Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Boy and the Beast

I'm not sure how many theaters The Boy and the Beast got into this week, but it's got to be the biggest proper release for a Japanese animated film since The Wind Rises, and the biggest for a non-Ghibli one since... Man, I can't remember the last time something like it played screens like Boston Common for an actual one-solid-week, shows-all-day booking.

And the audience was pretty good, too! Room #17 at the Common is pretty good-sized, and while I sat down front because anime audiences can be awful - in the past, I've found that they seem so used to watching pirated copies on their laptop that you got a lot more phones and talking than anywhere else - it was already pretty well-populated when I got there with many coming in during the previews and first twenty minutes of the movie. It was a good crowd, too, making me wonder if Mamoru Hosada is kind of becoming the consensus choice of the folks who loved Ghibli and Satoshi Kon.

I hope it does really well, not just because it's very good, but because Japanese pop cinema is some of the most fun in the world - every year several of my favorite things at Fantasia come from Japan, a dizzying array of adventure, action, animation, surrealism, bizarre comedy, and independent-minded drama - but the Japanese movie industry seems to persist in staying insular, making it very expensive for foreign distributors to license things while at the same time making their Region A Blu-rays too expensive to import even if they had English subtitles. As China and Korea have stepped up quick worldwide releases, Japan sometimes seems thoroughly mired in the twentieth century in terms of sharing its cinema with the world. In some ways, it's a victim of Japanese culture's own popularity - where China, Korea, and India are often marketing to expatriates in America and making speed a virtue, Japan is mostly marketing to non-Japanese-Americans here and has found the traditional foreign-film model effective.

It might be changing, though. We didn't exactly get The Boy and the Beast fast, but we got it big enough in part because theaters seem to feel Asian cinema can do okay with good targeted marketing, and the Attack on Titan movies crossed the Pacific fairly quickly, even if they mostly got limited showtimes. Maybe it won't be too much to hope for to get the new Makoto Shinkai or Terra Formars later this year!

Bakemono no ko (aka the Boy and the Beast)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2016 in AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run, DCP)

I've been wrong about these things on a fairly regular basis, so I'm not going to question the American release of Mamoru Hosada's The Boy and the Beast on the same day that the Walt Disney Company puts out their own animated movie set in a city of animal people; maybe it will pick up some overflow from sold-out shows and introduce some new families to Japanese animation and one of its most exciting current filmmakers. If so, they're in for a treat; it's a terrific movie, mature but suitable for all but the youngest kids, smart and entertaining.

We're given a little background on Jutengai, a bustling city in a world of intelligent beasts connected to ours. Its Lord aims to reincarnate as a god in the next few years, and his successor will be chosen by a battle between warthog Iozen (voice of Kazuhiro Yamaji) and ursine Kumatetsu (voice of Koji Yakusho) - the former much-respected while the latter is strong but unrefined and disagreeable. Meanwhile, nine-year-old Ren (voice of Aoi Miyazaki) flees from his relatives after his mother dies, following a visiting Kumatetsu down a mysterious alley in Shibuya and to Juntengai. He becomes Kumatetsu's pupil under the name "Kyuta", although theirs is hardly a traditional teacher/student relationship. The other beasts are worried, though, as the blackness in human hearts is a well-known danger.

There's a visual reference to Moby Dick early on, and the book becomes an important touchstone later in the film, with Kaede (voice of Suzu Hirose), a bookish girl Ren meets when he is able to return to the human world, outright spelling out that it is less a battle between a man and a whale than one with himself. It's clear from the start that this is a battle that both Kumatetsu and his apprentice are fighting and one where the other can serve as an important ally. The film never suffers for wearing its heart on its sleeve like this, though; by the time Kaede says this, we've already seen how bestial Ren appeared at first and has sent Kumatetsu and Kyuta on a pilgrimage to learn what strength is.

Full review on EFC.

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