In 2015, esteemed anime director Mamoru Hosoda released The Boy And The Beast. The Boy And The Beast centers around a nine year old boy named Ren, also known as Kyuta. After the recent passing of his mother, and with his father nowhere to be found, Ren is left in the care of his maternal grandparents. Ren, confused about his father’s whereabouts and struggling to cope with his mother’s death, decides to run away from home.
After stumbling through an alleyway, Ren finds himself in a strange place known as Jutengai, the Beast Kingdom. Jutengai exists parallel to the human world, but it’s something of a well kept secret (though events that happen in one world can potentially resonate through the other).
Jutengai is one of the things that I loved the most about The Boy And The Beast, as I find it to be the perfect example of allowing the medium of animation to do the storytelling. It is a fully realized world, complete with it’s own history, culture, religion and customs, and it manages to be this without very much expository dialogue.
To further this point, The Boy And The Beast also trusts its viewers to piece bits of the lore and the world together. A few of Jutengai’s beastly inhabitants can expand their bodies in order to increase their strength and speed, a not a single character ever says anything to explain this. Most films or shows would’ve used at least a few sentences to talk about this ability, but this film simply allows us to believe that this is a skill that a handful of well trained beasts can achieve.
As is standard for Hosoda films, The Boy And The Beast is a visual treat. Characters are expressive and pack tons of personality as always, but the locales in Jutengai are absolutely goregous. This also extends to the film’s fight scenes, which are all beautifully framed and choreographed. I especially loved the weight that each attack carried, and the contrast that was drawn the first time we saw a young Ren throw a punch or swing a sword.
As is evidenced by the film’s cover art, swordplay is a huge part of the culture of Jutengai, and one thing that I found really cool was the twist that The Boy And The Beast put on traditional sword fighting. The current Lord of Jutengai has dictated that swords are never to be unsheathed, making the weapon more of a blunt object as opposed to something with a cutting edge, forcing combatants to more carefully consider their attacks.
As a quick aside to the animation quality, the only thing that I found to be below standard in the film were the cgi crowds that were present during a few scenes. I understand why 2d films use cgi for moments like this, but their stilted cheering and clapping animations really stood out to me in a major way. But other than the crowds, the film is a very impressive traditionally animated film.
Jutengai has a very unique leadership role that is dictated by bouts of strength. Our titular beast is a bear like creature named Kumatetsu, and he is set to compete for the position of Lord of Jutengai against his elder, Iozen. Kumatetsu is who initially goads Ren into coming to Jutengai, as he wants to take him under his wing as an apprentice. Ren is entirely against the idea at first, but after noticing that he and Kumatetsu are similar in a few key ways, he decides to stay in Jutengai to become stronger under his master’s tutelage.
Ren’s personal story arc is what carries the film, and a key component to this is his relationship with Kumatetsu. Kumatetsu gained his strength almost entirely on his own, so he lacks the teaching skills to nurture Ren (he’s also a lazy slob). To compensate for this, Ren chooses to observe Kumatetsu’s every move, realizing that this will be much more effective than waiting on Kumatetsu to learn how to teach him.
This results in Ren not only becoming stronger and faster at a rapid pace, but also becoming someone that can aid Kumatetsu in his quest for Lordship. One thing that I’ve waited to mention is the fact that Kumatetsu only decided to take on an apprentice after being advised to do so. This was done in hopes that an apprentice could help Kumatetsu become more well rounded, especially in areas that don’t involve brute strength.
The best example of this is his sparring match with Iozen that happens early on in the film. While Kumatetsu gets a bad start, the tide of battle eventually swings in his favor. But just as he is about to wrap things up, the entire crowd begins to root for Iozen, with only Ren cheering for Kumatetsu. This support gives Iozen the power to make a comeback against Kumatetsu, leaving the beast beaten and embarrassed.
This feeds into one of the film’s major thematic elements, gaining strength and support from those closest to you. Not only does Ren do it for Kumatetsu in both of his fights against Iozen, but the reverse also happens during the film’s climax. Another theme of the film is that of identity issues, and this one is shared by Ren and another human boy named Ichirohiko.
At a certain point in the film, Ren, now a strong and confident young man, finds himself back in the human world after being absent for nearly 10 years. He eventually makes his way to a local library, but seeing as he never had a formal education past elementary school, his reading skills are still that of a child’s. This is where he meets a girl roughly his age named Kaede. Fascinated with Ren’s background and desire to learn, Kaede agrees to teach him as much as she can.
The introduction of Kaede represents a very noticeable tone shift in The Boy And The Beast. It goes from an adventure set in fantasy land with human like beasts and an ancient aesthetic, to one set in modern Shibuya that deals with a young man struggling to find his place in the world. This tone shift perfectly encapsulates Ren’s character as a whole.
Is he a man, or is he a beast? He spent his adolescent years in Jutengai, but his true home and nature is tied to the human world. This is something that Ren deals with for most of the film’s latter half, and it all culminates in his final clash against Ichirohiko.
One fact about humans that is brought up early in the film is that each one of them carries a dormant darkness in their hearts (this gave me some serious Kingdom Hearts vibes). If a human allows their darkness to control them, they will lose themselves entirely. Ichirohiko is the son of Iozen, and it is eventually revealed that Iozen found him all alone as an infant during a trip to the human world.
Story wise, Ichirohiko’s character arc is the only thing that I have somewhat mixed feelings on. As a child, he was a pleasant boy who actually saved Ren from a pack of bullies, but his teenage self is brooding and reserved, and he harbors a great hatred for our hero. What makes this so jarring is that the shift isn’t gradual or organic in any way.
Iozen later informs us that he never told his son the truth about his origins, leading to the boy questioning his true identity when his body never developed as a normal beast’s should, and the darkness in his heart slowly taking control. While I’m glad that his personality change was explained, I think it would have been better if a similar scene was foreshadowed earlier in the film, so that there would be some precedence for these events.
Outside of Kaede, The Boy And The Beast also features two other supporting characters from Jutengai: Kumatetsu’s monkey companion, Tatara, and a pig monk named Hyakushubo. Tatara, while intially indifferent to Ren, comes to love him like a son, while Hyakushubo serves as sort of a parental guide for both Ren and Kumatetsu. They are both great additions to the cast, and have great chemistry with the film’s two leads.
Much like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children, The Boy And The Beast is a realistic and relatable story with heavy fantasy elements. While I do think there is a noticeable stumble in regards to story execution, the overall theming is just as poignant as that of its predecessors. Adapting to life changes, coping with the loss of a loved one, and using the support of others to gain strength are things that I feel anybody can relate to. The Boy And The Beast is a fantastic film, and I’m sure it will be remembered as another timeless Mamoru Hosoda classic.