The Boy and the Beast, always you wrestle inside me.
No, that's not a direct line from a Terrence Malick film but an apt description of the strong pull between identity and purpose felt by two lead characters in Mamoru Hosoda's latest anime. The boy, an orphan named Ren (Shōta Sometani), and the beast, a brash warrior called Kumatetsu (Kōji Yakusho), are from different worlds and bloodlines, but they come to experience interchangeable conflicts of self.
Continuing his fascination with the way human and animal experiences magically overlap, the director's latest kicks off with Ren (quickly renamed Kyûta) abandoning his destitute urban life to become an apprentice for the massive bruiser Kumatetsu in his native fantasy utopia of Jutengai, reached through an alleyway portal in downtown Tokyo.
The set-up references a host of classic martial arts themes regarding honor and discipline, then sets them on fire. Both Kyûta and Kumatetsu are hotheads, arguing so incessantly that it appears their relationship will lead to double homicide. With a teacher who can't teach and a student who doesn't listen, stalemate seems like the only option. Yet, Hosoda's visual patience gives both characters the time and opportunity to grow beyond stereotype.
Part of their conflict stems from how Kyûta's presence in the beast world complicates Kumatetsu's quest to become the next lord, a process that will eventually culminate in a battle royale with the popular and polished stallion Lozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji). According to mythological lore, humans carry a dark hole inside their heart, leaving rampant fear that the orphan boy will taint Jutengai forever.
The Boy and Beast stages its early sequences expertly. We get a strong sense of each landscape, how strength is gained from various people and experiences, and the tricky process of mentorship. Such moments culminate in a sublime training montage where Kyûta and Kumatetsu find a perfect balance. Through colorful wide-screen vistas, the two figures move serenely in harmony, having found a way to cohere their divergent backgrounds and similarly volatile personalities.
Mid-way through, the film inserts Kyûta back into the human world to further complicate his understanding of family and home. This is where Hosoda's film goes off the rails, attempting to be too many genres at once in a short amount of time. Kumatetsu, the film's most interesting character, is left behind for a melodramatic interlude between Kyûta and a young teenage girl. The Boy and The Beast may be attempting to literalize one of its best quotes, "find the meaning on your own." But it does so at the cost of interrupting momentum, an essential building block to the master/disciple narrative that carries so much dramatic weight.
When Kyûta and Kumatetsu are reunited it feels like a half-baked plot contrivance that occurs simply because the former finds himself in need of guidance. This kind of narrative convenience ends up defining The Boy and the Beast during its ambitious albeit problematic second half dominated by Kyûta's self-pity and pubescent angst.
Glorious visuals are a staple for The Boy and the Beast, including a wistful travelogue montage of Jutengai's lush outer reaches. But they lack the emotional undercurrent of Hosoda's previous film, 2012's Wolf Children, a brilliant mesh of drama and fantasy that lovingly explores the sacrifice of parenting and shielding an outsider from social ridicule.
What separates the two films is their contrasting points of view. Hosoda's latest is frantic and messy since it sees the world through Kyûta's volatile eyes, whereas Wolf Children is more measuredly indebted to the perspective of adults in crisis.
The Boy and the Beast, which opens on Friday, March 4, at the Angelika Film Center in Carmel Mountain, ends in a surreal burst of energy and color. But for a film that claims to have so much heart, it all feels suspiciously hollow.