Originally released in 2015, The Boy and the Beast is the latest work by writer and director Mamoru Hosoda, who has been one of the fringe names of Japanese animation in the Western sphere for a few years now. His name might not yet hold the weight of a Hayao Miyazaki in the UK and US, but Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Across Time might ring familiar, or perhaps even The Digimon Movie (remember Digimon?). All of that aside, there is of course ample room for more than one known director of animation who happens to hail from Japan, and the body of work Hosoda has built is distinctive in its own right. Namely, the way he approaches technology and the internet with a sort of magical realism quality. In this way, The Boy and The Beast marks another take (the other being Wolf Children) at a story more grounded in mythology and coming from the fantasy genre as opposed to sci-fi. And without jumping the gun, he kind of nails it.
We open with an introduction to the so-called ‘monster cities’ – where beasts and gods live together, and more importantly deliberately apart from humankind. In the one hidden between the streets of Tokyo, the Grand Master has decided to become a god upon his death, without having selected who the next Grand Master will be. The two contenders for this are Iozen – claimed to be calm, disciplined, strong and trainer of many protégés as well as his own two sons – and Kumatetsu, name coming from the Japanese word for bear and whose appearance mirrors that of one. Although being stronger than Iozen, he is brash and arrogant, with no protégés or children of his own.
Enter: a young boy, Ren, by his own words, also “all alone”. Following an accident which led him to lose his mother, and his father nowhere to be seen after their divorce, he decides to live alone, promising the family members entrusted to be his guardians that he will become strong and prove it to them if he must. Hiding in a Shibuya (think that iconic four-way crossing you see in footage of Tokyo) alley, Kumatetsu comes across Ren on their way home and, so stunned to see a real monster, boy follows him thoughtlessly while also running from the police who suspect him to be a runaway. Needing a protégé of his own to become a Grand Master, and then having the option of reincarnating as a god, Kumatetsu decides to take on Ren and renames him Kyûta.To say more is to spoil the various twists and turns the film takes. Somehow, it keeps you guessing when you think you’ve sussed it out – without a doubt miles above the standard family features that grace our screens. Even more impressive when in retrospect the film is actually somewhat episodic in nature. Smaller events are used for character development and bonding, tying together in its larger arc at the end, but without losing its engaging pace through. The characters and their world never escape your attention, and the reason for that is the time given to breathe and live with them, which makes the emotional culmination of the journey Kyûta and Kumatetsu go on together all the more worth the wait.
As ever, Hosoda’s animation style has an impressive scope – much like his other fare, The Boy and The Beast has hugely ambitious yet effortless world-building. There must be several references to Japanese lore that are lost on a Western audience member, but able to be appreciated nonetheless. However, Hosoda also easily conveys a myriad of emotions. For all its monsters and gods, it is a film about what it means to be human, the nature of humanity and moreover the significance and invaluable presence of human connection. All accompanied with a bright and thrilling score by Takagi Masakatsu.
It is no surprise The Boy and The Beast has added yet another win at the Japan Academy Prize ceremony to what must be an increasingly creaky awards shelf. We can only hope their Western counterparts start to catch up and give Hosoda the attention he deserves.
The Boy and the Beast arrives on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 4 September 2017