Well, here’s a pleasant little surprise that came right the fuck out of nowhere.

The Boy and the Beast is a Japanese animated film that was written and directed by Mamoru Hosada, who’s entirely unknown outside the anime fan (or “otaku”, if I recall correctly) community. There isn’t a single name actor in the English dub cast. And it’s not like this was brought to us by the Weinsteins or Magnolia Pictures or some other arthouse company known to bring mainstream clout to foreign pictures — this one was distributed in the USA by FUNimation, virtually unheard of in theaters of any size, aside from the odd Fathom Events screening of the latest “Dragon Ball Z” movie.

I have no idea how this movie got a theatrical release (however limited) here in the States. But I’m very glad that it did.

The plot is kind of a Japanese fantasy riff on “The Jungle Book”, but it’s still more than unique enough to stand on its own merit. The boy of the title is nine-year-old Ren (voiced as a child by Luci Christian), whose mother has recently passed away. His parents are divorced and his father is nowhere to be found, so the family of Ren’s mother tries to take him in. But Ren isn’t having any of that, so he runs away.

One thing leads to another and to make a long story short (too late!), Ren stumbles into a parallel universe run by anthropomorphic beasts. No, not that one. This is the realm of Jutengai, ruled by a beast that can choose to be reincarnated into a god. Yes, seriously.

In fact, the current ruler of Jutengai (a rabbit, voiced by Steve Powell) has decided that he wants to ascend to the status of godhood, and two candidates have stepped forward to replace him. One of them is Iozen (Sean Hennigan), a boar widely beloved of the people, with two sons and an army of disciples under his tutelage. The other is a bear named Kumatetsu (John Swasey), an admittedly talented fighter who’s all strength and no control. Because he’s so brash and arrogant and boorish, nobody really likes him and Kumatetsu would have no idea what to do with a pupil if anyone ever agreed to learn from him. However, the Beast Lord has decreed that Kumatetsu must take an apprentice if he’s going to be a serious contender for the throne. And so Kumatetsu stumbles onto Ren, decides that he’ll do, and renames the boy Kyuta.

(Side note: This isn’t explained in the film, but it seems that the name is derived from the word “kyuu”, which means “nine” in Japanese. Because he’s nine years old, you see.)

It’s the relationship between Kyuta and Kumatetsu that really powers the film, especially in the first half. The both of them are so stubborn, so quick to anger, and so self-centered that they challenge each other superbly. They’re completely unafraid to confront each other with hard truths, and there’s no one else who can push each other quite like they do. What’s more, the both of them don’t have the slightest clue how to learn from each other or how to teach each other, and watching them try to figure that out together is genuinely captivating.

So Kumatetsu and Kyuta grudgingly train together, learning from each other in such a way that it gets hard to tell just who’s teaching whom. By the halfway point in the movie, Kyuta has grown into a young adult (now voiced by Eric Vale). And this is when he somehow stumbles back into the human world.

The transition is understandably awkward, as Kyuta has dropped off the map for eight years. Nobody recognizes him, his family ties have all been long severed, and Kyuta himself has been out of school for so long that he can barely read or count. Luckily, he’s befriended by a beautiful young bookworm named Kaede (Bryn Apprill), who agrees to help train his mind and help Ren find his way in the human world.

Needless to say, the compare/contrast between the two worlds is a lot of fun and very intriguing. The beast world was all about training Kyuta to be a badass warrior, the apprentice to a possible future Beast Lord, while the human world is all about training Ren to be a brilliant young man with a great career. Kumatetsu heaps so much verbal abuse onto Kyuta in an effort to hide his own affections and insecurities, while Kaede is a much more open and honest companion to Ren. Then we get to the point when Ren is reunited with his father (voiced by Chuck Huber). Ren shouts at his father, and the latter is only too happy to roll over and apologize. What follows is an awkward silence, which is kind of sweet and adorable — you can tell that Kyuta is more used to the shouting matches with his father figure in the beast world.

Needless to say, this is one of those stories in which the protagonist develops into a master of both worlds. Though along the way, Kyuta/Ren has to grapple with who he is, what he is, where his home is, and so on. But this movie puts an interesting twist on those old familiar themes of identity and growth by expressing them through education. In this movie — as in life — growth is synonymous with learning, and what we know is an integral part of who we are. Furthermore, as Kyuta/Ren and Kumatetsu both come to learn, teaching can turn out to be another way of learning if it’s done properly.

