You know, only with less Shere Kahn, more epic sword fights, and an evil giant spirit whale.
If you've ever seen Disney's version of The Jungle Book, you already know the basic story of The Boy and the Beast. A boy befriends a bear in a world of animals before eventually falling in love with a human girl and returning to the world of man. Of course, in The Boy and the Beast, the story is updated to modern times with a Japanese fantasy flair.
Kyuta, our Mowgli for this story, is a young nine-year-old who runs away from his relatives after his Mother dies and, after a short time living on the street, follows our Baloo analogue, Kumatetsu, through a series of alleys that connect Tokyo to the world of the beasts. There the slothful and carefree Kumatetsu — being one of the strongest competitive fighters of the beast world — begins training Kyuta as his apprentice despite Kyuta being human.
Teaching is one of the main themes of the film. While immensely powerful, Kumatetsu is completely self-taught. He has no idea how to teach another person how to fight. Yet, slowly but surely, Kyuta learns how to learn from the bear — namely by copying him. As their relationship grows, Kumatetsu finds himself learning from Kyuta as well, discovering his own weaknesses — e.g., his slovenly, irresponsible lifestyle — and working to overcome them.
Later in the movie when he is a young adult, Kyuta ventures into the human world and meets Kaede. Recognising his desire to learn and his inability to read Chinese characters, she offers to teach him — once again forming a relationship where both benefit greatly on both a personal and practical level.
Kumatetsu, Kyuta, and Kaede all suffer from the same malady: loneliness. For Kumatetsu, he has always been mostly alone — having gained his fighting prowess from no one but himself. For Kyuta, with his mother dead and his father seemingly abandoning him to his extended family, he has no one in the world that seems to truly care for him. Kaede, on the other hand, has well-to-do parents, but the fact that every facet of her life is provided for her makes her feel like less of a person and isolates her from them. Only by these three characters interacting do they manage to, at least in part, overcome their loneliness.
The villain of this story — who I am going to leave unnamed for the sake of avoiding spoilers — also suffers from feelings of isolation. While seemingly accepted and loved, the fact that he is different from those around him causes him no small share of self-loathing — not to mention a loathing for Kyuta who has managed to find acceptance in the beast world despite being different. Moreover, this loneliness manifests as quite literally a hole in his heart — a hole from which an evil spirit arises.
The final major theme in the film is the nature of strength. Kyuta wants to be strong — to him this initially means being able to survive on his own. However, there are many more possibilities brought up throughout the film. For Kumatetsu, strength is nothing more than physical prowess — being able to beat your opponent in a fight. Kaeda, on the other hand, finds strength in teaching Kyuta — and by being his support when he is at his lowest.
At one point, the film even digresses into a journey where Kyuta asks the various elders of the beast world about the nature of strength and is astounded (and excited) by the numerous answers he receives. However, it's not until the film's closing moments that all involved learn what true strength really is.
As is expected for a movie written and directed by the man responsible for Summer Wars and Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast is a visual feast. The fight scenes are especially notable with sweat and matted hair — along with cuts and bruises — adding a ton of realism to the battles.
Another excellent visual trick is the occasional use of security cameras as our point-of-view in the human world. While at first it seems like nothing more than a directorial quirk, it becomes both a plot point and a storytelling technique by the film's end — showing what is really happening versus what our heroes and the countless onlookers are seeing.
The Boy and the Beast is a great re-imagining of a classic tale. It is an entertaining coming-of-age adventure on one hand and an excellent thematic exploration on the other. This is one of those films that is perfect for any age group — there's something for everyone in this one.
The Boy and the Beast was released in Japanese theatres on July 11, 2015. It has been licensed for release in the US, Europe, and Australia.
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