Dir: Mamoru Hosoda
I consider Mamoru Hosoda one of the most interesting auteurs currently working, not just in anime but in movies as a whole, so it is one of the biggest disappointments of this year's LFF to report that his latest is by far his weakest solo directorial effort.
9-year-old runaway Ren (voiced as a child by Aoi Miyazaki) encounters Kumatetsu (Koji Yashuko), a bear-like beast who has crossed briefly from his world of Juntegai into the human world, looking for an apprentice. Ren follows Kumatetsu and becomes his apprentice in Juntegai, the two eventually teaching each other and training for the day that Kumatetsu must battle another best to become ruler of Juntegai. Once he is 17, Ren (now voiced by Tokyo Tribe's Shota Somentani) begins taking trips back to the human world, finding himself torn between a girl there, his real father and Kumatetsu, the father that raised him.
Hosoda fans reading that summary will immediately recognise many of the director's trademarks. His overarching tactic of taking stories about everyday human emotion and conflicts and wrapping them in a huge sci-fi or (as in this case) fantasy concept is intact. Like his last film, 2012's dazzling Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast is largely about parenthood. In this case, the focus is on how Ren and his brittle adoptive father essentially end up raising each other; Ren teaching Kumatetsu control and Kumatetsu showing Ren that someone will always be there for him. This and other things in the film are moving lessons, but a lot of it feels like Hosoda is raking over old ground that he has mined much more profitably in the past.
The world of Juntegai is beautifully imagined and rich in detail, every beast has an individual design and Hosoda's character design and animation is as precise and characterful as ever. What is missing from this side of the film, however, is much sense of rising stakes. The battle for control of Juntegai never seems terribly important, largely because both the outcome and the mechanism by which we will arrive at it are obvious from the off. Hosoda signposts other plot developments far too clearly as well, in a film that, for a long time, seems to lack an ultimate bad guy, it's clear almost from the first appearance of the character who that bad guy will end up being, and clear from the design what his motives will be. Foreshadowing is one thing, but here Hosoda seems to do it with flashing neon signs pointing out the plot and character development.
There are some wonderful moments in the film. The training sequences, as Ren begins to copy Kumatetsu's movements but tries not to let Kumatetsu see him, bring out the best in Hosoda. The shot design here is often as funny as it is evocative, telling both the story and the emotion in a series of dialogue-free frames. Even better is the prologue, which explains the world of Juntegai and renders all of its characters as flames. It's an extraordinary looking scene that promises much for the film to come. The Boy and the Beast is never less than visually engaging. The final sequences, as Juntegai threatens the human world, are also especially impressive, with dark visuals and a sense of menace that sets them apart from the rest of the film, which is often bright and cartoony. Hosoda's storytelling may be malfunctioning this time out, but his visual sense seems as keen as ever.
Another thing that seems to have deserted Hosoda this time is his pacing, his films often nudge the two-hour mark, but The Boy and the Beast is strange in that it feels both too short and too long. The pace slackens quite often in the Juntegai sequences, which can feel repetitive and as if they are anxious to drum exposition that has already been established into you several times over, you could say that this is for the kids in the audience, but this will likely be a 12A when released, and there is little to establish that will challenge any intelligent 9 year old. On the other hand, several sequences are rushed through with almost unseemly haste, chief among these is a sequence in which Ren and Kumatetsu go to visit the leaders of the other beast kingdoms. This sequence boils down to a few very brief jokes and an obvious, one line, lesson, but it could easily have formed the backbone of an effective quest narrative.
I don't know quite what to make of The Boy and the Beast, it's clearly a Hosoda film, it pulses with his favourite themes and messages and often delivers them effectively, but it never resonates the way that Wolf Children, Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time do. Ultimately this is hit and miss fare but must count as a big swing and a miss from a director who has, to date, delivered 3 modern anime classics.