Examining Familial Relations in The Boy and The Beast

Two of the posters for The Boy and The Beast.

Two of the posters for The Boy and The Beast.

Sometimes I question whether or not I’m my father’s son. Then I look at myself in the mirror and examine my mannerisms and realize I am, to which my father says: Hah-Hah, sucker!

With the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement in 2013 I feel as if some expected a void to open within the anime film industry, particularly animated films with the backing of NTV (Nippon Television Network Corporation). In fact, those outside of Japan may not know this, but one of the many reasons why Studio Ghibli, the animation studio started by Miyazaki, was able to gain a great deal of popularity was through the support of NTV. Just looking at the films the network airs every Friday night, one can find at least four Studio Ghibli productions a year, sometimes more. Yet, since 2006 NTV has slowly been endorsing and financing the director Mamoru Hosoda as the next incarnation of Miyazaki. It should come as no surprise either, as Hosoda has released four phenomenal films since 2006—The Girl Who Leapt Though Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), Wolf Children (2012), and The Boy and The Beast (2015). You may be wondering, then, why I feel Mamoru Hosoda is the next incarnation of Hayao Miyazaki. Like many of Miyazaki’s works being broadcast on NTV multiple times a year, Hosoda’s works are creeping into the lineup as well. While it’s a more recent and yearly event, prior to the release of Hosoda’s most recent work, The Boy and The Beast (バケモノの子 Bakemono no Ko), NTV aired his previous works three Friday nights in a row. If that’s not a resounding endorsement, I’m not sure what is.

I find it unsurprising NTV would vouch for Mamoru Hosoda because we’ve seen how he’s grown as a director and scriptwriter over the course of his ten-year career. Granted, he often recycles the theme of finding a place between two different worlds. Yet, he’s found interesting ways to present the theme in each of his works. Thus, when looking at The Boy and The Beast we saw this theme play out again. The film also had three solid acts that focused on different aspects of the protagonist’s growth into adulthood. However, it was the parallel between two of the characters in the third act that made the film remarkable. What I mean by this is where the first two acts of the film felt as though they were exploring the nature of familial relationships, the final act shifted to the issue of understanding our identity and dealing with the strain of losing a part of it. One odd characteristic of the film, though, was the casting choices. While I’m not opposed to non-voice actors taking on roles in animated films, some of the cast lacked the aptitude for voice acting.

When I think of a Hosoda film, apart from his unique artistic approach, the first thing that comes to mind is his narrative style. I’m not necessarily speaking of his writing style, but rather the choices he makes when creating a story for his films. Looking at his earlier works it was rather clear he enjoys examining the crossroads between two different worlds and the choices characters have to make in regards to each world. For example, his 2012 film, Wolf Children, explored the decision the children had to make to live either as humans or wolves. But, consider the underlying message the story of those two children conveyed: did they find solace in nature or in the civilizations humans created. His 2009 work, Summer Wars, was similar with its tropes, but considered the bonds we make through online social networking services and those in our real lives. Thus, while Hosoda is rather monotonous with his tropes, he finds unique ways to augment them for the narrative of each film.

Kyuta and Kumatetsu training over the years

Kyuta and Kumatetsu training over the years

As a result, when looking at his most recent film, The Boy and The Beast, we saw the trope he loves ever so much, but used in a new and interesting way. This revolved around the two narratives at play in this film. The first narrative surrounded the relationship between a father and son and the second involved the core of our identity. I’ll be expanding on the latter later in the article, as it warrants an explanation of the second and third acts. But, suffice it to say I found it far more interesting than the former. That’s not to say an exploration of the relationship between a father and son isn’t interesting, it’s just that George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise spoiled it for me at a young age. However, what was fascinating about Hosoda’s interpretation of the subject was it had influences from martial arts, religious, and philosophical teachings. Consider, while not to the same degree, but a young athlete in any sport may see his or her coach as a second father figure—a person to give him or her guidance in life when his or her moral compass may be led astray. Yet, when examining traditional East Asian methods of mentorship, the teacher is often considered a surrogate father to the student. Hence, the mentor not only instructs the pupil, but also acts as a guide through life—think of either rendition of the film The Karate Kid. Therefore, in a certain sense familial lineage is far less important than one’s lineage through one’s tutelage because it is a representation of knowledge passed down from master to student. Professor Lawrence W. Gross argued in his doctoral thesis, Manzan Dōhaku and the Transmission of the Teaching, that practitioners of Dōgen Zen are an embodiment of this thought process.

