Review: The Boy and the Beast

With Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki at a nice retiring age (although he may still be at it!), the anime world is keen to see which up-and-coming director will take his place as the creator of legendary anime films… perhaps a bit too keen. In particular, two directors seem to be the most favored: Makoto Shinkai, and Mamoru Hosoda. Both have created some popular films (I’ve reviewed one of my most favorite Shinkai works already), and they’re still going at it.

Shinkai’s latest work, “your name.”, is doing outstandingly well in Japan (although that may be an understatement). Funimation has submitted it to the Oscars here in the US to be considered. Funimation, as well, has the rights to Hosoda’s latest work here, “The Boy and the Beast”. This film also did pretty well in Japan; when it came out, it knocked Disney’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” out of the top spot, and was the second-highest grossing 2015 film in Japan.

I was lucky to be able to watch this film on the big screen at a convention in November, 2016, which is also the first anime film I’ve seen in a theater. It was a really cool experience, honestly, and I’m excited to talk about it!

An Introduction

After his mother’s death, nine-year-old Ren lashed out at his mother’s extended family, not wanting to adjust to a new life in a new town. Angry at the world, he ran out and began to fend for himself on the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. There, he crossed paths with a tall, bear-like man under a hood, who half-jokingly offered to take him under his wing. Still angry, but now curious, he discreetly followed the man through a confusing series of alleyways to… somewhere else: the city of Jūtengai, in the world of beasts. A world of anthropomorphic, walking, talking animal-y beasts.

Here, in this city, a major problem has taken the public attention. The current lord of the beasts has decided it’s time for himself to reincarnate and become a god. So it comes down to Jūtengai’s best warriors to determine who among them will be the next lord of the beasts. There are two big contenders: the people’s-favorite Iōzen, who’s kind, thoughtful, and wise… and Kumatetsu, who’s just as strong and powerful as Iōzen, but he’s not much of a people person… uhh… people beast… beasts beast?

Kumatetsu just happens to be the guy Ren follows into the beast world, and after a random spat between Iōzen and Kumatetsu breaks out (over whether he should’ve even talked to Ren or not), Ren gets inspired, and decides to become Kumatetsu’s apprentice!

The Plot and Characters

A lot of the first half of the film is focused on young Ren (renamed to Kyūta) and Kumatetsu, as the two of them start out this whole apprenticeship thing. Kyūta being Kumatetsu’s apprentice is as new a thing to the teacher as it is to the student. There’s a lot of highly entertaining bickering and misunderstanding, and it was a good way to show their different personalities and establish these characters. It really sets the tone of the relationship between these main characters for the rest of the film.

After a training montage where Kyūta grows older by 8 years, the mood of the film begins to change. One of the countless arguments between Kyūta and Kumatetsu leads to Kyūta storming out of the small house they lived in, and stumbling back into the human world. It’s here that he begins to reconnect with his human self, meets an important side character named Kaede who is determined to teach him how to read, and also, makes me bring up the first questions of logic in this film.

Firstly, how does he even make his way back to the beast world after this? He only traveled between worlds by accident or coincidence before. Assuming he didn’t enter the human world at all before this point (and why would he?), he shouldn’t have any idea of how to get back to the beast world on his own. But yet, he does, and begins traveling between the two regularly, to focus both on being an apprentice to Kumatetsu and a student of modern human teachings.

Secondly: as he jumps between the human and beast worlds after this first encounter with Kaede, I sense him beginning to long for becoming more “human” and leaving Kumatetsu and the beast world behind. He spent most of his teenage years, a rather formative period for a human, in the beast world; if something would cause him to really leave that world behind, I don’t really get shown what it is. I can speculate and infer, sure, but it still just doesn’t sit entirely right with me.

Truthfully, these are more nitpicks, but they sat in the back of my mind as I was continuing with the film, with additional nitpicks being added on as the film reached its climax (for example, a lot of the spoilerific decisions Ichirōhiko made, and also: why didn’t the fact that “events in the human world affect the beast world here” come up before the climax?). Despite these tiny holes that I seemed to find, the story was still compelling, and they won’t cause me to dislike the film.

The supporting characters in this film often become developed enough to feel fleshed out, but yet not truly deep. Tatara is Kumatetsu’s laid-back, path-of-least-resistance friend. Hyakushūbō is a more neutral, calm, and collected monk that sticks around to help Kyūta. They many times act as voices of reasons, plot devices, or catalysts, and also serve the comic relief role as well, making them a really enjoyable and worthy side cast. The two other characters worth mentioning are Iōzen’s two sons: Ichirōhiko and Jirōmaru. Both start off hating Kyūta, but come into their own and play their own roles as the movie zooms towards its climax.

