It has become almost bad form to judge an animated movie based on the quality of its animation; the idea being that if you’re admiring the line-work or textures then you’re clearly not sufficiently invested in the story. How this is any different to reviewing cinematography or editing in other genres it’s almost impossible to say. But for The Boy and the Beast (or Bakemono no ko, as it’s known in Japan), the work of Studio Chizu should not be ignored: whether it’s the endlessly expressive characters or the immensely impressive action sequences, Wolf Children director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest is a weird wonder to behold.
It’s the story of runaway Ren (Aoi Miyazaki), an angry nine-year-old who refuses to live with his uncle after the death of his mother and flees instead to a pocket universe populated by anthropomorphic animals. Arriving in Jutengai, Ren volunteers to become Kumatetsu’s (Koji Yakusho) apprentice, a development that takes the entire community by surprise given his reputation as a lazy recluse. Rechristened Kyutu, Ren then spends the next eight years training under him, both master and student inevitably learning valuable lessons in the process. Just as Kumatetsu is preparing to face off against Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji) for the honour of succeeding Lord Soshi (Masahiko Tsugawa), however, Ren returns to the human world, to Tokyo, where he reconnects with his father and develops feelings for a local student.
For years Studio Ghibli has been unofficially the international face of Japanese animation, in cinemas at least, but with that studio halting production in the wake of director Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement it seems there is finally room for a fresh voice. Having cut his teeth on Digimon before moving onto feature length films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, Hosoda has an entirely different sensibility, less studied and more energetic — tonally reminiscent of the sort of anime that used to air on Toonami, perhaps with its own Trading Card Game to keep viewers engaged during the ads. The Boy and the Beast is funny, frenetic and fast-paced; a far cry from the likes of The Wind Rises, which let’s not forget focused on aerodynamics, tuberculosis and the morality of war — every kid’s favourite subjects. Kumatetsu may swear a lot, but otherwise The Boy and the Beast is as family-friendly as it gets.
That’s not to suggest that the story is entirely without nuance; the bakemono of the film’s title may be broadly drawn archetypes but the human characters are rendered with a real depth and dramatic weight. When we meet Ren he is so consumed with adolescent rage that — like many a J-horror sprite before him — he imprints a malevolent force onto the world around him. Humans aren’t welcome in Jutengai for a reason: there’s an insatiable void at their centre that threatens to devour anything and everything it comes into contact with. Inevitably, this warning goes unheeded, and when it is revealed that there is already another human living in Jutengai on the verge of self-destruction Ren must use his newly honed abilities to neutralise the threat the interloper poses to both worlds. There are also parallels drawn with Moby Dick, one of the books Ren studies when he enrolls in college, which may explain why the emerging evil eventually takes the form of a giant whale.
Silly, then, but still with a certain sophistication, The Boy and the Beast is an effervescent anime and one of the most exquisite feature-length animations of recent memory — hand-drawn or otherwise. It’s little wonder Ren struggles so desperately to choose between Tokyo and Jutengai when they are both so beautifully realised.