By Andrew Osmond.
“You know how our world values ideas but tends to eschew writing for having little use? Just like a wise man once said, ‘I cannot see why living knowledge should be recorded by a lifeless medium such as writing – pictures are more befitting the attempt.’ But go to the human world, and you will find it filled with writing, writing, writing on anything and everything. That bizarre sight of writing all over the city makes me shudder. It almost makes me question whether humans actually want writing to rule their lives.”
The above comes from the opening pages of Mamoru Hosoda’s faithful but disappointing book of his film, The Boy and the Beast. Perhaps it’s Hosoda’s ironic comment on turning his audio-visual work into a written one; maybe his heart wasn’t in the job. As a book, Boy and the Beast has small points of interest for Hosoda fans – such as the above passage, not taken from the film – but it consistently lets its source down. It has bizarre narration decisions, frequently awkward writing, and several style sins associated with Japan’s so-called light novels.
We’ve discussed the Boy and the Beast film on this blog previously, and reported Hosoda’s own comments about it. It’s the story of a runaway boy in Tokyo who stumbles through to a parallel world of beasts, and becomes the apprentice to a rough-housing fighter who looks like a bear. Several reviews have compared the film to The Karate Kid, though that undersells its quirkiness; it relies as much on classic comedy routines like this one from Duck Soup. The film’s second half skips eight years forward, and crosses back and forth between the human and beast worlds. Even for a two-hour film, there’s a lot of story to get through.
It’s Hosoda’s first film where he has sole writing credits for both original story and script. Previously, Hosoda worked with Satoko Okudera, on his best-known films. She wrote Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, the latter from Hosoda’s original story; Hosoda and Okudera shared writing credits on Wolf Children. My own view is that Boy and the Beast represents a “rich new flavour” for Hosoda, while not being necessarily his best film. Other reviews have been generally favourable despite harsh criticisms in some quarters, including a vehement slam on Anime News Network by Jacob Hope Chapman.
Translated by Sawa Matsueda Savage, Hosoda’s book version of Boy and the Beast is faithful to the film – too faithful, in fact, even while it fails to convey much of what made the film enjoyable. Gone is the film’s snappy pacing (which was necessitated by the quantity of story), along with the elegantly composed slapstick and lateral panning. In contrast, there’s very little memorable about the book’s writing. Much of it is just functional, and even the more “animated” passages – such as those describing the boy passing through to the beast world, and seeing the first big fight there – fall short of what was on screen. Indeed, some of the spectacle just doesn’t make sense in the prose.
Much of that same prose is bumpy – “the sword slammed wretchedly into his cheek,” “Kaede quickly beamed with her entire face,” or a beast who blows “heavily out of his big snout threateningly.” As in many light novels, there are extended pieces of dialogue where the reader (and at least one point, the printer!) can get lost about who’s speaking to who. There are many cartoony interjections – in particular, a surfeit of “!?” signs – even as the film’s own cartoony moments are described flatly.
The biggest fumble, though, is the book’s ham-fisted switching of viewpoints. Most of the story is narrated by the boy character, called Ren in the human world and Kyuta in the beast one. But every so often, the narration is taken up by one of two supporting characters, Hyakushubo (who looks like a pig) and Tatara (who looks like a monkey – both characters seemingly allude to the Chinese epic Journey to the West or Monkey). This becomes terribly clumsy and annoying – it’s easy to lose track of who’s “narrating” a particular scene. It’s also blatantly unnecessary; a third-person narrative would have worked far better.
Actually, a multi-viewpoint story might have worked if it had been split between the boy and his boisterous beast mentor, called Kumatetsu, who each infuriate the other. Or it could have been interesting to have seen the viewpoint of the human girl Kaede, who becomes a major character in the story’s second half. The book misses the chance to expand on the source material. There are no noteworthy new scenes, and very little filling of Boy and the Beast’s backstory. (It would have been great, for instance, to glimpse Kumatetsu as a youngster, or seen more of Ren/Kyuta’s family circumstances that are only hinted in the film.)
Moments that gripped on screen, such as Kyuta’s discovery of a phantom in a shop-window, come off as weirdly arbitrary on the page. More than once, perfectly good screen metaphors are laboriously overstated. Late in the tale, a speech by Kaede about why she’s chosen to risk her life for a boy seems like silly teen fluff, whereas it made some emotional sense on screen, largely thanks to the measured Japanese delivery by Our Little Sister actress Suzu Hirose.
The book is still occasionally interesting, pointing up things a viewer of the film might miss, like the structural parallels between the Beast City and Tokyo. There’s more explanation about why Japanese readers may be particularly interested in the novel Moby-Dick, which plays a surprisingly big role in the story. Hosoda refers to the novel by its alternative title, The Whale, and points out that America’s whaling industry was a factor in the US forcing Japan to open to the West in the nineteenth century, changing its history forever.
There are a few other Easter Eggs, such as a clear indication about just what the fluffy mouse-thing which befriends Ren/Kyuta is meant to be (although some readers may find the answer a stretch too far). Overall, though, Boy and the Beast, while an excellent film, doesn’t stand up credibly in book form, especially weighed against the many other fantasy books for young readers. You can’t even defend it as a book for very young readers – there are too many uses of casual bad language (“ass,” “prick” and “bastards” by the yard). All in all, it’s best just to stay with the film.