaki (Hana in Wolf Children), who plays him as a child, and Shota Sometani (Tanabe in Wolf Children), who handles Ren as an adult. Both actors play the roles well and apart from a few moments of shock when the movie transitioned between the two (Ren suddenly sounded so manly!), I really like what they injected into the character. There is also an English dub on offer but after hearing the really deep tone being given to Kumatetsu I decided that I’d much rather watch with the Japanese audio.
The Boy and the Beast comes to the UK thanks to StudioCanal on both DVD and Blu-ray. There are no extras to speak of included physically or on-disc.
Overall I leave The Boy and the Beast happy. I enjoyed the story and characters even if the plot does end up feeling a little disjointed by the end. It’s a perfect film to show the whole family and while it hasn’t hit the level of Wolf Children, there is still some real charm to be found here. Not flawless but still well worth your time.