The really great thing about doing this series about Mamoru Hosoda is that he’s still making movies—and his newest movie is in theaters right now. That was partially planned, but the fact that it happened to be playing at my favorite local theater on my day off was even more exciting. Hosoda doesn’t have that many movies under his belt, but each one has been beyond impressive and thoroughly engaging, and since he’s relatively young in the anime game, he can keep making movies for a really long time. To finish off my look at him and his films—for now—I can think of no better way than with a movie that continues to blend Hosoda’s passion for fantasy with his ability to depict real young people in real-world Japan. This is The Boy and the Beast.
Since this movie’s just coming out and not everybody will have gotten to see it yet, I’m just going to treat this like a regular movie review, and maybe go back at a later date to do a more thorough retrospective.
Hosoda’s repeated theme of young people learning their place in the world is right at the fore in The Boy and the Beast, spanning eight or nine years in the life of the titular young human. Like Wolf Children, the story’s main character not only emotionally grows, but physically too, being quite different from the beginning to the end. It’s about becoming who you should through the influence of the family around you—even if that family is dysfunctional and made up of magical, mythical anthropomorphic animals. (We’ve all been there.) But on top of that it’s also just a fun, heartwarming adventure story with very relatable and likable characters, and the design and visuals are absolutely stunning.
The story follows a young boy named Ren who is 9 when the film begins. His mother has just died and her relatives come to take him home with them, even though he’d rather find his estranged absentee father. His anger at the world causes him to run away and while he’s sitting on the streets, two mysterious, cloaked figures approach. The larger is Kumatetsu, a bear, who is a very powerful beast in his realm that needs to train apprentices if he’s going to be taken seriously in his bid to become lord once the current lord—a spry, old white rabbit—decides to ascend to godhood. Ren finds himself running through the secret passageways into the beast realm and he and Kumatetsu begin a shaky master-apprentice relationship, seeing as they’re both loud, angry, and exceedingly stubborn.
As the two slowly learn from each other, while their friends—a fun-loving monkey and a pig monk—look on and add wisdom where they can, Ren begins to wonder about his place. As the years pass and Ren gets older, he ventures back to the human world and meets a female high school student named Kaede who offers to help him learn to read, and even suggests he try to find his biological father. But humans have the capacity for great darkness, and the hole in Ren’s heart makes that a very real possibility. All the while, Kumatetsu is trying to get good enough to beat Iōzen, the much-loved Wild Boar, who is the natural successor to the throne.
There are certainly a lot of moving parts in The Boy and the Beast, and to Hosoda’s credit, he makes them all flow together rather well. The big external conflict toward the end sort of comes out of nowhere, but the themes are so strong that it doesn’t affect things too much. The big takeaway is just how well the characters come across and how much you enjoy spending time with them in this world. Kumatetsu is a brash slob who doesn’t think he needs anyone and Ren is a strong-willed brat who doesn’t think he needs anyone and it’s the slow coming to terms between the two of them that makes the movie work. Who is the master and who is the apprentice? Well, the answer is neither and both.
Hosoda does an especially amazing job with the visuals. Each of his films has his personal art style and this one is no different. He manages to make the characters look defined and expressionistic at the same time. The settings and backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The beast world looks like it came out of a painting, or someone’s imagination, and this stands in sharp contrast to the “real” world which is so hyper realistic that it might as well be a photograph. The sharp angles and straight lines of the human world and the decidedly more fluid look of the beast world clash in a really interesting way. And Ren having to decide between the two feels very profound.
The Boy and the Beast might not be Hosoda’s best film, but it’s very, very good and makes me even more excited for what’s to come from him. Some more movies like this and maybe we’ll be talking about him in the same breath as Miyazaki some day.
Thank you all for joining me on this look at the films of Mamoru Hosoda, a filmmaker I am now so happy to have studied. I hope this short series has given you the excuse to do the same. And let me know if you have any other suggestions for animation directors I ought to feature in this column.
Images: FUNimation/Studio Chizu
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!