On the surface, The Boy and the Beast has much in common with director Mamoru Hosoda’s previous film, Wolf Children. Both films are fables about parenting, injecting fairytales into the everyday and finding simple truths about the challenges and rewards of raising children.
But despite an imaginative setting – an alternative universe called “The Beast Kingdom”, upon which young Ren stumbles after the loss of his mother – Hosoda’s latest lacks the magic of that film. The bond Ren forms with martial-arts instructor/foster father Kumatetsu (the titular beast) is at once combative and touching, but the increasing narrative prominence of antagonist Ichirôhiko unbalances the film.
Ichirôhiko is the eldest son of Kumatetsu’s Beast Kingdom rival, Iôzen, and secretly conceals a human heritage. The final act sees the young man rise as Ren’s antagonist, resulting in some genuinely spectacular special effects through the streets of Tokyo as the two clash wills. It doesn’t necessarily bother me that The Boy and the Beast shifts its attention to such a showdown; what does bother me is how Ichirôhiko’s villainy is explicitly linked to his background, resulting in some troubling – if unlikely unintentional – racial subtext. The gentle humanism of Wolf Children is nowhere to be seen.