A lot has changed since I made my list for The Anticipated for 2015. Some films, like Knight of Cups and The Little Prince, got moved to 2016, while others, like Spectre and Tomorrowland, disappointed much more than I expected. So it was a nice surprise when I discovered that Mamoru Hosoda’s new film Bakemono no Ko, or The Boy and the Beast, had gotten a very limited release, presumably for an Oscar qualifying run. (Which, I’ll just be honest, isn’t going to happen no matter how good it is, because the animated film category is a train wreck.) Hosoda is one of my favorite directors alive, and his last film, Wolf Children, is one of the best films I have ever seen. This means his new film has a lot to live up to, but Hosoda hasn’t disappointed me yet, so I have high hopes.
Bakemono no Ko or The Boy and the Beast (December 4th, 2015)
How was it?
Let’s get this out of the way: it was great. The key with a Hosoda film is that at this point, he is playing at such a high level that it really isn’t that surprising. Such a high level, though, means that he has very little margin for error, and in that Boy falls a little short. One of the hallmarks of a Hosada film is that he tells stories that seek to blend the supernatural or fantastical with everyday, normal life. In The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, this was done by combining time travel with the struggles of teenage girl in high school. Then in Summer Wars, this meant combining a family drama and high school love story with a Digimon-esqe world (a world Hosoda helped brainstorm by actually directing one of the Digimon movies). After that, Hosoda seamlessly blended a single mother and coming of age story with a world full of magic, spirits, and werewolves. So it is not surprising that in Bakemono no Ko he does the same. This time Hosoda tells a story that on one level is about the interaction between the impure human realm and the pure beast realm, but at its core is a story about fathers and sons.
Part of this works really, really well, but the other part leaves something to be desired. The fathers and sons side of this is really well done, which is not that surprising, considering it is basically a companion piece to Wolf Children, which is a story about mothers and their children. Hosoda clearly had a type of story he wanted to tell, one he needed two separate movies to fully explore. The effects of parents and children on each other can be quite powerful, something that’s seen throughout The Boy and the Beast. A very young Kyuta is left broken after his mother dies and his father has seemingly abandoned him; but then he meets Kumatetsu, a bearlike warrior in need of an apprentice. The relationship proves beneficial to both, as they form a father and son bond. Kumatetsu gains something to fight for other than himself, and Kyuta finds a place where he can belong in the beast realm after he was seemingly abandoned by the human world. Nothing in these scenes is particularly new, but their execution is flawless, as Hosoda knows how to hit the right emotional buttons to take the audience on a real emotional rollercoaster. The end of the film is absolutely amazing, and is some of Hosoda’s best work to date.
Unfortunately, when Hosoda starts to get away from the beast world, it takes a while for him to find the right footing. Kyuta’s rediscovery of the human world after being in the beast realm for so long struggles to work as seamlessly as did similar ideas in Wolf Children. Kyuta finds himself at a crossroads, as he no longer knows what he wants his life to be. He never wanted to be a warrior, but instead was forced to be one in order to find a place in the world. In the human world, however, that is no longer necessary. The movie slows down a bit too much during these scenes–probably to help deal with the fact that a lot is happening, but it really hurts the movie’s pacing. During these period, Kyuta is able to find his real father, who it turns out didn’t abandon Kyuta but was kept away from his son after divorcing Kyuta’s mother. This creates an interesting dynamic, as Kyuta tries to evaluate his two father figures: the beast that trained and basically raised him, and the human that was unable to do so. The movie struggles a bit with what to do with this. Unlike Wolf Children, which balances all three main characters equally, Bakemono no Ko is really a movie about Kyuta’s journey. The problem is, the movie starts off being about Kyuta and Kumatetsu equally, but struggles as it transitions to a film where Kyuta is more central. Eventually, the film does find it footing, and the last third of the movie is spectacular, but the hit-or-miss nature of middle third of the movie dings the film a bit overall.
Isn’t this based on…?
Unlike Hosoda’s previous works, which had some amount of source material that the ideas were adapted from, this is an original idea of his.
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
This could have been a tricky one. Considering my love for Wolf Children, this film had a lot to live up to, but in general I really try to not expect a director to only go in an upward trajectory with their movies, because that is simply not possible. Instead, I just want them to be able to stay roughly at the same level once they have made a great movie. Part of the reason Spectre was so disappointing is that it fell so short of the standard that Skyfall set that it didn’t matter that the movie still had a lot of positives. But while Bakemono no Ko doesn’t match the pure fun and awesome of Summer Wars, nor the seamless emotional journey between three different stories in Wolf Children, it is still quite the amazing movie. The last 40 minutes or so are particularly exquisite, and some of the best work Hosoda has ever done, evoking all of the feels. So this film lived up to my expectations for the most part.
One interesting wrinkle in this movie is that for the first time Hosoda went solo in writing, which added an extra layer of interest as to how the movie would be. Previously he had always collaborated with Satoko Okudera, and it is likely that the parts of this movie that are off are due to the fact that Hosoda had to adjust to taking care of everything himself for once. This is a really ambitious movie that attempts to juggle quite a few storylines, and Hosoda likely got a bit overwhelmed by what he was attempting to do. Another pair of eyes might been helpful for the script, but that is at the absolute highest level. Hosoda proved he could break away from Okudera without losing too much of what has made his movies special so far, so if this is something that continues in the future, there is little to worry about in terms of Hosoda dropping off without Okudera working with him. With that said, those two clearly work very well together, so I hope that Wolf Children isn’t going to be the last of their collaborations.
Would I recommend it to others?
Yes, and not just for animation fans. Like Hosoda’s past films, Boy does a great job of showing the kind of things that animation can simply do better than live-action simply can’t, no matter how far our technology has come. The fact that it also is an example of how good Japanese anime can be without feeling the need to hold itself above the concept of anime itself is an added bonus.
How does this film measure up in a post Mad Max: Fury Road world?
Look, this film isn’t quite as good as Mad Max, but it more than holds its own against the movie.
How would I rate it?
Using our handy dandy made-up anticipation meter for this film, Bakemono no Ko receives 7.5 swords in your heart out of 10, because the film has a few more cracks in its armor than Hosoda’s previous two movies, but is still a deeply entertaining and endearing tale.
For an actual rating: This film is great, but it’s a bit of a hard movie to come up with an arbitrary rating for. Some films are so good in other parts that their flaws can be overlooked, and Bakemono no Ko comes pretty close to being able to do this, but the movie meanders too much in the middle when it didn’t really need to, so that it keeps it from being a 4 star movie. Instead, it is somewhere between 3.5 stars out of 4 stars, so 3.75, I guess. (Basically I feel the same about it in this regard as I do about another great movie from this year, The Martian). Hosoda suffers some growing pains when doing the writing for his movies solo for the first time, but still tells a deeply engaging story that blends humor, action, and emotional feels quite adeptly. So this movie is highly recommended.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. This was a nice, unexpected review that I didn’t think I’d be able to write until next year. I am glad that Hosoda was able to deliver once again, and now anxiously await the three or so years until he releases his next film. Next up for The Anticipated is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Can this film possibly live up to all the hype? Find out next time during a special Christmas week review. Until then, I really need to work on my footwork or I’ll never win my upcoming duel.