Mamoru Hosoda Retrospective: The Boy and the Beast
We’re almost there! One more movie after this (Mirai) and I’ll have fulfilled my promise of covering all of Mamoru Hosoda’s previous films, in the light of his recent Belle. The Boy and the Beast is his fourth (non-Digimon) movie, following The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children. Summer Wars featured a large extended family (and one digital furry character), Wolf Children featured a single mother caring for her two (furry) children, and now The Boy and the Beast is a movie about human adolescent angst and furry fatherhood, in a world of furries. Family struggles and anthropomorphic animals are two consistent themes in Hosoda’s works, none more obviously than in The Boy and the Beast. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Hosoda and his family spend their weekends in fur suits.
Following his parents’ divorce, estrangement from his father, and subsequent death of his mother, 9-year-old Ren refuses to live with his mother’s stuffy family and runs away. When wandering around night-time Shibuya, he is recruited by the monstrous, thug-like beast Kumatetsu to be his new apprentice. Re-named “Kyuta” against his will, he follows Kumatetsu through an obviously magical maze of back alleyways to the Beast realm, a world of anthropomorphic animals that exists parallel to our own.
The current head of Beast government, the Grandmaster (a big, elderly, yet still sprightly and sharp bunny rabbit), wishes to ascend to godhood, but first must choose a successor. The two frontrunners to replace him are the boorish Kumatetsu and the far more refined (yet still formidable) boar Iozen. Quite how these two were selected isn’t clear, but at some point they are destined to fight for the title of Grandmaster. This isn’t an uncivilised, bloodthirsty society — although many beasts carry swords, they are forbidden from unsheathing the blades. Hence the martial art practiced by Kumatetsu is Kendo, traditionally non-lethal, using bamboo swords (at least in our world). Because Kumatetsu is so grumpy and unreasonable, he’s never had an apprentice, whereas his rival Iozen has several.
With a short temper and terrible communication skills, Kumatetsu is a poor teacher. Ren eventually learns to copy and anticipate his master’s moves purely by covert observation and mimicry. They settle into a somewhat tense, constantly bickering routine for several years as Kumatetsu becomes like an adoptive father to Ren, until the boy begins to pine for his “real” father and sets out into the human world for answers about who he really is. This isn’t exactly thrilling news for Kumatetsu, who completely fails to comprehend his protégé's emotional state.
The fiery relationship between Ren and Kumatetsu is the emotional core of the film. Ren is understandably emotionally volatile and sullen, considering his background. Although Kumatetsu isn’t at all sensitive or nurturing, his flawed fatherly influence still drives Ren to better himself (at fighting) and to refine his skills and intelligence. Despite their continual, immature squabbling, Kumatetsu provides Ren with ample food, a safe home, a purpose, and a consistent, attentive parental figure. He’s poor at showing it, but Kumatetsu clearly cares a great deal for Ren, and that love is demonstrated in how well-adjusted Ren eventually becomes.
SPOILERS FOR LATER IN THE MOVIE FOLLOW:
Contrast this with the apparently more well-adjusted Iozen who cuts an effortless, stately figure — always moderate in his language and behaviour, yet who maintains a strong, masculine presence and doesn’t back away from overt provocation. Iozen has two sons — the outgoing (initially bullying towards Ren) Jiromaru and the pale, thin and quiet Ichirohiko. It’s always the quiet ones you have to look out for, as it’s Ichirohiko who ultimately becomes the film’s true antagonist, Ren’s dark reflection.
Whereas Ren at least knew his human parents, the similarly human Ichirohiko was abandoned as a baby and adopted by Iozen, who lied about his origin. Despite being brought up in a loving, stable home, he’s aware there’s something “wrong” with himself, and this doubt feeds the “darkness” that’s apparently inherent in all human beings. This results in him transgressing the Beast people’s rule about unsheathing swords and using his random telekinetic powers to cause chaos and destruction only Ren can stop.
The Boy and the Beast never really adequately explains what this “darkness” is, and why humans have it when beasts don’t, but it manifests as a gaping void in both Ren’s and Ichirohiko’s chests. Perhaps it’s meant to represent some kind of emotional emptiness, or is it even a strange interpretation of the doctrine of “original sin”? (Being a Japanese production, I doubt it. Such Western religious ideas generally don’t pop up too often in anime.)
