Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thoughts on Bakemono no Ko

(Image from Studio Chizu Facebook page. Used for review purposes only.)

Bakemono no Ko (Studio Chizu, 2015) (AKA: The Boy and the Beast)
Director Mamoru Hosoda used to work at Toei as an animator, then spent a few years at Madhouse before starting up his own studio. He directed Wolf Children (2012), Summer Wars (2009) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006). I haven't seen any of these films, but they were all heavily hyped at the times of their releases. I think Hosoda has a certain level of popularity in part because Japan as a whole is desperate to find the "Next Hayao Miyazaki", and Hosoda does big, grand set pieces similar to those of Studio Ghibli.

I kind of wanted to see Bakemono when it was in the theaters, but I didn't feel like paying 2,000 yen or so for a ticket. Then, I ended up getting a membership at Tsutaya Books (which I might write up as a Small Adventure by itself) which allows me to rent DVDs fairly cheaply. I was in Tsutaya one day and was kind of being forced to pick up something by someone I know, and I happened to be standing right next to a row of Bakemono no Ko DVD cases, so that's what I settled on.

It doesn't look like this movie has been marketed outside of Japan, but I expect that most fans here either have already seen it, or are familiar with the story. Anyway, the full storyline has been posted in the wiki article (wikipedia complains that the plot section contains WAY too much detail). I'll content myself with a short description here. Ren is a 9-year-old kid living in Tokyo. His parents are divorced and he's been living with his mother. When she dies in an accident, Ren refuses to move in with his legal guardians, and instead runs away to live on the streets. The first thing he does is befriend a mouse-like creature that ends up channeling his mother's spirit. Ren then attracts the attention of one of the Bakemono (which translates to "monster", but is treated to mean "beast), a bear-like guy named Kumatetsu. Kuma (for short) is a loud-mouthed, ill-tempered drunkard. He's also one of the best swordsmen in the Beast World, and has been picked by the Lord of the beast kingdom as one of two possible successors to lead the country when the Lord retires. The other potential successor is the more-refined Iozen. The Lord's replacement will be decided by a major bull ring-style battle, but one of the prerequisites is that both guys need to have students. Iozen has his two sons, but Kuma is unmarried and childless. He picks Ren kind of as a joke, and is surprised when the boy follows him through the path between both worlds and ends up in the Beast world. Ren is angry, headstrong, and full of hate towards the world, and refuses to join Kuma. Initially. The movie is largely about Ren's transition from a rebellious child into a strong, trained teenager. Eventually, he returns to the human world, tracks down his real father, and makes friends with a high school girl that is picked on by bullies. The girl becomes Ren's tutor, and he turns out to be a fast learner as a Japanese school student (but, without the school).

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Unfortunately, Ren is still prone to nasty mood swings, and this seems to be related to his ability to travel between the two worlds. Turns out that Iozen's older son, Ichirohiko, is also a human that was brought to the Beast world as a baby, and he suffers from the same mood swings, and a bad tendency to succumb to hate. When Kuma defeats Iozen in the bull ring, Ichirohiko attempts to assassinate him by stabbing him in the back. Ren is almost overcome with the same hate, but is saved by his friends. The final battle between Ren and the almost god-like Ichirohiko takes place in Tokyo in the real world. Kuma turns into a sword and ends up filling the hole in Ren's psyche, making him the better fighter. I'll leave the ending hanging here.

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On the whole, Bakemono no Ko (literally, Monster Child) is an impressive movie. It definitely needs to be seen on the big screen, as with any Miyazaki movie. The artwork is great, the character designs are great, the music is great, the voice acting is great, and the animation for the fight scenes is great. The problem is that this is a very talky film, with characters just frozen in place and yapping for several minutes on end each, and Ren's superhuman learning skills are pretty unbelievable. The final battle against Ichirohiko is spectacular, but the finish is just way too neat. All the loose ends are wrapped up and everyone gets happy endings. When all was said and done, I was kind of left scratching my head, asking what the point was. In a way, this movie would have worked well back in the 1950's or 60's, as something that Akira Kurosawa could have made. And I guess that's what Bakemono no Ko is, a throwback to an older-style of movie storytelling, with updated character designs and "pretty-boy" angst.

In summary, I'd say that Bakemono no Ko is a decent popcorn flick, but Hosoda lacks an understanding of Miyazaki's ability to hook the audience. Maybe that will change with future anime. But, in the meantime, I'm not seeing a clear successor to the Miyazaki throne. It's certainly not Kumatetsu. Bakemono no Ko is recommended to anyone that likes anime actions films.

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