I say The Boy and The Beast was influenced by this philosophy because when looking at the principle characters of the film, the protagonist, Kyuta, and his surrogate father and tutor, Kumatetsu, we saw these philosophies come to life. The most obvious instance of this was the training process between the two. However, it was their interactions with each other where we clearly saw the idea of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. The first time Kumatetsu instructed Kyuta on swordsmanship was an excellent example of this as Kumatetsu struggled to explain something he was intimately familiar with to Kyuta. Yet, it stemmed much deeper than this. While treating the sequence as a montage, there was a lovely section where Kumatetsu, Kyuta, and two other characters were traveling the world of sprits, meeting different masters, and having those masters explain what they thought strength was. The idea martial artists would philosophize about the nature of strength was fascinating, but in regards to the relationship between Kumatetsu and Kyuta it was a method for the master to pass on knowledge to his student. In fact, I would even argue the belief a student must metaphorically steal his or her master’s teachings could be seen between the two characters. To put it simply, a student must observe his or her master’s every movement, mannerisms, and lifestyle in order to better understand the lessons. Thus, in later scenes of the first act we saw Kyuta mimicking Kumatetsu’s every move. Yes, this was a bit on the nose with its presentation, but it drove home the concept of the teacher-student relationship.

Yet, to understand how Kumatetsu was also a surrogate father to Kyuta we must examine the nature of the fictional functional but dysfunctional parent-child relationship—I know this is an odd statement, but bear with me. Oftentimes in fiction we’re presented with a parent-child relationship where it seems dysfunctional on the surface, but is surprisingly functional when looking at the core bond between the characters. In fact, there’s an old Japanese adage that roughly translates to, “So close they constantly fight,” and it was clear Mamoru Hosoda had this adage in mind when creating the bond between Kumatetsu and Kyuta. As the adage suggests, two people are consistently arguing with each other and in The Boy and The Beast Kumatetsu and Kyuta were constantly in opposition to each other. Yet, we must also realize this wasn’t just a sign of their affection for each other, but also the only way the two knew how to communicate. For instance, during the climatic scene in the second act we saw Kumatetsu in a martial arts competition with his rival. However, rather than supporting Kumatetsu, Kyuta criticized him, which not only spurred Kumatetsu into action again, but also began an argument between the two characters. It was an odd display of their affection for each other, but the supporting character, Sōshi, nicely summed it up by saying, “They’re one and the same and without one the other struggles.”

Kyuta and Kumatetsu arguing.

Kyuta and Kumatetsu arguing.

While this may have been a different approach to the concept of a father-son relationship, it was certainly the crux of the story for a fair portion of the film. However, the most stimulating aspect of the narrative was the reflection on one’s identity. Again, this is a trope Hosoda tends to overuse, but I felt The Boy and The Beast explored it in far more relatable terms than in his previous films. This requires an understanding of two different characters and how they were parallels and foils to each other. The first character was obviously Kyuta. From the beginning of the film it was clear he felt as though he had no place in the human world and thus found a surrogate parental figure in the spirit world. Yet, when he returned to the world of humans and met his biological father, it was clear he struggled with his identity—was Kumatetsu, the spirit who raised him for eight years, his father or was his biological father, the person who had a hand in giving him life, his father? There was certainly no a simple answer for Kyuta and it begged the question to the audience to examine the connections in their own lives. For many, the response is quite simple. However, in a world that’s becoming increasingly heterogeneous I’m sure there were those in the audience wondering about their own identity.

For example, and not to get too personal, I’m the son of an American and Japanese national. I had dual citizenship until I was twenty-three, but because the Japanese government requires dual citizens to either renounce their Japanese or foreign citizenship by that age, I’m no longer a dual citizen. I struggled to understand my new identity as an American national and a foreigner in Japan for years after that, but have come to accept my nationality has little bearing on my core identity and that I’m an amalgamation of many different ethnicities who tries to represent the best of each. Thus, in a certain respect, the struggle Kyuta encountered in the second and third act of The Boy and The Beast struck a cord with me. Although I doubt many people living in homogenous communities like Japan will fully grasp this struggle, having the experience shown to them as a metaphor was rather inspired.

