Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Animation Deviation: The Boy and The Beast

Well, my cybertavern patrons, we finally come to the last of Mamoru Hosoda's animated films. It's been a real treat looking back at such an under-appreciated creative talent that doesn't get nearly as much love as he deserves. So let's finish this whole thing off with a bang with the martial arts drama, The Boy and The Beast.

The first thing that really struck me about the marketing and tone of this movie is how more upfront masculine and testosterone-filled it is. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was about a young woman dealing with a transitional period in her life, both as a woman and as a person. Wolf Children was about a woman becoming a mother and seeing her children grow up while guiding them as best as possible. Summer Wars may have had a male lead, but he was a socially awkward math geek who accidentally kicked off one of the major conflicts and was then tasked with fixing his mistake. This is what makes his filmography so unique from a gender studies perspective, but it's what helps give The Boy and the Beast the sensation of being something unique from this director, even if the actual movie itself treads familiar ground.

But it seems that Hosoda's film style and habits actively go against the movie here, leading to what I consider to be his worst, by default, cinematic outing.

But first, the let's recap the story. The movie starts with a young boy running away from home, lost and wandering through one of the busier districts of modern Japan. He has a lot on his mind since his mother recently passed away and he just escaped from protective services wanting to put him with a different part of his family that he hates. In this bitter and hateful bit of anger, the boy accidentally stumbles upon some sort of entrance to another world hidden in the district's back alleys, which takes him to an entirely different world full of anthropomorphic animal characters.

It is here that he meets Kumatetsu. A large, aggressive, brash and abrasive bear-man that decides to take the boy in and train him in martial arts as an apprentice. The problems of course are the boy is stubborn as hell and Kumatetsu is a terrible teacher, which leads to a lot of humorous but relatable squabbles between the two characters.

Why does Kumatetsu want to train this kid? Well turns out if you're a native of the beast world and manage to become a complete martial arts master, you can ascend to a higher plane and achieve something like godhood or enlightenment, a feat the world's elder is about to achieve. As such, there is a massive debate as to who will take the elder's place as leader, which has lead to a heated competition between Kumatetsu and another more disciplined boar-man. A boar-man that has an entire school of students and is seen as a more presentable and likeable person compared to our short-fused underdog protagonist. The idea being that if Kumatetsu can help train this boy into a martial arts prodigy, it would help him in his goal of defeating his rival in an upcoming martial arts competition to decide who will take place as leader.

And for the first half of the movie, this set-up works perfectly fine. We have a rough and tumble duo of main characters that get on each other's nerves but in an endearing way. We have some great visual storytelling and martial arts philosophy being presented. And of course the central conflict is whether or not the training and guidance by Kumatetsu and the rest of the cast will help him cope and ultimately get through his trauma while becoming stronger for it.

On paper this is not a bad idea at all for a movie. Mamoru Hosoda knows when to let a scene breathe and let the beautiful animation sell the emotional state of the characters, but also knows how to direct kinetic action and fast-paced drama. The visual storytelling is also surprisingly poignant. The beast world has the same atmosphere and style of a Wuxia movie, but they also spend a lot of time discussing how they don't fight to kill, murder, or conquer, that it's all about the competition and the self-improvement. How do they choose to visualize this? By having the major battles we see happen with the fighters using sheathed swords. Not just kept to the hip either, they actively strike each other with the swords still in their scabbards. I wish I could come up with a better metaphor than that.

I even really like how the two main heroes eventually grow to like each other. As I said before, Kumatetsu is not a great traditional teacher, there's even a hilarious sequence where he's trying to teach the kid proper sword stance and he just can't find the right words for it, but how the kid goes about learning from him is legitimately clever and endearing.

So why do I think The Boy and The Beast doesn't totally work? Well the first major issue I find is the pacing. I've mentioned before that Mamoru Hosoda has a habit of breezing through complex ideas and concepts, letting the visual storytelling fill in the blanks. The mechanics of time travel in Girl Who Leapt Through Time, how OZ works in Summer Wars, etc.. Normally this is acceptable since there is a solid amount of information density in those scenes, these are movies that understand and respect a film's capacity to express without speaking, and it stops the movies from getting bogged down in tedious exposition.

