I almost didn’t get to review this film.
As the cinematic highlight of the year in Glasgow, one of the Glasgow Film Festival’s most anticipated films was the Scottish premiere of The Boy and The Beast. The Sunday showing was sold out far quicker than I expected, and my friend and I had to bargain with the theatre in order to score me an extra ticket to get in. They were kind enough to offer me a spare reserved seat.
Anyway, I eventually did get to see it, and I’ll be eternally glad that I did. The Boy and The Beast is a fantastic film.
The latest work of acclaimed writer and director Mamoru Hosoda, known for animated masterpieces such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children (a personal favourite), The Boy and The Beast had a lot to live up to, and for the most part I believe it did.
The focus of the film is Ren, a nine year old boy whose mother has just died in a traffic accident. In the absence of his divorced father, Ren will be taken in by his unpleasant legal guardians, who call him the “successor to the family line”.
Unwilling to accept this fate, Ren flees to the streets where he is later noticed by two strange hooded men – one of whom reveals himself to be a huge and intimidating beast: Kumatetsu. Ren decides to inconspicuously follow the beast and his companion, and ends up in an unfamiliar world: the Beast Kingdom.
In the Beast Kingdom, the beast lord has decided to ascend to godhood (which is something beast lords are able to do), and is in need of a successor. The successor will be decided by a battle. The two contenders are: Kumatetsu, who is lazy, brash, and lonely but extremely powerful, and Iozen, who is popular, graceful, and loved by all. Iozen has two pupils and future successors of his own – his two sons – whereas Kumatetsu has none. The beast lord declares that Kumatetsu needs a pupil to train, and Ren is conveniently found by Kumatetsu on his search for a worthy one.
Trapped, with no way to get back, Ren begrudgingly accepts Kumatetsu’s offer to become his pupil. Since Ren is nine at the time, Kumatetsu gives him the nickname “Kyuta” – as in “kyu” meaning “nine”. Initially, the two constantly butt heads and argue over the smallest things, but they eventually grow to respect one another, and develop a father-son relationship. They realise they are both very similar, as Kumatetsu grew up alone as well. Both Ren and Kumatetsu learn from each other, and a key theme throughout the film is their path to discovering what “true strength” is.
Of course, nothing goes quite as smoothly as they might have hoped, and obstacles such as Ren finding his way back to the human world and meeting a girl there, and altercations involving Iozen’s pupils, leads to some unexpected turns in the plot. These twists come together to give The Boy and The Beast a powerful, emotionally-charged finale.
As far as themes go, The Boy and The Beast is similar to Wolf Children. Both films have strong themes of family, the struggle between identifying as human or beast, and feelings of isolation throughout. This is unsurprising given that they are both Hosoda’s works, but it did leave me feeling as though they were too similar at times. The parallels between Ren and Ame from Wolf Children were too obvious to ignore, especially because they also have a similar appearance.
I have noticed that Hosoda’s lead characters often look very alike in general, and their designs can become tedious to see.
The film had some visually stunning scenes. My favourite one is near the start, where Ren is outside, upset over a hallucination of his mother. We see him crying alone in the dark, and then the camera’s focus moves to the gentle orange glow of the lit houses in the beast town he is overlooking – contrasting harsh feelings of distress and loneliness with a soft, serene, calming view.
When Ren was lost in both Tokyo and in the corridors to the Beast Kingdom, the point of view was at his eye level, and the camera movements were quick and shaky, which made the viewer feel as confused and disoriented as Ren. This was an excellent touch which helped viewers gain empathy for the character.
Although the film was painfully sad at times, it also had a great dose of humour dispersed throughout. One of the funniest characters was the current beast lord, a rabbit, whose airy disposition and tendency to disappear mid-conversation got quite a few laughs out of the audience. The silly disputes between Ren and Kumatetsu, such as Ren’s unwillingness to eat raw eggs like Kumatetsu, were also charming and funny, and helped to strengthen the ragtag family feeling.
Most of the characters were interesting and loveable, but I was disappointed that the film followed the “dead mother used to create tragic background for main character” trope. We saw nothing of Ren’s mother beyond the fact that she was plain and kind. The only other notable female character in the film – a schoolgirl called Kaede whom Ren meets when he is 17 – is primarily used to add to Ren’s character as a potential love interest. However, she does have her own moments of character focus, and delivers a few memorable lines.
On the grounds of female representation, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time are still far superior, but I am willing to let this slide.
Regardless of criticism and comparisons to other films, The Boy and The Beast is a beautiful coming-of-age film, with important morals of staying determined, working hard, choosing your own identity, and valuing family and love. The lines “You’ll make it. Pretend you already have” and “You get to choose what you want to do” inspired me greatly.
The Boy and The Beast is truly a film that can be enjoyed by people of all ages, and one that I’ll definitely be watching again.