For the first third of The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda sets up a story that seems easy enough to predict: Two stubborn and fiercely proud characters who want nothing to do with each other are forced to join forces and work together. Then the movie dares to mutate that formula — to turn it inside out, toy with our expectations about it, and ultimately come full circle with it in a way that a more lockstep treatment would not have allowed.
Such a path is always fraught with risk. As at least one intensely negative review of this movie can attest, not all risks pay off for all people. But I thought it did, and so I write this review in part to counter reviews like that one. It's not merely that I prefer a story that dares to do something interesting over a story that settles for delivering something familiar and easy. It's that in this case, the risks are worth it, even if it doesn't seem that way when you're in the middle of it all.
This is the fourth film Hosoda has to his name as an auteur, after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. In some ways it's the most daring of the bunch, not because of the story it tells but because Hosoda dared to tell it his way, and not let the formula of the premise dictate the execution. It's easy to be frustrated by a film like this, because every time it seems to be settling into a groove it throws what seems like a gratuitous left turn at you. At the end, though, I saw that none of it was gratuitous — it was all of a piece, in a way that might only make the most sense a second time around. I don't love a masterpiece because it's difficult, but I do love a difficult movie if it turns out to be a masterpiece.
Do I look like a @#!$%&ing role model?
The Boy and the Beast opens with the boy of the title, Ren, a kid not even into his double digits before his family splinters. His parents divorced some time back, with his father being essentially disowned by his mother's family. Now his mother has died in a car accident, and rather than be taken in by distant relatives he doesn't care for, he flees into the streets and sleeps in the shantytowns under the bridges of urban Tokyo. He's foolish and impulsive, but that's how kids are. Everyone has to start young and stupid.
He wanders, and after a series of curious happenings, finds himself in a strange labyrinth of alleyways and vestibules, like something from one of George Tooker's paintings. This is the doorway to another, parallel world, one populated by roughly humaniform beasts rather than humans. Humans who venture here are suspect, as the darker forces in that world have a propensity for combining with the dark places in human hearts and creating monsters of their own. But one of the beasts has cocked an eye his way: Kumatetsu (literally, "Bear Steel"), one of two aspiring contenders for the highest throne in the land.
Kumatetsu is nobody's idea of a leader, hero, patron, teacher, or father figure. He's brash, irresponsible, hotheaded, loud-mouthed, impatient, and has the worst housekeeping skills since Oscar Klugman of The Odd Couple. But one of the conditions to Kumatetsu having a shot at lord-dom is to have acolytes, and he figures this human kid — Kumatetsu dubs him "Kyūta" — is so far down on his luck he'll take any port in a storm. Kumatetsu is half-right: Ren/Kyūta is indeed down on his luck, but not so much that he's going to apprentice himself to this boor — and a boor who's a lousy explainer to boot. Kumatetsu's monkey sidekick Tatara agrees, but a Zen priest-like figure with sympathy for both of them finds ways to get each to learn from the other without trying.
All this is setup, and it fills about the first third of the movie in a way that's deceptively easy to read. It fits right into our expectations that Kumatetsu's rival is a noble and upstanding fellow named Iozen — noble and upstanding, but also square and boring. Early on they have what we are allowed to read as a rehearsal fight for the main event that presumably climaxes the film, where Kumatetsu's hotheadedness causes him to drink dirt and eat his teeth. We know, somewhere in our gut, that eventually, because of Kyūta, Kumatetsu is going to get his act together and prove himself worthy. We know all this because the movie has done nothing to disabuse us of it; but it also does nothing to hint at how that might happen, or to what larger end.
The child is father to the man
From a little before the halfway mark on, The Boy and the Beast departs from the formula — slowly at first, and then by greater and greater bounds. The first hint of how drastic the departure will be is when we follow Kyūta and Kumatetsu's "training" (of each other, and of themselves) over the course of not just a few weeks or a month, but several seasons. The boy is turning into a man — he grows, his voice deepens — but the bear-man is also turning into a man, however inwardly, grudgingly, and quietly. He is learning to put someone else in his life first, to value the presence of another person, even if he is still terrible at showing how much he cares.
Then comes the second major jump, when Kyūta finds his way back to the human world, almost by accident. (For people like him, the door swings both ways, it seems.) The mere shock of being able to find his way back is one thing, but then comes something else that's so deep-rooted he doesn't even know how to articulate it: This is his home, and the fact that he came back here at all has reawakened that in him. And so he looks for things to anchor himself that much more in this world again, as when he walks into a bookstore and realizes his education ended in grade school and he can't even puzzle out so much as a simple kanji like "whale".
He needs a teacher, and he finds one in Kaede, a girl about his age. She is everything Kumatetsu is not — not just human and female, but also patient, curious, and sympathetic. Kyūta is only able to tell her so much about what has happened — after all, who'd believe him? — but she doesn't pry. She provides him with the kind of grounding he needs, not just to hit the books but also to make harder decisions, like whether or not to re-establish a connection with his estranged biological father. He has, for so long, lived without other human beings that he has to remind himself what it's like to depend on them, to ask them for help, to find them disappointing and infuriating.