It was the second character, Ichirōhiko, though who exemplified the notion of an identity crisis. Where Kyuta’s struggle came from living between two worlds, Ichirōhiko’s conflict was born from a lack of understanding of his personal history. While it pains me to delve into the details, it was revealed Ichirōhiko had a similar past to Kyuta, as he was adopted by the boar spirit Iōzen, but he had no recollection of his heritage. In other words, it was as if the parents of one ethnicity adopted a baby from another ethnicity. Yet, what made Ichirōhiko’s identity crisis fascinating was how it wasn’t explicit to the viewers until one specific scene. We must recognize one aspect of Ichirōhiko’s personality before discussing this particular scene, though. Unlike Kyuta, Ichirōhiko revered and idolized his father and sought to be like him when he grew up. One of the few phrases Ichirōhiko uttered throughout the film, “I want to have a long snout and elegant tusks like [my] father,” reflected this. Thus, in the montage scene where he matured into a young adult we saw him ask his father, Iōzen, when he would begin developing his nose and tusks. While it was heartbreaking watching Iōzen respond to Ichirōhiko, we saw the love and affection Iōzen had for his son. Yet, this was where we saw the clear divide between Ichirōhiko and Kyuta’s struggle. What I mean by this is, where Kyuta was able to accept he was a product of two different worlds and outlooks, Ichirōhiko could only envision one outcome for his life. Therefore, when he diverged from that path, the cracks in his vision became ever more apparent to him. In this regard, Ichirōhiko and Kyuta were parallels to but also foils for each other.

Iōzen’s sons, Ichirōhiko (right) and Jirōmaru (left).

Iōzen’s sons, Ichirōhiko (right) and Jirōmaru (left).

It was the third act of The Boy and The Beast that put this on display for the audience and, while it was a magnificent set piece, the themes running through it were remarkable. What was up to this point a story about the relationship between a father and son saw a thematic shift to competing philosophies of self-identity and the demons born from them. Hence, when examining the core elements of the final act, features of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale can be seen throughout. The most obvious was the form Ichirōhiko took when threatening Kyuta, but also in how Kyuta was confronting his own demons. Of course, Hosoda only used cursory elements of the novel for this film, but they played well for the final act and ending.

While many of the narrative elements of The Boy and The Beast were stunning to say the least, the casting choices were somewhat odd. Many of the characters were not voiced by professional voice actors, but rather by an assortment of traditional actors. While I generally have no qualms with this practice—Robin Williams was a wonderful choice for the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin—I feel many Japanese actors are not well suited for voice over roles. That’s not to say the majority of the voice actors in this film were poorly cast, but rather one can hear the lack of voice acting experience with some of the characters. Both of Iōzen’s sons, Ichirōhiko and Jirōmaru, were wonderful examples of actors without much experience in voice acting. In the first act of the film the actors Haru Kuroki and Momoka Ohno portrayed the characters. While I have no qualms about their voice acting in this film, it was fairly clear both were still inexperienced in this field of acting. But, when the two characters matured into young adults the roles were taken over by two well-respected voice actors, Mamoru Miyano and Kappei Yamaguchi. After the cast change one could truly understand and appreciate the talent of trained voice actors. Of course, that’s not to say the traditional actors were all poor choices for their roles, as the gravelly voice of Kōji Yakusho was a perfect fit for the large and overbearing Kumatetsu and Masahiko Tsugawa brought nobility to his role as Sōshi. But, if one were to focus on the voice acting of each character, one would find some were certainly better than others.

I feel in certain cases this may have come from Hosoda’s direction rather than the lack of voice acting experience by the actors. While it’s certainly true many of the actors had very few voice acting roles in the past, I have seen animated films that used traditional actors as opposed to voice actors. Disney generally does this, and as Hayao Miyazaki’s career grew ever longer he, too, began using traditional actors as well. So, it’s possible to get a great voice performance out of traditional actors, but without proper direction the audience can be treated to flat voices, as was the case with Aoi Miyazaki and her performance as the young Kyuta.

The Boy and The Beast was a great addition to Mamoru Hosoda’s body of work. Although it still retained the trope of a character trapped between two worlds, he used it to heighten the narrative he presented in this film: the exploration of parent-child relationships and the idea of identity. While I felt both ideas have been examined in other films, he brought his unique vision to the topics, such as what constitutes the bond between a father and son. There was also a slight shift in tone between the three acts of the film, but they all stay focused on the themes presented. So, where the first act showed the developing bonds between Kumatetsu and Kyuta, the second explored Kyuta’s identity, and the third depicted the conflict between differing ideas about identity, they all led back to the core idea of relationships. Of course, I found some of the casting choices frustrating at times. However, I felt this came not from a lack of experience in voice acting, but rather poor direction by Hosoda. Yet, the disappointment was balanced out with an inspired cast of both traditional and voice actors. While I thought Hosoda’s previous work, Wolf Children, was perfect for women, The Boy and The Beast was a wonderful family film and it would be ridiculous not to see it.

Work Info
The Boy and The Beast (バケモノの子 Bakemono no Ko)
By: Mamoru Hosoda
Under: Studio Chizu
Official Site: http://www.bakemono-no-ko.jp/index.html
More Info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Boy_and_the_Beast


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