Hosoda Mamoru blew me away with his first original work–Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo–a story of love between two youngsters made bittersweet through the film’s science fiction premise. The manner in which he managed to mix SF and complex human emotion made Tokikake a work that really stood out in my mind, pressing all my buttons in just the right way. While his follow-up Summer Wars failed to impress me with its paper-thin ensemble cast and by-the-numbers narrative, Ookami Kodomo came right back with the mix of fantasy and raw, realistic human emotion that made Tokikake shine. How does his newest work, Bakemono no Ko size up?
Nine-year-old Ren loses his mother, with his father nowhere to be found. While his cold distant relatives try to take him in, he runs way to pursue a life on his own. Ending up in Shibuya, two non-human entities find Ren and take an interest in him. While initially frightened, Ren sees an opportunity in befriending them, following them into the beast world of Jutengai: A world filled with beasts who like to fight and other beasts who like to bet on said fights. One of these battling beasts is a bear-like creature called Kumatetsu, who just happens to want a pupil under him so he can gain some respect, and prove that he has what it takes to hold his own in a fight against one of Jutengai’s greatest and most respected fighters–Iouzen. Bestowing Ren with the name “Kyuuta” (due him being nine-years-old when they first meet) the two embark on a quest to become stronger as fighters, and as individuals.
What stands out first and foremost about the film are the visuals–this is Hosoda’s best looking film to date. I don’t know who he has working at his new studio–Chizu–but they know what they’re doing. The film’s setting is split between the beast world of Jutengai and modern-day Shibuya, both rendered in loving and convincing detail. Shibuya and all the ancillary Tokyo locations are rendered in painstaking detail, to the point where you can almost reach out and touch them. It’s a level detail that effectively grants the film’s real-world segments an engrossing air of familiarity, especially when juxtaposed against the film’s fantastic other half. Jutengai has a hint of Japanese influence, especially in the names and appearances of the beasts that occupy it, but the actual world borrows heavily from middle eastern and European influences along with adding its own unique touches to make for an eclectic and fresh world.
The film makes heavy use of 3D computer graphics at points, which are all very polished, move smoothly, and blend seamlessly into the 2D animation. As is always the case with Hosoda films, the 2D animation is lively, smooth, and convincing. Ren and Kumatestsu’s scuffles are treated with the utmost of care to look as human as possible, a level of care which is echoed in every part of the film in its quiet moments, action scenes, and scenes of large-scale destruction.
Moving away from visuals, the film doesn’t quite possess the level of emotional complexity of Tokikake or Ookami Kodomo, but it is rich with character and very fulfilling. The emotional buttons it presses are certainly meant to be crowd-pleasing, but it has more going for it than Summer Wars did. The emotional core of the film focuses around Ren’s growth from a boy into a man, and the individuals he meets along his journey between the real world and Jutengai. While cliche, Ren and Kumatestu’s constant bickering is endearing, and mixed with the two other beasts–pig-monk Hyakushuubou and deadbeat monkey Tatara–a convincing family unit is formed.
The film gets more interesting when it puts grown-up Ren back into the real world, where he finds himself back in Shibuya unable to read or write due to years in his alternate universe. He has a chance meeting with a girl his same age–Kaede–and others from his life which make him reconsider where he should go–another example of Hosoda enriching a story by thinking about its fantastic premise realistically. Ren’s struggles adjusting to normal human life and his ambivalence between wanting to stay in Jutengai versus the real world drive the film’s second half. While the blending of fantasy and realism doesn’t offer the bittersweet or gut-wrenching feelings present in previous works, Hosoda’s distinct flavor is still quite strong in Bakemono.
The emotional climax presses the most crowd pleasing, “you’re definitely gonna cry,” button of all, but it works as a suitable punctuation for the film, wrapping things up neatly.
The movie also contains well-realized action. The film only really shows us Kumatetsu go at it against Iouzen, and the depictions of how these human-animal hybrid beasts fight is creative and visually arresting. The final villain kind of comes of nowhere and dictates the climax of the film, with his assault on our heroes bringing to mind Summer Wars’ crowd pleasing spectacle ending. However, given the film’s emotional strength up until that point, I’m okay with it.
As with most of his films, Hosoda utilizes normal actors for a number of the roles in Bakemono to give the film a certain texture most anime lacks. Of note is Sometani Shouta’s role as adult Ren, who I first got to know through the live action Kiseijuu films. While the rough, tough guy act he likes to put on didn’t quite work in those films, it works in Bakemono to make Ren effectively sound like a person who has been raised outside of humanity by beasts. On that note, veteran Yakusho Kouji puts on a stunning performance as Kumatetsu.
Hosoda Mamoru has finer works in his pantheon, but Bakemono no Ko is by all means a very, very good addition to his resume. While it lacks some of the deep emotional investment of Hosoda’s better works, it’s a well put together movie and impresses in a great number of areas. It’s a spectacular debut for studio Chizu, and I eagerly await their next work.