March 1, 2016
The animated films of Mamoru Hosoda are all about the practical aspects of the fantastical. Wolf Children (2012) begins with the transcendent love between a city girl and a werewolf, but instead of ending at their union, it begins there, with the bulk of the film concerned with the hard realities of raising two rambunctious lycanthrope kids. Summer Wars (2009) uses a video game virtual reality to tell a story about getting along with your prospective in-laws, while the girl in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) uses her powers to perfect a karaoke routine. His new film, The Boy and the Beast, is about a child runaway who discovers a secret world of warrior animals, where he is mentored by a splenetic bear-man. Though there are universe-shaking implications, the core of the movie is about how a kid fills in the emotional lack left by his absent parents. Opening in limited release on March 4th, The Boy and the Beast is another of Hosoda’s gorgeous spectacles that finds beauty and pain in the minutiae of existence.
The Boy and the Beast is the first film on which Hosoda has received sole screenwriting credit, and the second produced by his small animation Studio Chizu (or “Map”). With each project Hosoda has acquired a little more independence. He graduated the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting, and nabbed a job at Toei Animation, making minimum wage and working under veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. His first directing job was for Digimon, the virtual pet and TV show. Some of his segments were edited into what became Digimon: The Movie in the U.S.. Studio Ghibli was sufficiently impressed to offer him the directing job on Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) — Hosoda was to be the first company outsider to direct one of their films. But he clashed with the producers, and, according to Screen Daily, Hosoda quit the project “after failing to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses.” He would move on to Mad House studio, where he worked from 2005 – 2011, contributing to the long running One Piece series. He paid enough dues until he could adapt the bestselling novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from the Madhouse studios. He received his first story credit on the Mad House production Summer Wars, which was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano. He became fascinated by the family’s easy rapport and deep connection to the area.
Studio Chizu was formed to make Wolf Children, which was set in the rural area outside his home town of Toyoma. Hosoda told New People Travel that, ““To tell you the truth, I built Studio Chizu because it just had to be done. I used to make movies under the big umbrella of large companies like Toei Animation and Mad House. However, I thought that from here on, the product is the main priority so I will need to have the best environment for myself in order to continue creating movies.” It has often been stated, but it looks to be coming true: with Wolf Children and now The Boy and the Beast, Studio Chizu is establishing itself as the heir to Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.
The Boy and the Beast begins with the tousle-haired kid Ren running away from home and into the streets of Shibuya, a heavily trafficked shopping neighborhood in Tokyo. Ren’s mother passed away when he was 9, and his father intends to pass Ren off to his late wife’s family, who arrive to take him away. Instead Ren bolts into the unknown, resentments swirling through his heart, which Hosoda visualizes as a glowing dark orb inside his shadow. While ready to give up hope in a rain soaked alley, Ren picks up a pet in an adorable mouse-like hairball he calls Chico. And then a hooded, blustering stranger walks by, asking if Ren if he would like to be an apprentice. Ren follows him through a maze-like series of alleyways, and then finds himself in the Beast Kingdom (Jutengai), a secret world led by a civilization of refined hind-legged animals. The Kingdom’s lord has decided to reincarnate as a God, and so a new Lord will have to be named. The two contenders are the noble Iôzen, an intellectual warthog-looking gentleman and Kumatetsu, an asocial bear-like creature with a hair-trigger temper.
It is Kumatetsu who Ren followed into this bewildering world, and their relationship is one of agitation. Kumatetsu is an orphan himself, one who prefers to drive others away before they have a chance to leave. But Ren identifies with this self-protective anger, and decides to follow through with the whole apprentice thing. Ren accepts the new name of Kyûta, and learns to fight in the world of beasts. He focuses his anger into the training, becoming a formidable fighter. But he is a boy split in two – both Ren and Kyûta. When he returns to Shibuya he reverts to becoming sullen teenager Ren, and there he meets Kaede, a bookish girl who tutors him through a Japanese translation of Moby Dick. While Ren is romancing Kaede with Herman Melville, he continues training in the Beast Kingdom as Kyûta, though he is unsure to what end. All that is clear is that he and Kumatetsu seem to complete each other through barking insults and thwacking each other with broom handles.
I was only able to view the English dub of the feature, but I’d love to revisit the film with the original Japanese voice cast, which includes Koji Yakusho (Cure, Pulse) as Kumatetsu. That may help more of the humor land than in the English dub, which makes Kumatetsu’s voice a ragged over the top growl. But the visual splendor of the film still shines through in the English dub, a marvel of hand-drawn animation with CGI goosing the traveling shots. The Beast Kingdom is a bright, big village arcadia, an expanded vision of the Ueda of Summer Wars, while Shibuya is a dark urban bowl with pricks of neon. When Ren is about to leave home, his relatives are depicted half drawn in the background, literally faceless. As Ren/Kyûta and Beast Kingdom/Shibuya draw closer together, the visual scheme also shifts. Ichirôhiko, Iôzen’s son, is consumed by resentful anger – that swirling shadow orb Ren had been battling — and it threatens to consume all universes. Ichirôhiko transforms his shadow into Ahab’s white whale, and projects it into Shibuya, aiming to destroy both Ren’s world and his own. These are the most bravura sequences in the film, which link the long nurtured hurt of abandoned kids with the fantastic imagery of Melville’s ego devouring beast.
The result is a spectacle of overpowering sadness. As with most of Hosoda’s characters, both Ichirôhiko and Ren/Kyûta are isolated and lonely. Ren is ready to accept Ichirohiko’s pain into his heart and commit suicide, a gift, he thinks, for them both. There is a sincere, lasting depression to Hosoda’s films that lingers past their ambiguously happy endings. The Boy and the Beast was the second highest grossing Japanese film of 2015, behind only Yo-Kai Watch: The Movie 2. It is not as starkly moving as Wolf Children or deliriously inventive as Summer Wars, but The Boy and the Beast is an emblematic Hosoda film in how it shows the thin border between fiction and reality, and how much we need of the former to stay sane.