Thursday, February 9, 2017

Neglected Gem #95: The Boy and the Beast (2015)

A scene from The Boy and the Beast (2015).

The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no Ko) is the story of Ren (Aoi Miyazaki), a nine-year-old Tokyo runaway who abandons his family life when his mother dies in a car accident. After years of living as a homeless urchin, one day Ren stumbles out of the bustling Shibuya streets into a world of humanoid beasts called Jutengai, and becomes the reluctant pupil of an arrogant, lazy, bear-like beast-man called Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho). The reigning Lord of Jutengai is preparing to reincarnate himself as a god, and a successor must be chosen. The two candidates for the job, selected for their strength of both body and character, are the noble boar-man, Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji), and Kumatetsu, whose fighting prowess is extraordinary but whose personality is sorely lacking. Ren – whom Kumatetsu names “Kyuta” in reference to his young age – establishes an instantly adversarial relationship with the blustering bear-man, who lacks the patience and compassion to act as a proper teacher. Neither knows, or could acknowledge even if he were aware, how desperately they need one another – but it’s instantly plain for all to see that these two loners, hardened by years of solitary survival, are a perfect pair. Only together do they have a chance of readying Kumatetsu for his match against Iozen, which will decide who rises up as Lord, and only together can they ready Kyuta to re-enter the world he left behind.

The Boy and the Beast has everything that anime fans crave: tortured teens, supernatural monsters, epic, high-stakes showdowns, you name it. And it’s anchored by a handsomely crafted story whose beats feel comforting and familiar (even to Western audiences), centered around Kyuta’s coming-of-age struggle and his quest to become whole – and for both he and Kumatetsu to find their proper places in their respective worlds. It uses its likable cast of characters to explore themes of love, belonging, growth, and solitude, but at its most resonant Kyuta's is a story of discipline: why it’s necessary, how difficult it is to achieve, and how enriching it can be to one’s life (a very Japanese theme indeed). Kyuta does all his growing in Jutengai under the abrasive, inattentive tutelage of Kumatetsu and his friends, and by the time he’s twenty (and played by a different actor, Shota Sometani) he discovers that all the strength he’s developed is only going to get him so far back in the human world of Shibuya, where a different sort of discipline – to learn, to study, to integrate, to cultivate human connections – is much more important. In the end, the discipline that Kyuta and Kumatetsu teach one another is the key that unlocks their potential, which is a premise that grounds The Boy and the Beast in relatable territory, despite its fantasy trappings.

 In both visual style and tone, the film more closely resembles the adventure animes of the late 70s and early 80s like Lupin III (which themselves draw on even older cinematic inspirations) than the sweeping, emotional films of the more modern Studio Ghibli stripe. Its animation is simple and naturalistic, with clean lines and fluid movement, demonstrating none of the jerky, stilted half-motion employed by so many contemporary animes. As in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the characters in The Boy and the Beast look, move, and feel like real people, but this film differs from Miyazaki's in that this style is in the service of a classically adventurous approach that rarely dips into the sentimental or the saccharine. It’s not as beautiful a film as your typical Ghibli fare, but it’s not aiming for that kind of visual razzle-dazzle; even the realm of Jutengai is portrayed as fairly pedestrian -- it's not so different from an antiquated Japanese city, populated by people who resemble beasts (and not the other way around). The film’s successive climactic battles – Kumatetsu’s in Jutengai and Ren’s in Shibuya – do introduce some brilliant fantastical locales and effects (most notably a ghostly spirit-whale that chases Ren through Tokyo), but it’s only because the characters are so richly drawn that the animation has any real impact at all. It’s the subtleties in the character animation that impress, like the light that comes over Kumatetsu’s face when young Kyuta proves himself worthy of being his pupil, or how Kyuta imitates his footwork while he’s not watching. These small moments are deeply resonant thanks to the strength of the script by director Mamoru Hosada and to his general inclination towards restraint rather than spectacle.

There’s some intriguing world-building waiting in the wings of The Boy and the Beast, which is so busy developing its heroes that it doesn’t really have room to fully support those ideas. I wish it did, because I find these details fascinating, like the Sages who represent the different forms of “strength” valued in Jutengai, the cycle of Lords and their ability to choose which kind of god they’d like to be, and the cultural traditions that nominate candidates like Iozen and Kumatetsu. The people of Jutengai nurture a sort of racial suspicion about humankind, due to a very real threat we pose (represented by a hole in our hearts from which darkness grows) – functioning almost like an echo of the Tolkien lore that positioned men as the weakest and most fallible of the races of Middle Earth. The more “complete” hearts of Jutengai’s population manifest in unexpected ways, like the way Iozen’s son Jiromaru (Momoka Ohno) pivots from bullying young Kyuta to embracing him openly as a friend once he demonstrates his strength and conviction. This is bright, compelling fiction that only happens in the background of the film, and though I’m glad the focus was placed on the characters, it’s too bad that it’s mostly overshadowed.

The Boy and the Beast stalls several times – it’s twenty minutes too long and contains two distinct climaxes – but it’s so chock-full of warmth, character, and charm that it’s well worth the investment. If it were a leaner film I would say it was perfect family viewing, full of the excitement and genuinely gripping plot stakes that seem almost antiquated nowadays, like a lost form of fantasy-adventure classicism that owes as much to the Hollywood studio films of the 30s and 40s as the children’s films of the 80s. I was genuinely affected by the story of the boy named both Ren and Kyuta, seeing much of myself and my own struggles towards adulthood and independence in him, and I’ll be glad to revisit his world and discover even more with each new viewing.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment