Last summer, my brother and I visited Japan, and as we explored the streets, skyscrapers, parks, and temples around Tokyo, we saw this poster plastered literally everywhere:
Because the title was in Japanese (obviously), I didn’t even know what it was called, but the fact that it seemed to be the only domestically-produced film to receive anything resembling a marketing push (other advertisements generally focused on music, television shows, and especially imports of big Western blockbusters like Age of Ultron) made me that much more interested in seeing it.
Fortunately, my time in The Land of the Rising Sun was so eventful that I never had time to catch a screening while overseas, but the striking imagery of those posters and commercials never really left the back of my mind. So when I learned early this morning (isn’t the Internet grand?) that the movie had not only recently been localized, but was also playing at a theater near me, I rushed out immediately to finally satisfy my long-brewing curiosity.
The Boy and the Beast, as it’s called around these parts, certainly didn’t disappoint, treating me to a modern fairy tale in the tradition of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, albeit skewed towards a slightly older audience. Following the example of Pixar and Disney, director Mamoru Hosoda uses gentle, kid-friendly humor to spin a yarn that revolves predominantly around existential angst. The protagonist, a nine-year-old runaway named Ren, has recently lost his mother, and with his father nowhere to be found (thanks, it is implied, to the legal intervention of bitter relatives), he leads an aimless and lonely life on the streets of the Shibuya district, filled with anger and hatred toward the world that has abandoned him.
Until, that is, he is discovered by Kumatetsu, a bearlike beast man seeking a pupil. Kumatetsu whisks the homeless boy away to a supernatural kingdom inhabited by animal/human hybrids, hoping that whipping him into shape will impress the land’s ruler, who plans to choose a successor in the near future. Of course, the boorish, uncouth bear has much to learn himself, and the evolution of his heartwarming relationship with the child he nicknames Kyuta (knowing only his age; “kyu” is the Japanese word for “nine”) forms the spine of a sprawling, but still somehow deeply intimate, plot.
My one complaint is that the narrative, which spans several years (Ren/Kyuta has aged to seventeen by the end), would benefit from a little more breathing room. Even with a two-hour running time, several key relationships and plot developments feel rushed and/or underdeveloped, diminishing the overall impact of the associated payoffs. Even the climax, spectacular as it is, rests on the shaky foundation of Ren’s pseudo-rivalry with a character with whom he barely shares any scenes; their few, brief interactions are, at least, meaningful, but they merely suggest a before-after portrait of what could have been a fascinating subplot had The Boy and the Beast been, for example, a miniseries.
But at the end of the day, that’s just me complaining about not having three scoops of ice cream when I already have two. The Boy and the Beast is a winner in my book.
[Originally written March 5, 2016.]