Ichirohiko has nothing to fill his emptiness with, so it consumes him, and threatens to consume Ren too. Ren can only succeed by the direct (supernatural) intervention of his adopted father, filling the hole in his heart. This makes for an emotional, if somewhat vague, conclusion that confirms once more that Hosoda’s strengths aren’t so much in coherent plotting but in the evocation of powerful emotional responses. In way you could see this as how Kumatetsu has successfully prepared Ren for life as an adult, despite his imperfect parenting skills. Conversely, by keeping the truth of Ichirohiko’s origins from him, Iozen is at least partially responsible for his adoptive son’s breakdown.
In one of my professional roles, I assess prospective adoptive and foster parents for their suitability in caring for vulnerable children with potentially challenging needs. Due to this, I’m intensely aware that no parent is “perfect”, and neither should any strive to be. First and foremost what children need is consistency, love, and reliability in a parent. Parents should be honest with their children, especially those who are adopted. It’s important for a child’s developing identity for them to know their origins, even if it means they ultimately reject them. The Boy and the Beast demonstrates (in suitably fantastical, exaggerated manner) the results of parental dishonesty, even if Iozen hid the truth for the best of reasons (to spare Ichirohiko’s feelings).
Whereas Wolf Children focused on one almost supernaturally “perfect” biological mother, The Boy and the Beast is instead the story of three different imperfect fathers — both Ren’s biological and adoptive fathers, and Ichirohiko’s adoptive father. Ren’s biological dad seems to be a victim of Japanese custody laws more than anything else. In Japanese law, following divorce, one parent retains full custody of a child. There are no shared custody arrangements, and it’s common for the non-custodial parent to completely lose contact with their child. Each year, around 150,000 children in Japan lose access to one of their parents after a divorce. The courts have no power to grant compulsory visitation rights.
Although as a child, Ren felt abandoned by his father, he later learns that after he went missing, his poor father searched for him for years. His dad is overjoyed to meet the teenage Ren and immediately wants him to move in. That Ren is spooked by this is natural, but I was glad that his dad didn’t turn out to be some kind of abusive asshole.
END OF SPOILERS
Hosoda is not judgemental in his depiction of these various father figures. Iozen is shown to be regretful of his decisions, Kumatetsu is ultimately self-sacrificing, and Ren’s dad is just a quiet, decent chap. Only Ren’s mother’s family are shown in an overly negative light, at the beginning of the film. Other non-parental figures are acknowledged as important in Ren’s development — cynical monkey-man Tatara and (mostly) calm and reserved pig-monk Hyakushubo. It takes a village to raise a child, after all.
On the human side, apart from his father, Ren’s only real emotional tie is with the similarly-aged schoolgirl Kaede. A little of their relationship reminded me of Hana and the Wolf Man from Wolf Children, as they studied and attended the library together, Ren similarly not a registered student. Although the character designs aren’t by Hosoda’s previous stalwart collaborator Yoshiyuki Sadamoto this time, Hosoda’s now signature style borrows a lot from him, to the point that Kaede may as well be a Sadamoto design.
Considering the martial arts integral to The Boy and the Beast, there’s a lot more overt action than in the rest of Hosoda’s films, more so even than Summer Wars. The fights are well-choreographed, the animation smooth and dynamic. In particular, Kumatetsu’s lurching, unrefined body language is well-observed, and Ren’s attempts to copy him among the best of the film’s many visual jokes. At times very light-hearted and slapstick, it’s only towards the conclusion that the tone becomes more serious.
Both fights between Kumatetsu and Iozen are suitably brutal — the first more of a free-for-all street brawl, while the second is a bone-crunching arena battle. Their bodies warp and expand, huge rippling muscles erupting and glistening with sweat, animalistic limbs thrusting forth to inspire the dreams of those most devoted and perverse of furry-fanciers. (My eldest son, seeing a screencap of Kumatetsu commented “I bet there must be so much porn of that guy on the internet.” I refuse to look to confirm this. Shudder.)
My 11-year-old son enjoyed the movie a great deal, I think possibly more than any of Hosoda’s other movies so far. I expect he empathised closely with Ren, at least in his child form. Much like Wolf Children, the story covers multiple years of a child’s growth and development. Although Ren is only 9 at gthe beginning, I think he must be 17 or 18 by the end. His design changes and evolves appropriately over the course of the film. Overall, I liked it a lot, not quite as much as Summer Wars, but more or less on par with Wolf Children. I’ll be back to talk about Mirai soon.
The Boy and the Beast
Written and directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
Production company: Studio Chizu
Japanese Cinematic release: July 11th, 2015
UK DVD/blu-ray release: September 4th, 2017
Runtime: 120 minutes
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English dub
BBFC rating: 12
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