With Studio Ghibli seemingly headed into the history books, everyone seems to be looking for the next anime grandmaster. With his latest fantastical, funny, and heart-warming feature, The Boy and the Beast, that accolade needs to be handed to Mamoru Hosada with no delay.
Just as his last Fantastic Fest title, the wonderful Summer Wars, touchingly blended young Japan's obsession with online gaming and social media with an older story of family connections, The Boy and his Beast is about a lot more than just a realm of beasts populated by deer-women and pig-monks.
When beast warrior Kumatetsu (Kappei Yamaguchi) finds Ren (voiced at varying ages by Aoi Miyazaki and Shota Sometani) on the streets of Tokyo, the human boy is a runaway: his mother dead, his father absent. By sheer pigheadedness, he finds the secret entrance to the hidden realm of Jutengal and becomes Kumatetsu's apprentice. Secretly, that's more for the warrior's benefit than the boy. He needs to prove himself to be worthy to become the next lord of beasts, but he's running a poor second to his rival, boar-man Iozan, who has sons and apprentices aplenty.
The interplay between Kumatetsu and Ren is hilarious. Initially, the bear is so disinterested he renames the boy Kyuta (for kyu, the Japanese word for nine, his age). The pair clash with farcical fury over everything from sword technique to raw eggs. But between the laughs, it's quite incredibly tender. Hosada weaves a tale of fathers, mentors, sons, and proxy families, as each learns it's OK to lean on other people. It's about who we reject and who we keep with us forever, and the holes in our hearts that we can let swallow us completely. The director captures this through a magical lens.
Hosada doesn't just create a wonderful fantasy world. As Ren walks between our world and that of the beasts, the depiction of Tokyo's Shibuya district is perfect. From individual stores to the legendary multidirectional crosswalk at the train station, it makes the world of beasts all the more plausible.
There is tragedy, to be sure, but Hosada never gets mawkish. His stories always carry a little of the sadness of life's inevitable losses, but for every tearjerking moment, there are laughs and wonder. His storytelling is so complete, from high-stakes action sequences as Ren fights to save the human world and the beast world, to the irascible hilarity of the current wily flop-eared bunny lord. Rousing, exciting, and incredibly touching: Family-friendly anime really doesn't get much better than this.
The Boy and the Beast screens again Thursday, Oct. 1, 7:30pm.
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