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Many would argue that Mamoru Hosoda is the most talented director of family anime in the industry today. That “family” classification is two-fold, by the way. Not only are Hosoda’s works appropriate for just about all ages, taking the high road by eschewing in-your-face sex appeal and gratuitous violence, the bond between family members is a recurring theme in his films. In 2009, Hosoda’s Summer Wars showed audiences an extended yet close-knit family headed by the female lead’s tough yet kind grandmother. Three years later, the focus was on a single mother raising two lycanthropes in rural Japan in Wolf Children Ame and Yuki.

Now, Hosoda is turning viewers’ gaze towards a relationship he hasn’t put the spotlight on before, with the just-released The Boy and the Beast, which asks what a boy needs to learn from his father, and also what that father can learn from his boy. So how does it answer those quesitons? Read on for the rest of our review of Hosoda’s latest hit to find out.

Shortly after the film opens, we’re introduced to Ren, the “boy” that makes up half the movie’s title. The nine-year-old’s mother has just died in a car accident, and his father is out of the picture due to a less-than-amicable divorce and custody battle. Faced with the prospect of having to live with stern, distant relatives from his mother’s side of the family, Ren runs away from home, as much to prove he’s strong enough to survive on his own than because of any real issues regarding the fitness of his would-be caretakers.

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Of course, being a little kid means that Ren really isn’t strong enough to survive on his own. After a brief stint hiding out in the grubby back alleys of Tokyo’s Shibuya (which is rendered in extremely lifelike detail, right down to the exact location of real-life shops and restaurants), Ren meets Kumatetsu, a humanoid bear with a gruff personality and a huge katana strapped to his back. After following Kumatetsu through a portal to the alternate world of Jutengai, Ren becomes the swordsman’s apprentice, and the movie’s story begins in earnest.

▼ The trailer for The Boy and the Beast

As you’d expect, Ren, who goes by the name Kyuta in Jutengai, is in for a tough time adapting to life in his new surroundings (Kumatetsu’s home world seems to be on the technological level of 18th century Earth, with a couple of anachronistic creature comforts like electric lights and running water thrown in). The boy’s stubborn insistence that he doesn’t need any help, coupled with the lack of mental fortitude that’s natural for a child of his age, results in his early progress in swordsmanship being extremely slow.

It’s not entirely the boy’s fault, though, because it turns out the beast isn’t really the best teacher. Kumatetsu, we later learn, is an orphan himself, and unlike his rival, the charismatic and noble-minded boar Iozen, Kumatetsu has no experience taking on an apprentice before Ren. But having never had the luxury of parents to be strong for him, Kumatetsu has had to figure out everything in life entirely by himself, and he’s done so with extremely mixed results. Yes, he’s a capable fighter, but it turns out he can’t even verbalize to Ren how to properly hold a sword. As one of his few friends, the monkey Tatara, points out, Kumatetsu grew up without anyone who’d listen to him, so he doesn’t have any sort of aptitude for guiding others.

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Little by little, though, Ren comes to the realization that maybe he hasn’t learned all there is to know in the world before reaching his tenth birthday, and he develops a grudging respect for his hulking master. Kumatetsu, meanwhile, starts to awaken to the possibility that no matter how strong you’ve become on your own, there are some fights you just can’t win without someone on your side, and his upcoming duel with Iozen might be one of them.

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As far as the art goes, Hosoda has a bit of a thing for anthropomorphic characters, having used many of them as avatars for the cast of Summer Wars in that anime’s in-film online world, and being able to give even more screen time to such designs in Wolf Children. In Jutengai, though, the director finally has an excuse to go all-out, and he fills the world’s scenes with all manner of imaginative animal-inspired creatures, including ones based off boars, seals, rabbits, and oxen. The Jutengai artwork, both the backgrounds and characters, is rendered in surprisingly flat colors for Japanese animation, but this serves to give a warm, sun-bleached look to the world’s fabric and stonework.

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The setting also lends itself to far more fight sequences than Summer Wars or Wolf Children, and while Hosoda may not be famous for his action choreography, he does a fine job here. The muscular designs of the Jutengai beasts allow them to pack far more visual force into their punches and sword strikes than stereotypical anime waifs, and a generous use of wide shots makes it easy to follow the spacing and flow of combat.

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There’s also some good physical comedy, found in the stretchy facial expressions of Kumatetsu as he takes his lumps in the ring and the heated yet good-natured arguing that Ren and his master engage in over their years of living together. Even the audio is impressive, with little touches like the sound of a broom scraping against a stone floor, scabbards clashing, and even Kumatetsu and Ren chowing down on slices of watermelon between training exercises all giving a real sense of immediacy and presence to Jutengai.

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That’s not to say that The Boy and the Beast is a perfect film. The pacing can feel a bit awkward in places. With Kumatetsu’s fight with Iozen looming, the movie takes a leisurely detour so that Ren can start hopping back and forth between Jutengai and Shibuya via a method that’s never really explained, and when the contest finally does occur, its conclusion feels rushed. A late-in-the-game plot twist is unlikely to surprise anyone in the audience who’s been paying even a bit of attention, and the conflict it sets up feels a little unnecessary, especially considering its inclusion necessitates speeding up everything that comes before it that much more in order to keep the movie’s run-time at a lengthy (for an anime feature) one hour and 59 minutes. And then there’s the Moby Dick symbolism, which doesn’t really say anything the movie hasn’t already said more eloquently in its own words.

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Still, The Boy and the Beast hits the thematic beats it wants to, even if it ends up being somewhat clumsily redundant as it stretches for a higher-stakes climax than the core characters and their relationships with one another call for. In its smaller, more personal moments, though, the film is genuinely touching. When a chance encounter reunites Ren with his biological father, it raises the questions of how much a man has to do for a child to be considered a parent, and also at what point he earns that title even if it wasn’t his intent. Hosoda’s latest also asks whether or not there’s value in the earnest, yet ultimately powerless, wish to have been able to do more than you could in the past.

But more than anything else, The Boy and the Beast wants to show the respective values of being strong for yourself, relying on those who love you, and being strong for those you love. None of them is held up as absolutely above the others. Soon after Ren’s arrival in Jutengai, Tatara criticizes the boy without a hint of gentleness for his lack of dedication to his training, and the film even tries to show the potential downsides of doing too good a job of protecting others from all of life’s unpleasant trials.

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We can’t become strong without overcoming at least some of those trials through our own efforts, Hosoda seems to be saying, but that strength only acquires meaning when we use it to help give others a fighting chance, and in turn when we’re brave enough to trust others to lend their strength to us. Being able to do all three is absolutely critical in carving out a fulfilling life for yourself and those you hold dear, and the moment when Ren, and Kumatetsu, too, figure out how to pull off that balancing act is the moment they become ready to move on to more meaningful existences than the ones they’ve been leading up until that point.

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Aspects of its final act may add a little static to the message, but at the end, The Boy and the Beast compels viewers to be strong, but also to be connected. It’s a powerful and unabashedly positive sentiment, and it makes the film unquestionably worth watching for those who want proof that anime can be more than just pop culture comfort food for anemic loners.

Related: The Boy and the Beast official website
Top image: The Boy and the Beast official website
Insert images: YouTube/Toho Movie Channel