In The Boy and The Beast, this doesn't really work because the movie isn't rushing hand-wavey science fiction ideas or concepts; it is breezing through diverse and complex martial arts philosophy. A great example of this is a section in the movie where the duo seek the wisdom of several martial arts masters in order to understand true strength. And within five minutes they are hit with multiple religious and conceptual ideas of true strength. Strength is an illusion, strength is patience, strength is pointless, the list goes on. None of this is brought up again and the characters ultimately take nothing from the experience. No scenes of deep thought, no discussion, just, “well, that was pointless.”

This also leads to a problem with the movie's final act. The entire second half of the movie takes place after a several year-long time jump and the boy discovers a way back to the human world. Once again, Mamoru Hosoda does not miss a beat when it comes to the human element here. The boy doesn't know how to read for example, so he winds up meeting a nice woman at a library and they slowly bond over their impromptu reading lessons. All of this happening much to Kumatetsu's chagrin since he's grown to be protective of the kid and all.

Now if the movie simply ended with the kid becoming a better human being and it turning into a narrative about foster parenthood and familial bonds transcending worlds, The Boy and The Beast could have become something genuinely special. Instead, the climax becomes the very definition of forced. There's a big grand evil that comes out of nowhere and threatens both the human world and the beast world and the minute it arrived my enthusiasm went into the toilet. It doesn't fully work, in some ways it goes against the character arcs in the movie, and it is so awkwardly thrown in it hits with the impact of a wet rag.

In order to explain it in its entirety I'll have to pull off a first and put up a spoiler alert. If you still have an interest in seeing this movie to complete your Hosoda collection, I think my thoughts are documented well enough, but if you don't care and want to see where I'm going with this, venture on.

Alright, as I mentioned before when the movie starts the boy is angry and bitter towards the world. The movie decides to visualize this by having his negative emotion manifest as some sort of shadowy entity that is then quickly forgotten since we need to establish the beast world and his relationship with Kumatetsu. Fast-forward to the movie's second half during the big martial arts match and it is revealed that the boy's hatred for humanity, which he has long since grown out of, has taken control of another minor character, the boar-man's kid, and has begun twisting him into some aggressive and angry person, there's even a scene where he unsheathes a sword and uses it to mortally wound one of the major characters. Why did it affect him like this? Because the kid is also a human that the boar-man adopted but kept in the dark about his human nature. From there, this character turns into some sort of crazy force of nature that starts wrecking Japan, which is only stopped when the boy unsheathes a blade for the first time in his life and cuts him down in what is an otherwise emotionally gripping climax.

I say otherwise because these two characters never interact with one another in any meaningful way until this finale. There's a snippet of dialogue here and there, but otherwise nothing. An entire hour of screentime goes by and it's just a set-up at the beginning, then a rushed reveal in the final act. On the one hand this is supposed to be the conclusion to the kid's arc, him conquering his literal dark side with the discipline and strength gained by his training and his newfound friendships. On the other hand, this entire world emphasized the improvement of the self and the strength of letting go of hateful thought, they even go out of their way to explain that human beings inherently find such a thing difficult, only to have the kid kill someone else who was influenced by his dark thoughts for no adequately explained reason.

I don't mean the whole fact that this character started terrorizing everyone, I mean this negative emotion should have come back to the kid himself, not latch itself on to another person. That would have made the message more clear, “I was angry before but I've conquered myself.” As it stands now the message reads, “human beings are inherently angry and violent creatures and it only ends when they kill each other, no exceptions.” Even if you wanted a more external conflict, the conclusion should have been more emotionally driven, have the two characters come to an emotional head rather than just turning into something as simple a hero needing to put down a monster.

Problematic? Yes. A bit rushed and kind of falls apart near the end? A bit. Still full of heart and tender moments along with some well-animated action and character moments? Have you read any of my past reviews on this guy? I say give it a look if you're willing to overlook some flaws. Otherwise, this is a noble misstep by an otherwise impressive talent that I'm glad I saw once but won't be revisiting any time soon.

And that is the last movie by Mamoru Hosoda to date. I really do want to continue doing Animation Deviation since it helps stretch my legs with something other than talking about video games, but I really don't have a concrete plan going forward.

So I'm giving the power to choose to you! My readers! Do me a favor and follow me on Twitter @DarthRahu cuz I'm gonna be holding a poll really soon about other directors to be subjects for Animation Deviation.

Until then, I have some other ideas in mind to fill this slot so don't worry, more content is still a-comin'

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