Mamoru Hosoda ranks first among the Japanese animation directors seen as successors to now-retired industry giant Hayao Miyazaki — and for good reason.
Like his distinguished senpai (senior), Hosoda has moved from animating the stories of others (including stints on the “Digimon” and “One Piece” franchises) to creating his own, while winning prizes and scaling box-office heights.
Expectations are high for his new film, “Bakemono no Ko” (“The Boy and the Beast”), which is based on an original Hosoda script and made by his Studio Chizu animation house in a beautifully hand-drawn digitally enhanced style.
Hosoda, however, is no Miyazaki clone. His films are more grounded in the reality of present-day Japan, which is also true of films by longtime Miyazaki colleague Isao Takahata. They are also more plot- and dialogue-driven, though Hosoda has a Miyazaki-like gift for creating fully realized fantasy worlds that need no dialogue to dazzle. His new film has more in common with the “Harry Potter” series than the usual female-centered Miyazaki fantasy.
This time, his hero is a 9-year-old boy (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) who is homeless in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. While running away from inquisitive cops through a small gap between buildings he enters a parallel world populated by bakemono (literally, “beasts”), who have animal features with human bodies and minds. Their version of Shibuya — called Jutenkai — resembles feudal-era Japan in everything from clothes to customs.
This set-up recalls the “Harry Potter” series (though Harry’s entryway to a magic world is a train platform), with a key theme being the emotional and spiritual growth of the young hero. Where Hosoda departs on his own freshly imaginative track is the titular Beast. He is a big, bearish warrior named Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho), who is a leading candidate to become the next soshi (grand master), a sort of pope — with martial arts skills — who reigns over bakemono society. There is one problem: Kumatetsu needs a deshi (apprentice) to qualify as a soshi, but he has scared all candidates away. He decides to make the boy his deshi, since a friendless human can hardly turn him down. But the kid, whom he dubs Kyuta, proves to be a hard sell.
What really persuades Kyuta to join Kumatetsu is a sword-swinging, head-butting battle, which the big lunk loses miserably to Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji), a beast of samurai-like poise who is Kumatetsu’s prime rival for soshi. Seeing his would-be teacher jeered by the crowd, Kyuta feels sympathy for a fellow outsider. His education is already beginning.
The film, however, is about more than this pair’s bumpy bonding. As Kyuta grows to a youth of 17 (voiced by Shota Sometani), he returns to his old world, where he meets Kaede (Suzu Hirose), a smart, serious Shibuya high school girl. As she helps him fill the gaps in his long-neglected studies, he begins to wonder where he belongs.
This is a standard seishun eiga (youth film) story line about a pure-hearted girl diligently reforming and quietly falling for a conflicted loner guy. And typically the guy, Kyuta, is focused more on his self-improving quest than romance.
At its climax, the film takes a sharp, welcome turn toward worlds-collide fantasy, as both Kumetetsu and Kyuta face ultimate tests and Honda and his animators let their visual imaginations run free. The story, however, stays centered on Kyuta’s long, vexed struggle to become not only strong, but also whole.
Unlike Harry, who had to soldier through eight films, Kyuta concludes this struggle satisfactorily in one. But the manga, which began running in “Gekkan Shonen Ace” magazine in April, continues. Will Kumatetsu and Kyuta’s on-screen adventures have a sequel?
The box office — that most unruly of beasts — may hold the answer.