The Boy and the Beast is a coming-of-age Japanese animation film that is proving popular world-wide after a July 2015 release in the Land of the Rising Sun. It is now being slowly drip-fed to countries outside of Asia, including screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.
Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Wolf Children) the movie follows the story of Ren, a young boy who finds himself without parents and living on the rough streets of Shibuya. Angry with the world he decides he has nothing to lose when approached by Kumatetsu, a creature from the Beast Kingdom, and follows him back to an alternative universe leaving the world of humans behind. Here he encounters a battle between his new master, Kumatetsu, and Iozen as they take on each other to determine who has the right to succeed the current Lord of the Beast Kingdom.
An animated film where the storyline focuses on a young man being raised by animals rather than humans is not a new concept, but unlike Disney’s Jungle Book there isn’t the fun sing-along moments and nasty yet very well-spoken tiger. There is however a similar trait in the hero of the story as he reconciles himself to who he is and his place in both the Beast Kingdom and the world of humans.
Beautifully hand-drawn in classic Japanese animation style, the storyline combines popular aspects of Japanese folklore and mythology, as well as providing a “buddy movie” with substantial twists and turns that ensure the film's climax is not completely what viewers are expecting from the opening scenes. Both the human and beast characters are well developed, with personalities that are a vital part of the film’s narrative. A-typical of Asian movies there is plenty of martial arts and fighting for one’s honour, but space has also been left for an emotional storyline as we watch both Ren and Kumatetsu battle themselves and others through personal trials for their own ultimate redemption.
The subtitles on the original version mean this is not a film that is going to appeal to all ardent animation fans. If you can get into the swing of reading, listening and watching at the same time then it is fine – and after a while I found it second-nature to combine these skills – but be prepared to focus on the bottom of the screen for most of the movie unless you want to follow the film strictly by visual clues. Alternatively you can catch it in its English version, which does make it easier to follow but I feel takes away some of the magic from the Japanese animation and story.
There is a very good reason The Boy and the Beast was the second-highest grossing Japanese film in Japan for 2015. But don’t let the figures convince you it is good (or even this review), go and see it for yourself. Preferably with the subtitles for the full Japanese animation film experience.