From Huck Finn rafting downriver and the Boxcar Children to Kidnapped’s David Balfour and red-haired Anne, off to Green Gables, some of the best-known children’s tales follow orphans or runaways trying to forge their own paths. But the brief pre-credits preface to The Boy and the Beast offers an adult in need of a child—kendo-fighter Kumatetsu must train a disciple if he’s to vie with rival Iouzen, a father of two, for the title of grandmaster—before we see the boy he’ll get his paws on. Kumatetsu’s a “troublesome” ursine beast in Jūtengai, a separate world (but much like feudal-era Japan) where talking animals walk on their hind legs. In Tokyo, surly, forlorn nine-year-old Ren, his mother dead and father gone, is to be his family’s “precious successor” but he declares his hatred for his cold, distant guardians, runs off … and his hatred and self-imposed solitude attract Kumatetsu to him.
The latest animation from Mamoru Hosoda (whose previous film Wolf Children brilliantly reimagined lycanthrope-lore), The Boy and the Beast not only features a fiercely angry child protagonist but faces off master and parent (Kumatetsu) against student and surrogate son (Ren, renamed Kyūta). The usual training-sequence is enlivened by beast’s frustration and boy’s defiance (and emphatic, comic-bookish noises). The primal pair clash, bash and smash heads because they’re so similar: irascible, childish, blazingly stubborn. But in a market-square showdown between red-furred Kumatetsu and blond-maned boar Iouzen, Kyūta recognizes how alone and unpopular Kumatetsu is, brazening out his insecurities with brashness, and their bond’s forged.
As in Wolf Children, this tale paws and pads around the at-times tempestuous, at-times tender child-parent relationship: kid learning through imitation; appreciating each other’s flaws; mentorship and apprenticeship; parent growing humble enough to learn from the youngster (Kyūta proves a brilliant student of opponents’ footwork). And, as in many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, dedication, perseverance and hard work are all-important. Allusions to other kids’ stories snake their way through, too: echoes of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Cinderella, and, obviously, Beauty and the Beast; characters resembling the White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat and the Walrus in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (And from Moby-Dick, chief mate Starbuck and the whale appear, in a way.) The film’s scenes of luminance, slow pans, flashbacks and action sequences are masterly.
But in the story’s second half—now 17, Kyūta finds his way back to Tokyo where, as Ren again, he studies from books with the help of schoolgirl Kaede—Kyūta/Ren feels torn between worlds and fathers, then in two. He finds his dad and tries to leave his bruin mentor behind—only to spot, in the bright-lit, crowd-teemed Shibuya shopping district, his shadow child-self, a glaring hole in the middle of its chest, reflected back at him. He starts to feel beastly, even monstrous, to himself.
Yet it’s that deep, rancorous affection between adoptive father and surrogate son spurring, charging, stampeding The Boy and the Beast along. Tenderness, tenaciousness and fondness swirl together in Hosoda’s film, making it much less a action-adventure fantasy quest than a battle of roiling emotions, the victory hard won.
Fri, May 27 – Wed, Jun 1
Directed by Mamoru Hosoda
Metro Cinema at the Garneau