Exit stage left Hayao Miyazaki; enter stage right Mamoru Hosoda? If the Japanese box-office is any guide, the recently-abdicated anime crown will next be worn by the writer-director responsible for one the country’s major summer hits, The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no ko). Hosoda, who was briefly and ill-fatedly connected with Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli a decade ago before branching out with his own organization, delivers a raucously entertaining if slightly overlong romp which borrows liberally from existing sources — it’s at heart a Harry Potter-flavored fusion of The Jungle Book and The Karate Kid — but has more than enough character and brio to stand foursquare on its own two hairy feet.
Displaying “legs” aplenty at home with a haul already well north of $40 million, eclipsing Hosoda’s previous successes The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009) and Wolf Children (2012), the two-hour fantasia debuted internationally at Toronto then made history by becoming the first cartoon to compete for San Sebastian’s Golden Shell. It’s getting a hefty international push by Paris-based distributor/sales-agent Gaumont, and will open on 200 French screens in mid-January, with theatrical play already also lined up in Britain, Italy, Australia, Canada and the USA. FUNimation will launch the picture Stateside later this year via a limited Oscar-qualifying run before a wider release in early 2016.
Japanese productions have landed Best Animated Feature nominations in each of the last two years via Ghibli’s pair The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and while The Boy and the Beast is a more conventional affair than either, it is also a more accessible and commercial prospect. Squarely aimed at younger male audiences, it follows the travails of street-kid Ren (voiced by 29-year-old actress Aoi Miyazaki) as he escapes modern Tokyo into Jutengai, a parallel reality (accessed by simply wandering down certain back-alleys) populated by talking, civilized, semi-humanoid beasts. Ren is selected as a suitable apprentice by the bear-like Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho), a rough-hewn behemoth who’s one of two candidates poised to inherit the realm’s throne when the current Lord (Masahiko Tsugawa) ascends to divine status.
Over the course of eight years Ren — renamed Kyutu by Kumatetsu — receives intensive samurai-type training from his new master/dad-surrogate. But when he reaches the verge of manhood at 17, Ren/Kyutu (now voiced by pinup Shota Sometani) finds himself torn between worlds. For all its corporate banality and bland conformity, Tokyo offers the chance of romance, a belated resumption of formal education and the possibility of reconnecting with his (wimpish) biological father; Jutengai is by contrast a throwback to a more exciting, purer, more medieval environment. And it also boasts Kumatetsu, who’s simply one of the great cinematic creations — live-action or animation — of recent years.
Making a rare foray into voice work, well-established box-office draw Yakusho (best known to international audiences for Babel and for the original Shall We Dance?) helps incarnate a character who gloriously emerges as a truculent but enormously good-hearted cross between 1980s Nick Nolte and Yojimbo-era Toshiro Mifune. A perpetually-bequiffed colossus, Kumatetsu dominates the screen with his bluff charisma and knockabout humor to the extent that proceedings flag whenever he isn´t around.
With the scenestealing exception of Jutengai’s falsetto-voiced, impossibly sagagious Lord, a Yoda-like ancient who resembles an outsize white hare and is the most hallucinatorily Ghibli-esque element on view, few of the secondary characters make much impact. The humans of Tokyo are in particular a pretty drab bunch, with Kyutu’s semi-girlfriend Kaede (Suzu Hirose) never anything but a perfunctory love-interest. But even Kumatetsu’s opponents, principally the leonine, gracefully aristocratic and formidably athletic Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji) — the Federer to Kumatetsu’s Nadal — are somewhat two-dimensional in comparison with the swaggering but vulnerable mega-sensei.
The “surprise” third-act emergence of Iozen’s son Ichirohiko (Mamoru Miyano) as chief villain is cumbersomely handled, by which stage the screenplay has become sidetracked into arcanely supernatural shenanigans with Kumatetsu regrettably sidelined, Aslan-style. Rising to the challenge of delivering a rousing finale, Hosoda does sock over a spectacular climactic battle on and below the streets of Tokyo with imaginative aplomb. As is the case at numerous junctures here, he´s aided considerably by Masakatsu Takagi´s irresistibly slam-bang orchestral score — music which, Kumatetsu-like, loudly rejects the idea that less could ever more.
Production companies: Studio Chizu, Kadokawa
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Shota Sometani, Aoi Miyazaki, Yo Oizumi, Lily Franky, Suzu Hirose
Director / Screenwriter: Mamoru Hosoda
Producers: Daisuke Kadoya, Seiji Okuda, Yuichiro Sato
Editor: Shigeru Nishiyama
Production designers: Yoichi Nishikawa, Takashi Ohmori, Yohei Takamatsu, Daisuke Iga
Composer: Masakatsu Takagi
Sales: Gaumont, Paris
No Rating, 120 minutes