Around the middle of the early morning screening of Mamoru Hosoda’s new animation feature film “The Boy and the Beast”, I became more conscious of its narrative flaws, but I was entertained in spite of that. While its plot is overstuffed at times, I enjoyed its bouncing style and energy, and I kept caring about its story even when I was keenly aware of that it tried too much especially during its final act.
After the prologue scene introducing its fantasy world hidden around Tokyo, we meet Ren (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki), a little young boy who has recently lost his dear mother. Because his father left him and his mother for some reason, his mother’s family is going to take care of Ren instead, but he runs away from them while still struggling with the deep grief and resentment in his heart, and we see him wandering alone around the downtown area of Tokyo.
During one evening, Ren happens to encounter two strangers on the street, and he is surprised to see that they are not humans but beasts in humanoid appearance. They are Kumatetsu (voiced by Kôji Yakusho) and his friend Tatara (voiced by Yô Ôizumi), and they were having a little walk in the human world while hiding their identities. Ren follows after them right after this odd encounter, and he soon finds himself entering a narrow mysterious alley which turns out to be a secret portal to Jutengai, the medieval fantasy world inhabited by thousands of various humanoid beasts.
Because the aging leader of this alien world, Grand Master (voiced by Masahiko Tsugawa), is going to retire through reincarnation, everyone is interested in who will be his successor. While it seems Iozen (voiced by Kazuhiro Yamaji), a gentle but skillful fighter in the shape of boar, will be the successor as his master’s model pupil liked and respected by many others for his decency and integrity, Kumatetsu, a brash, rambunctious rogue pupil in the shape of big bad wolf, also wants to succeed his master, though he is far less popular due to his bumpy character problems. Once Grand Master decides on when and how he will be reincarnated, the duel between Iozen and Kumatetsu will be held, and its eventual victor will then succeed him.
Mainly because Ren has nowhere to go and Kumatetsu needs at least one pupil to make his appearance look a bit better, Kumatetsu accepts Ren as his pupil even though humans are not very welcomed in Jutengai for a good reason. Not so surprisingly, they do not get along well with each other because of their feisty temper besides the failure to communicate during their lesson time, and their frequent clashes become the constant source of amusements and headaches for Tatara and Kumetetsu’s other close friend Monk Momoaki (voiced by Rirî Furankî), who almost looks like a human being except his piggy nose and ears.
Anyway, Kumatetsu and Ren gradually come to accept each other through the progress somewhere between “The Jungle Book” and “The Karate Kid” (1984). Ren, who gets his new name Kuyta from his unorthodox mentor, comes to learn one good useful fighting skill for himself at last, and then he learns more from Kumatetsu, who also learns many things from his plucky pupil and becomes a little more matured than before as time goes by.
The story takes a detour around that point, and that is where it becomes less interesting. When he happens to come back to Tokyo several years later, Kyuta (voiced by Shôta Sometani from this point) encounters a pretty girl named Kaede (voiced by Suzu Hirose), and they instantly get close to each other as she helps him learning how to read. Kyuta also meets a person he still does not forget, and he begins to consider re-settling in his former world in spite of all those years with Kumatetsu and others in Jutengai.
Of course, there eventually comes that long-awaited duel held in a big colosseum, but then the movie goes for another climax through one of its supporting characters. This part feels overlong and redundant while not entirely working, but the director/writer Mamoru Hosoda still has more good visual stuffs to brandish at least, and I like how a certain famous literature novel is used, though I must point out that Tokyo has endured more terrifying things in Godzilla films.
It also helps that Kôji Yakusho brings lots of life and personality into his engaging voice performance. Reminiscent of Toshirô Mifune’s swaggering character in “Seven Samurais” (1954), Kumatetsu comes to us an endearing guy even when he behaves like a wolfish bull in a china shop, and there is something poignant about how his gradual transformation along the story leads him to the point where he never imagined before. Although Kyuta looks inevitably bland compared to his colorful mentor especially after he grows up to be a hunky lad, that remains to be a minor flaw thanks to many of supporting characters who are distinctive in each own way. While Rirî Furankî and Yô Ôizumi make a nice contrast with each other, Masahiko Tsugawa has a little fun with his old wise character who always seems to know more than his goofy appearance suggests, and I love that little furry white creature named Chiko, who is virtually Kyuta’s Jiminy Cricket.
Mamoru Hosoda has been known for his several notable animation films including “The Girl Who Leapt through Time” (2006), “Summer Wars” (2009), and “Wolf Children” (2012), and he gives us another solid work here. Although it is relatively less enchanting than Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001), “The Boy and the Beast” has its own charm with colors and details to appreciate in its lovely cell animation, and it surely shows us that, despite Miyazaki’s recent retirement, Japanese animation still has other goodies to entertain us.