(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem inspired by the art in the margins of medieval manuscripts, which, if you look it up, can be pretty darn bizarre. One popular subject I noticed was anthropomorphic animals standing up like humans, and this film immediately came to mind.)
What wonder-filled world have I wandered into,
So foreign to me and yet home to this zoo?
What strange sort of people inhabit this land,
Where hopefully eating the tourists is banned?
I’ve never seen animals walking like men,
Except for a viral show-off now and then,
But I, as a visitor, now must take care
To not let the seven-foot pig see me stare.
They fight and converse, like us humans, I guess;
Some threaten and hate, and some hate a bit less.
Now new cartoon worlds don’t appear every day.
The strangeness is fading; I think I may stay.
MPAA rating: PG-13
I don’t know why it took me so long to finally see The Boy and the Beast, considering how much I love director Mamoru Hosoda’s previous film Wolf Children. It feels both very similar to and very different from that film, but it carries the same creative touch that sets Hosoda’s films apart from Studio Ghibli or other anime.
The director seems to alternate the gender of his protagonists (a girl in The Girl Who Leapt through Time, a boy in Summer Wars, a young woman in Wolf Children), and The Boy and the Beast is much more of a male-centric story, as the name implies. After an introduction explaining how two fighting masters are preparing to face off for the rule of a parallel world of beasts, we’re introduced to Ren, a nine-year-old human who has run away from home and become deeply bitter after the death of his mother. A chance encounter with a hooded and gruff bear-faced stranger captures his curiosity, and he follows him through an alleyway portal to the beast world, a disorienting scene reminiscent of the spirit world’s emergence in Spirited Away. Though mocked, feared, and bullied in this land of walking, talking animals, Ren becomes the grudging apprentice of Kumatetsu, a warrior preparing to fight for his world’s lordship who also happens to be a juvenile ruffian. The two learn from each other, Karate Kid-style, and the mutual chips on their shoulders help them form a uniquely short-tempered bond.
Among the similarities to Wolf Children (aside from the appearance of wolf-headed background characters) is the theme of choosing where one belongs. While the earlier film made Ame and Yuki choose between life as wolves or as humans, The Boy and the Beast presents Ren with an analogous decision between the rough-and-tumble warrior life among beasts or the more scholarly and even romantic pursuits among his own kind. One of my favorite sequences is when Ren is older and connects with a female student who tutors him, a very sweet montage recalling the touching beginning of Wolf Children. Yet this film also faces the dark consequences fostered by bitterness and feelings of not belonging, which can threaten to swallow up their owner, here literalized as a soul-corrupting monster to be confronted.
Where The Boy and the Beast falters is oddly enough its key dynamic, the relationship between Ren and Kumatetsu. The way their antagonism belies deeper respect and affection is well-developed, but the constant yelling at each other becomes tiring after a while, making me wish for the far quieter tone of Wolf Children. In addition, the mythological world of the beasts remains a bit alienating at times, not helped by the long Japanese names many of them possess; the story runs a bit too long; and the big, action-packed, touching, meaningful finale may look impressive, but it only makes sense because the story says it does.
The Boy and the Beast has a lot to appreciate. I was particularly impressed by certain fluidly crafted shots, such as first-person perspectives that zoom through a scene or tracking shots that slowly extend to reveal something off-screen. The detail of the animation is beautiful, especially in that finale I mentioned, and, if you can get past the frequent yelling (which isn’t uncommon in anime), there’s an engaging tale of finding unconventional family at its core. It didn’t speak to me personally like Wolf Children did, but I can see someone else being equally as fond of it.
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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