Mamoru Hosoda is one of the few anime directors making films that connect widely with an international audience; this is especially true since Studio Ghibli’s departure. How else can I describe The Boy and the Beast other than anime reclaiming itself, reminding us how myths aren’t just embedded in history but timelessly ingrained to culture and people. Studio Ghibli has created a juggernaut reminding us of that. The Boy and the Beast is the newest dish on Mamoru Hosoda’s palette of low fantasy fiction, the previous three discovering their own ways to stand out in a medium over-saturated with baroque fiction; The Boy and the Beast is destined to do the same. This is a film about warriorhood, a subversion of the fighting spirit and a celebration of it. Somehow, Hosoda is can tell an uplifting story of real-world grief by putting its bereaved protagonist through the trials of mythical realms where animals walk and talk, eat and clean, and learn to fight as if it was just another day at school.
Mamoru Hosoda constructs fantasies that reflect reality. In most films, the reluctant hero is often unwilling to answer the call to action but in The Boy and the Beast, it’s that very call to action that Ren, our reluctant hero, naively accepts. I think it’s also important to mention that the character who calls him to action is just as naive. Kumatetsu, an unpopular warrior in his world, takes Ren as an apprentice for shits and giggles, so-to-speak. The point is that neither really know what they’re doing, they’re both selfish and impatient but when they begin to understand each other and come to accept the terms of each other’s existence they’re differences becomes a way to open their hearts and minds to something greater and more than themselves. Sure, we’re culled by the spectacular fights, but when we’re treated to the moments where Kumatetsu and Ren bicker and spar, we learn everything the filn is really about the two learning and appreciating what the other has to offer emotionally and intellectually.
Conflicting with the film’s philosophy of mutuality and shared knowledge is the very nature of the beast kingdom itself, which looks down on its human counterparts—a big reason for this being our pesky emotions always get the better of us. This belief is manifested earlier in the film, Ren sees his reflection, but it’s a literal shadow of himself engulfed by a black void. This happens in a moment of self-loathing and inconsolable grief. Hosoda knows grief and sadness, and he certainly knows how to animate it, but the beauty of his films (and The Boy and the Beast alone) is that rather than dwell on grief alone, he actually allows his characters to slowly overcome them and mend their wounds. Kumatetsu, in a Rocky-esque underdog scenario, trains to outmatch his opponent and become the next beast lord—this serves only as a tertiary side quest in the film. A revelation near the end of the film is an unsettling reminder that Ren’s true conflict comes like a dark fantasy but what makes it unsettling is that it’s as human as it is fantasy. Hosoda may spend a majority of the film allowing his characters to overcome grief, but he certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to confronting the black void of grief head on.
The heart of any good fantasy is a centralized human element—Hosoda captures this two-fold in both the beast world and the human one. The moments where Ren rediscovers modern day Japan is like a Pandora’s Box of bonds left unbroken, relationships unresolved, needs unfulfilled and a world unexplored, here Hosoda flirts with the uncompromising challenges of the real world, allowing airs of self-doubt and oversight to affect the story. The film even finds bits of intimacy when Ren meets Kaede, a schoolgirl with her own toils and hardships, and his estranged father, whom he haphazardly attempts to reconnect with. It’s an ironic cycle of learning and relearning, Ren—approaching adulthood—willfully leaves the Beast Kingdom, where he spent his formative years, seduced by the mysteries and complexities that shape our world. The story here is structured to let the audience to wonder what the Beast Kingdom might have meant for Ren: Is it a grieving process? Coming-of-age? Rite of passage? Whatever the case, it creates an inner-conflict both mysterious and deeply resonant.
Great anime isn’t easy to come by these days, so it’s important that when we get something as good as The Boy and the Beast, we should cherish the experience while remaining cautiously optimistic that either Hosoda will return, or other aspiring directors will follow in his footsteps (and perhaps bring on an entirely new breed of popular anime). As for right now, The Boy and the Beast will suffice. This film is a rarity of high-octane action spectacle and deeply ingrained human emotion envisioned and imagined within two worlds—whether one is real or fake doesn’t matter, both have their own honest share of knowledge to dispense and lessons to teach.