The movie doesn't use all this to forget about its original storyline, but rather to throw it into relief, and to set up a final conflict that's not the one we were expecting. Instead of it merely being about Kumatetsu winning out over Iozen, it's about the way one of Iozen's sons — someone Kyūta has more in common with than we're led to believe — turns out to be the real danger, and how Kumatetsu, as much as Kyūta, has to confront his assumptions about himself to face down such danger.
Through the labyrinth
The hard part about making a case for The Boy And The Beast is separating out the genuine flaws from the things that just seem contrarian or counter-intuitive. By about the halfway mark, I'd decided the movie wasn't following the plot it had led us to believe would unfold, and so let the rest of the film play out on its own terms. On a second time around, I wasn't expending as much attention or mental energy wrestling with the movie's left-hand turns and about-faces, and it played as a much more cohesive whole. Fans of Roman Polanski's Chinatown often talk about only really having that movie click for them the second or even third time around; the first couple of times, they're too busy trying to puzzle out what's going on. Once the puzzle is out of the way, the real emotional impact of the movie touches down.
None of this means The Boy And The Beast doesn't have flaws — it just means they're in different places than the construction of the plot. For one, I was unhappy with the way Kaede was handled; she's the only major female character of consequence in the film aside from Kyūta's mother, who only appears in flashbacks anyway. Kaede is from the lineage of second-banana anime heroines who face down all manner of strange goings-on without blinking, and who unerringly respond to the dangers posed by such things with empathy rather than anger. When Kyūta has to face down Iozen's son, transformed into a monstrosity, she delivers — much to my eye-rolling dismay — one of those stock speeches about what's inside his heart. Maybe all that makes Kaede well-suited to being Kyūta's support, but it comes at the cost of her being much of anything on her own.
The other problem the movie has is the way it works up a certain degree of internal inconsistency between its aims and its methods. Because the movie goes out of its way to telegraph that it's not going to slavishly follow the rules it's hinted at, it feels all the more awkward when it does fall back on those things. E.g., the climax, a supernaturally fueled beat-down in the middle of Shibya, feels like something that belongs in another, lesser film. But the good news is that even these mistakes don't sink the whole project; they're surrounded by enough context to make them work, even when they feel like attempts to artificially pump up the film's quota of Action and Adventure.
If the big things in this film seem misplaced, it's more than offset by the proliferation of little things that Hosoda gets exactly right, and all of them are about emotions and states of mind, not turns of plot. Near the end of the movie, Kumatetsu asks the lord of the beast kingdom for one favor — one last favor, the last one either of them is likely to grant or receive. The way it's worded, the exact intonations and choices of phrase, are spot-on. They are the words of a man whose entire self-image has been about expressions of strength, and now he has to find a way to ask someone for help — the last thing he's ever wanted to do — in a way that complements that self-image. It's so good it hurts.
I winced the first time I heard Hosoda described as "the next Hayao Miyazaki", one of those thoughtless labels that says nothing about either Hosoda or Miyazaki. My guess is this kind of formulation comes from two directions. One is from people who mean well, but can't see much beyond the superficial similarities between Hosoda's works and Miyazaki's (family, childhood, bucolic nature, leaps of fantasy, etc.). The other is from people who tend to think of anime as being Miyazaki-good, everything-else-trash. Both miss the point: the reason Hosoda is good is not because his movies have the same ingredients as another director, but because he's made those things into his own, and found new ways to do that with each of his films.
Another casual point of comparison, I suppose, is in the way both of them make staggeringly gorgeous films. There's a lot to enjoy visually here — the combat sequences in the arena, or most anything involving Kumatetsu monstering-out and going on the attack, are full of carnal physicality — but I was most drawn to subtler uses of the camera that have become Hosoda's trademarks. One is the tracking shot, something he used in Wolf Children to great emotional effect when he showed the passage of time by dollying past the same classroom over and over. Here, he uses it in a scene where Kyūta reconnects with his biological father, by placing the two of them at extreme ends of the screen, and then hiding one and revealing the other by way of the dolly. It's all the more impressive that the shot barely seems to be calling attention to itself; it doesn't feel like a flashy directorial indulgence.
With this movie Hosoda has done several things worth singling out. He has found a way to come back to subjects that clearly have gravity for him — parenthood and the trials of growth — and mine that much more out of them without just repeating himself. Wolf Children has more to say about parenthood than this film, I think (for my money it's still his best film), but The Boy And The Beast is really more about two other things: making the tottering leap from childhood into young adulthood, and about challenging inner definitions of masculinity and power. The choices Kumatetsu makes, the ones that force him to widen his definition of manhood to include doing things for others, are at least as important as the ones Kyūta makes.
The other thing Hosoda has done with this movie — and it's the one thing I keep coming back to — is how he started with a storyline that lent itself to a thoroughly lockstep and predictable reading, and found ways to perform end runs around our expectations about it. Yes, it comes at the cost of the film sometimes seeming like it's headed in five directions at once, but by the end, it's clear those five directions were all the right ones. He could have let the original premise just tell him what to do all the way through, and he might well have had a perfectly watchable movie. But something tells me he didn't want to settle for that. I'm glad he didn't.