All in all, the movie is about Kyūta / Ren, and him simply learning how to take charge, be responsible, and, overall, be mature. The movie succeeds in this with dramatic flair, and a final battle that had a deserved amount of buildup. I really had a lot of fun with this movie, and it makes for a good addition to the collection of coming-of-age stories. That being said, it doesn’t exactly do much to make it stand out as the coming-of-age movie to see, but that shouldn’t discredit its value.

The pacing starts pretty slow towards the beginning – as we’re being introduced to Ren, the beast world, and training starts between him and Kumatetsu – but gradually gets faster and faster, with more and more important/serious bits packed in, as the movie continues. At the climax, it feels hectic and super-dramatic; you’re now going 100 miles-per-hour on this ride and you’re waiting with baited breath for what happens next. Overall, this pacing really serves the characters well.

The Atmosphere

One thing I really enjoy about anime movies is the fact that it allows animation studios to create really high-quality art and animation. This movie does not fail to deliver here, and there are some scenes in this film that were shot in a particular way that I really enjoyed, such as when Kyūta fought the bullies bothering Kaede on the night they met. All in all, the animation in this movie was pretty amazing, including even with extra characters.

That being said, I felt a tad underwhelmed with the quality of the art here. It’s not that the art is bad, it’s certainly of a very good quality, but I would’ve hoped for something with even more detail than what we got. I get particularly drawn to realistic-looking backgrounds in anime, which is what draws me to a lot of Kyoto Animation works. So, KyoAni’s background work in its movies set an extremely high bar for me that not many other productions really reach, and certainly not as consistently. As well, all the characters in this film had some to no shading throughout the entire film. I suspect it’s an artistic decision, but it’s one that I personally don’t really like all too much. It felt like it stood out weirdly to the well-shaded, painted backgrounds.

This being said, a decent amount of the 3-D CGI background pieces actually looked really good in this movie. There is a montage in the first part of the film where Kumatetsu, Kyūta, Tatara, and Hyakushūbō all travel to meet the various lords of the beast world, and the backgrounds used for each scene with each lord looked truly magnificent to me. That also being said, a giant CGI animal is used for the climax of the film, which was fine enough to do what needs to be done, but it does look weird at certain points, and increasingly so the more it was on screen.

The character designs in this movie are pretty great too, honestly. I really love Kumatetsu’s design, actually, and he probably has the most exaggerated expressions throughout the entire film. Overall, how he was animated and drawn really fit him well, and really made him an enjoyable character. The other character designs are, again, great. I also have a particular like for Ichirōhiko and Jirōmaru’s designs, which continued to be good even as the two of them aged alongside Kyūta.

The sound design in this film was also pretty good. As you’d expect, the background music seemed orchestral, with strings being used quite frequently throughout the film, although brass and woodwinds also play their part. A particular song that featured the sound of tap-dancing was used in a fight between Kumtetsu and Iōzen early into the movie and it was really cool. The music is given its time to really strut its stuff in the film, especially during the 3-D animated exposition scene at the beginning of the film and the montages used throughout the movie. Sound effect usage was also quite on point. When Kyūta made his first return to the human world, the sounds of the city really helped drive home the differences between the two worlds.

When I watched the movie, it was shown with the English dub (probably not surprisingly). Funimation usually does okay to really good with its dubs though, and in my experience, North American companies usually put extra effort into the dub for an anime movie. So, it really comes as no surprise that I rather enjoyed the dub for this movie.

John Swasey does an awesome job as Kumatetsu, and I also have to give major props to Luci Christian as young Kyūta and Ian Sinclair as Tatara. The English dub seems to mirror the Japanese voices pretty closely as well, from what I can tell with the few clips I could find after a quick Google search. I feel you’ll have a really comparable experience no matter what language you watch it in, and it could even be relatively easy to switch between Japanese or English without one or the other sounding weird.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

The Boy and the Beast is a movie about Kyūta, about growing up, and about learning. It’s different, and entertaining, due to both the characters in this film and the travel between the two worlds of humans and beasts. Although, despite that, this film doesn’t become an outstanding example of a coming-of-age story, it still is a really enjoyable and dramatic experience, and it will sweep you up in it as the pace quickens and plot thickens.

This film is a two-hour experience. Although this certainly isn’t the longest anime film I’ve seen (thank you, Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (although I love you to bits)), it’s still a tiny bit on the long side. That doesn’t detract me from saying it’s more than worth the watch if you’re able to do so. This is definitely a story about characters though, and although there is certainly a decent amount of action, it’s more about seeing our main character grow and develop over anything else.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ great relationship between Kumatetsu and Kyūta, everything about Kumatetsu is done perfectly, really good animation overall
— a few plot holes continue to sit in my mind, some to no shading on all characters, 3-D CGI animal in climax looks odd at times

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