We have been looking recently at the films of Mamoru Hosoda, the director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children. The Boy and the Beast is his 2015 film, which he also wrote, and his most recent work with the exception of Mirai, which has been in cinemas recently and I will write about for this blog when I have seen it. For The Boy and the Beast, Hosoda delves into the realms of Japanese folklore.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in this kind of thing, but I notice that a lot of religion and folklore in Japan works on the basis of a spiritual or magical world that exists parallel to our own and occasionally touches or crosses over with the more prosaic world of man. Spirited Away is the obvious example of a film that works on that basis, although that is much more concerned with the Shinto faith: i.e. a world of spirits. The Boy and the Beast, although it works along similar lines, shows the connection and contrast between the human world and the realm of bakemono, which are creatures that often take the form of animals and can shapeshift. Hosoda limits the shapeshifting abilities to the Lord of his bakemono realm only, which he names Jutengai, and that limitation becomes an important plot point at the end of the film.
As fascinating as I find all that kind of thing, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t matter because it’s just a vehicle for exploring themes of identity, human failings, belonging and parenthood.
The main character is Ren, who is a runaway child from a tragic and broken home, or so he thinks, who crosses over into Jutengai and is taken under the wing of the titular “beast”, Kumatetsu. Refusing to give his name, Ren is renamed Kyuta, based on the Japanese number 9 “kyuu”. So far, so Spirited Away: a name becomes a number. And just like Spirited Away, the residents of this other world do not like humans and treat them with suspicion. That brings us to an important theme: the failings of human beings. The reason humans are disliked is the danger they pose: they have a dark side, which can have severe and spectacular consequences if it is let loose in Jutengai.
That might sound like a very negative view of humanity, but the movie teaches how family and friends can help a human to overcome their dark side. The key difference between Kyuta and his rival Ichirouhiko is that Kyuta has the emotional support network he needs to bring him back from the brink, while Ichirouhiko lacks that. They are fascinating parallel characters in many ways: they are out of place, trying to fit in to a world that is not their own; they have bakemono taking on parental roles for them, in the absence of their birth parents; they are both struggling to find their place in the world. Ultimately this is a film that explores identity crises and abandonment issues, within the framework of an entertaining fantasy.
It is to the credit of Hosoda that we get so used to the world of Jutengai that it is a huge shock when a deadly conflict spills out into the human world, and we are back in amongst the lights of a big city. And Hosoda does something very clever with that. At the start of the film, Ren’s progress through the city is tracked by security camera footage. It might seem just like a director’s trick, but when we get to the big dramatic moments back in the human world the footage is used to illustrate the difference between what is actually happening and what people can see, and it’s very scary.
Hosoda’s work to date could be viewed superficially as derivative: a butterfly effect time travel movie, misused technology threatening the world, a werewolf movie, and this one, a Sorceror’s Apprentice / Spirited Away mashup. But what Hosoda does so brilliantly is to take relatively familiar concepts as a starting point, and use those concepts to tell a story about what makes us who we are. His explorations of the human condition are fascinating and compelling. I can’t wait to see what he will come up with next. RP