When his mother dies, 9-year-old Ren figures he’d rather take his chances on the mean streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district than move in with his cousins. A moody lad by nature, his scowling-around-dustbins routine catches the eye of Kumatetsu, a cloaked beast wandering the city in search of a human apprentice he can train up to replace him as an ass-kicking warrior in the Beast Kingdom, a realm only accessible via a Harry Potter-style magic passageway. It all seems fair enough to Ren, who could use a change of scene. Now renamed Kyuta, the boy proves a fast learner and develops a unique ability to predict his surly Master’s next move. But wouldn’t you know it, there’s a storm coming…
Director Mamoru Hosoda is no slouch with this kind of family-friendly material. Previous successes The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children have seen him snapping at the heels of the great (and currently rebooting) Studio Ghibli, to which he owes a clear debt in his approach to both story and animation (he was tapped up by Ghibli to direct Howl’s Moving Castle but left early on and has named his new company ‘Studio Chizu’). It’s proven to be a commercially sound strategy - The Boy and the Beast was Japan’s second highest grossing of the year when released there back in 2015.
While the animation is breath-taking, the characters are less well-served. Leading lad Kyuta’s backstory is dashed-off almost as a convenience in the first few minutes and the emotional ‘journey’ he goes on is entirely predictable, albeit in ways that make us complicit with some by-the-numbers moralising. On the up-side, Kyuta’s relationship with Kumatetsu/The Beast’ is defined through a series of wonderfully antagonistic dialogue exchanges that knocks their father/surrogate son trajectory away from cliché towards something altogether more believable and affecting. It’s a good job this odd couple are so much fun to be around, because the two-hour running time could easily lose a few of their kendo training sessions.
But it looks fantastic. Momoda’s penchant for meticulously detailed vistas teaming with life is well represented in scenes of Tokyo’s densely populated streets and the gargantuan battle arena of the Beast Kingdom. And while it lacks the mind-bending visual ingenuity of some of his earlier works, having the story’s divergent worlds of fantasy and reality intersect in the final act is a welcome opportunity for some trademark weirdness, not least a giant whale shadow that comes seething over the city, casting a deadly firestorm wherever it falls. You won’t see that in The Lion King.
With story beats taken from Disney, Star Wars and The Karate Kid, this crowd-pleasing blockbuster aims high and largely scores. Keep Mr Hosoda on your anime radar.
THE BOY AND THE BEAST / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: MAMORU HOSODA / STARRING: KŌJI YAKUSHO, AOI MIYAZAKI, SHŌTA SOMETANI / RELEASE DATE: 4TH SEPTEMBER