It’s a wonderful concept, beautifully expressed through characters and relationships that are perfectly sympathetic from start to finish. But does that mean the movie’s perfect? Fuck no!

To start with, there’s the matter of all the wise animal sages that Kumatetsu and Kyuta are sent to go and learn from. This huge world-spanning quest is portrayed in all of ten minutes. The sages themselves are only seen again in passing and nothing they say or do is ever referenced again. Aside from one completely unrelated conversation at the very end of the sequence, absolutely everything about this story thread could have been cut with no consequence.

Really, the whole plot is kinda wonky in its structure. For a story that puts so much importance on the passage of time, the film has a very inconsistent attitude with regards to the passage of eight freaking years. To wit, this is one of those films in which the younger characters (namely Kyuta, as well as Iozen’s sons) change dramatically while the adult characters haven’t changed a single hair (The Lion King is another example). What’s even worse is that Kumatetsu and Iozen are supposed to be waiting for the Beast Lord to decide which god he’s going to reincarnate as. Like it took this rabbit nearly a fucking decade to make that choice?! After he already announced that he was retiring?! I mean, I know it’s quite a decision, but that’s still a crock.

Then there’s the matter of the supporting cast. We’ve got a monkey named Tatara (Ian Sinclair), who quite adamantly believes that Kyuta’s training is a frivolous waste of time, and a pig named Hyakushubo (Alex Morgan), the more nurturing parent figure. Granted, Tatara makes for some delightful comic relief, Hyakushubo provides a much-needed voice of reason, and they’re both wonderful foils for Kyuta and Kumatetsu. That said, Hyakushubo is supposed to be an apprentice monk, and that occupation is never once addressed outside of a passing mention. As for Tatara, hell if I know who he is or what he does. There’s never any explanation given for who these characters really are or why they spend so much time around Kumatetsu.

As for Iozen, I find it genuinely interesting that this story follows the unlikeable underdog, as opposed to the upstanding warrior who seems perfectly qualified already to take the top job. That said, it’s probably a good thing that Iozen spends more time as an offscreen presence — any more screen time, and it would only become that much more obvious how flat he is.

But then we have Iozen’s sons, Jiromaru and Ichirohiko. I love how the two of them are both deeply inspired by their father, but in different ways. At first, Jiromaru (Brittney Karbowski) is inspired by Iozen’s strength and becomes a lunkheaded bully, while Ichirohiko (Morgan Berry) strives to match his father’s compassion. Then the two of them grow up (now respectively voiced by Josh Grelle and Austin Tindle), and their roles have somehow reversed. It’s a fascinating development, somehow played in such a way that it actually makes sense. Kinda.

Last but not least is by far my biggest problem with this movie. See, the beasts try to keep their distance from humans, forbidding them from entering the beast world for fear of the darkness inside them. This gets into the absurd fallacy that humans are the only species that kills its own, as if animals don’t kill each other all the damn time, but that at least might have been easy to overlook. If only the darkness inside humans wasn’t made into an actual, literal, tangible force. Something that could seriously turn human beings into full-on demons with apocalyptic evil superpowers.

I’m fully aware that for a movie with such a crazy premise, the bar for suspension of disbelief has been set really high. But this bullshit is so far removed from parallel universes and anthropomorphic animals that it pulled me right out of the movie, wondering how the fuck we got to this point.

Yes, the filmmakers were trying to make a visual expression of the protagonist’s own inner conflict, and that expression is indeed visually gorgeous. But there had to be a better way of doing it. Some method that wasn’t so blunt, so random, so simplistic, and so incredibly stupid. Something that makes sense within the world that’s already been established, that’s all I’m asking for.

That aside, there’s no doubt that the film looks incredible. The animation is sterling, and the environments in both worlds look positively vibrant. That said, there are some moments of questionable CGI, especially during the climax. I was also thrown off by the androgynous designs on the child characters, and it certainly didn’t help that the young male characters were all voiced by women.

Yet in spite of this movie’s flaws, I had a great time with The Boy and the Beast. It looks amazing, it moves at a great clip, the action and comedy are very effective, but most importantly, there is a very strong beating heart to this flick. The central Kyuta/Kumatetsu relationship is easily worth the price of admission, and the central theme of growth through education is very elegant. I just wish the filmmakers had stuck with that instead of going so deep into the subject of “inner darkness”, or at least kept that issue to the subtext instead of making it a corporeal antagonist.

This is definitely a film worth seeking out.

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