Review: 'The Boy and the Beast', anime film
The Boy and the Beast (aka Bakemono no ko – English trailer) is a 2015 animated film from Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda, who directed the film Wolf Children in 2012. Both are of furry interest; this one even more so!
Ren is a 9-year-old boy who runs away to the busy streets of Tokyo after his mother dies. He has no way of contacting his father, whom his mother divorced, and has no love for his mother's relatives who want to take him in. Angry and upset, he wanders by accident into a parallel Earth, the beast world, where everyone is an anthropomorphic animal.
In the city of beasts, the current Grand Master (a rabbit) intends to transcend and reincarnate into a god, with two possible successors: a bear named Kumatetsu, or a boar named Yozen.
The two of them are gearing up for a martial arts battle. Yozen the boar is professional and composed, but not above goading his competition. He has a retinue of serious-looking apprentices, and is raising two sons, the older of which had been an abandoned human baby, whom he adopted. Kumatetsu, in contrast, is brash, obnoxious, selfish and unfocused, though exceptionally strong. He has no family, and no one will train under him, much less cheer for him or even bet on him in a fight. Still, everyone recognizes his potential. The rabbit Grand Master is particularly forgiving, and insists he find an apprentice. So, after a snide remark that he might as well train a broom or a human, Kumatetsu takes in Ren.
The funniest part of this film is the complete lack of chemistry between Ren and Kumatetsu. Both are angry at the world, incredibly stubborn, and have no restraint in mouthing off to one another. At times it's sad, at other times it's really funny. Their relationship could best be described as antagonistic, combined with a refusal to give up or concede to the other. Respect gradually builds, although neither of them would ever admit to it. Their day-to-day arguments are observed by two friends, both monks, a gentle pig and a snarky monkey.
Ren trains under Kumatetsu, although it's more accurate to say that they train each other. As time passes, the human teenager becomes restless and starts to cross back and forth between the human and beast worlds. This distances him from Kumatetsu, whose bad habits begin to reassert themselves. That's as much detail as I'll offer; the ending is positive though not without a little sadness.
Much about this story universe is left unexplained, like why there are two parallel worlds, or what the role of Grand Master actually is. The beasts have the option of transcending and reincarnating as gods; humans do not. Humans, unlike beasts, are capable of being overcome by inner darkness, the possibility of which poses some kind of threat to the beast world.
If you can roll with that kind of ambiguity, you'll be fine. I had a lot of story nit-picks with Wolf Children, whose universe was much simpler. Strangely, I don't have them here. Wolf Children, however, achieved much stronger emotional highs and lows (especially towards the tragic); The Boy and the Beast has its little moments, but never quite delivers the same punch.
The music and the backgrounds work well. As in Wolf Children, a couple of the backgrounds are modified photos made to look anime-esque, but it feels less blatant this time. Color and lighting tones were used to good effect, and a lot of the facial expressions really came through for me. I've watched a subtitled version, so I can't give an opinion on the English dub. Rotoscoping appears to have been used to make movement appear more realistic in some of the fights and crowd scenes.
Furry-wise, the figures in the background are all drawn in a very simplified way, and are rarely interacted with. Westerners – even avid anime fans – may not be used to boars, pigs or monkeys as main characters, unless you've seen adaptations of Journey to the West. It's mostly animal heads on human bodies, although on the characters you get to see more closely, the fur is drawn with a just a little more attention. The bear and the boar both have the ability to "level up" and bulge into larger, more muscled, feral versions of themselves. It's also implied that horse people can shift between a two-footed and four-footed form, although this is only shown once (and very briefly at that).
Overall, I think this is definitely worth a watch if you're an anime fan and don't mind a two-hour running time. The story is both a little tighter and a little looser than Wolf Children, although not as heart-tugging. If you're watching for the furry angle, well, it is furry, but outside a handful of main characters, it's nowhere near as strongly-designed as Zootopia. The world of the beasts looks different from ours, but aside from how the crowds look, it doesn't feel like it's a place designed by animals. If you're trying to introduce someone to anime for the first time, I'd probably choose something a bit more mainstream.
The biggest strength in this movie is the relationship between the human child and his bear trainer. Both have had to rely on themselves to move forward in the world, with stubborn dedication and a willingness to persevere. At the same time, it makes a point that coping alone has also hurt them. Giving and receiving help isn't a weakness, but builds friendship and strength, filling gaps in the other person that they might not have managed to deal with by themselves. Even if the other person is a big gruff obnoxious bear, he comes through in the end.
The film has recently had a limited release in theatres in the U.S., although I'm not sure if it's still showing, and a DVD or Blu-ray disc has been released in Japan.