Mamoru Hosoda’s latest effort, The Brat and the Bad Dads, follows a slovenly monkeybear swordsman and a disillusioned nine-year-old as they unravel the timeless mysteries of parenting and inner-strength. Fans of Hosoda’s previous successes (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children) expected a sprawling narrative, supported by strong dialogue, believable emotionality, and an inspiring score–a further solidification of the director’s status as “anime auteur.” Indeed, as the film opens, the audience dives into a living, breathing ocean of loose lines and swirling pastels—a landscape devoid of cookie-cutter character models, instead packed with emoting agents who energize each frame of video and each note of the film’s triumphant soundtrack. Yet Hosoda betrays his own storytelling instincts and attempts a narrative sleight-of-hand, enlisting the audience in his crusade to portray man-monkey-bears with hair-trigger tempers as good fathers.
As the opening vignette confirms, our beast-warrior Kumatetsu is “violent, selfish, and disrespectful”—adjectives that stick to his fur throughout the course of the film. Hosoda refuses to develop the selfish samurai past his flaws yet insists on defending the bear’s alleged parenting skills —a thesis with no supporting evidence. If anything, anime has taught us that nothing but bloodshed, sorrow, and death awaits those who fraternize with scruffy sword-wielding types. Meanwhile, Iouzen, Kumatetsu’s rival for the Grandmastership of Beastropolis (Juutengai), exhibits all the necessary hallmarks of “hero.” Hosoda gives us little reason to doubt Iouzen’s parental prowess and/or leadership capabilities. Scene after scene depicts Iouzen doting on his children, raising them with a kind but firm hand, and making reasonable arguments to Kumatetsu: “generally, when you bring humans into monster world, things go badly.” But, no, we shouldn’t knock our bearman just because he’s self-seeking, obnoxious, and completely irresponsible.
Perhaps the unfortunate absence of Hosoda’s long-time co-writer, Satoko Okudera, contributed to TBatB’s poor characterization. But even an amateur can imagine a more believable plot–one in which Iouzen and Kumatatsu switch roles. The flawed bear has all the attributes of a likable “frenemy”–an unpalatable loud-mouth–brazen, but full of heart and strong enough to challenge his rival. Iouzen, conversely, already embodies “hero”ness—a strong, nurturing leader with room to improve in the area of pompousness—the kind of role model Kyuuta would naturally seek. In this alternative version, Kumatetsu and Iouzen would learn to accept their differences and Kyuuta might find “strength” through tolerance. Instead, Hosoda lulls the audience into Orwellian doublethink, insisting that 2 + 2 = 5 and Kumatetsu’s vices are actually virtues. Ultimately, the beast fumbles within the barriers of one-dimensionality while his human-pupil magically develops into an Iozen-esque champion.
Even the harshest of critics, however, cannot deny the power of the film’s artistic direction. Save for a few background blunders (crowds sometimes resemble PS3-era NPCs), the Miyazakian world of Juutengai draws audiences in with its whimsy—a frontier beckoning the audience to come and explore. Yet the bustling monster-world never gets the attention it deserves. Unlike Miyazaki, Hosoda cannot strike a balance between setting and character. Hosoda squanders his universe’s surplus of beauty, demoting it to a playground for the boy and the beast’s tomfoolery. Seems criminal to neglect such a well-built world. Indeed, the whole production would parse out better as a big-budget TV series, giving viewers ample time to acclimate to Juutengai’s nooks and crannies, cultures, and, most importantly, population. The prolonged format would also make time for more transformative character arcs for Kumatatsu and his band of knuckleheads.
Alas, the audience instead must suffer through a cornucopia of undeveloped themes, clunky writing, and a parade of father figures better suited for Kyuuta than Kumatetsu (at least everything looks pretty). In fact, before the movie even revs up, Hyaku the pig-monk intercepts the boy and nearly prevents the impending trainwreck with some sound advice: “Obviously, you should go back home or, at the very least, stay far away from Kumatetsu.” The beast himself asks Kyuuta why he agreed to come with him, to which the boy has no answer. The characters seem genuinely puzzled as to why they do the things they do. But, if they had any knowledge of “Coming of Age” storylines, they might steal a sneak peek of the end of their trope conveyor belt while it drags them through a Disney World of cliches:
Trouble at Home Kingdom? Check.
Down the Rabbit Hole Zone? Check.
Hero’s Journey Land? Checkity-check.
I’m pre-ordering tickets for the grand openings of Prejudice Point and Rite of Passage Raceways as I write this.
Things don’t get any rosier for our explosive bear-daddy as the film progresses. The Juutengai people root against Kumatetsu because he’s an unlikable hack, not because of some nefarious ulterior motive. Hosoda’s feeble attempt to connect Kyuuta and Kumatetsu via their mutual aloneness falls flat. Kyuuta ultimately agrees to train under Kumatetsu because he sees in the bear an opportunity to realize his desire for self-sufficiency and strength (even though Kumatetsu only manages to demonstrate weakness when he loses a duel with Iouzen). Sensing a lack of believability, the director provides ample interpretation through the supporting characters. The pig and the chimp frequently voice their embarrassment and general disgust towards their “friend,” yet continue to stalk him throughout his adventures, appearing out of nowhere as soon as Kumatetsu acts unseemly, popping their heads through open windows to paraphrase his actions, restating key plot points, or modeling appropriate reactions for the audience. Still sensing a lingering hollowness, Hosoda conjures a yes-man out of thin air (literally)—the grandmaster—who dutifully fulfills his task of keeping the “Kumatestu is a good father/leader” subtext hooked into its ventilator.
The grandmaster sends them on a morality fetch-quest, a Sage tour that reveals to the bear and his boy the ever-elusive secrets of “strength.” We learn that “you have to figure it for yourself” is the answer to the question of The Good. While serviceable as a moral, the execution of that principle falls flat when left in Kumatetsu’s meaty paws. We know the swordsman’s “go with the flow” lifestyle hasn’t done him any favors, so why should Kyuuta imitate it? The very notion that Kyuuta and Kumatetsu are essentially the same person (which the plot-restaters love to restate) should give the young boy significant pause, not ignite passion.
Understandably, Kyuuta can’t decipher the logistics of the moral either, until the apparition of his dead mother clears things up, telling her son to “become him”–a suggestion both hilarious and preposterous, only honored to set up a lengthy, cute training montage in which Kyuuta becomes a martial arts master by way of a glorified Miyagi regimen:
We must assume that the bulk of Kyuuta’s character development happened during the time skip, otherwise, our boy’s actions in the latter half of the film make even less sense. Kyuuta goes back to the human world because he made a wrong turn at the market (you’d think he’d know his way around by now). Apparently, humans can travel back and forth between realms by following a simple set of coordinates. Now that Hosoda has dropped that valuable nugget of information on us, the plot careens off the rails so that Kyuuta can finally get a girlfriend, learn how to read, and meet his bio-dad. After a brief jaunt through Puberty Parkway, Parents are People Too City and Identity Crisis Island, Hosoda shoehorns us back into the main plot. Apparently, it only took a few kind words from a love interest to completely ward off The Darkness in Kyuuta’s heart—just in time for the final battle between Kumatetsu and Iouzen.
Ichirouhiko, one of Iouzen’s annoying children, forgets his earlier proclamation that strength and kindness go hand and hand, instead revealing his psychopathy to the world and embarking on a racist-fueled murder campaign. Seems Iouzen failed to follow the Kumatetsu Parenting Handbook and instead opted to encourage his children rather than berate them, thus laying the groundwork for that pernicious father figure hole in his pelt-wearing son’s chest.
We learn that Iouzen adopted Ichirouhiko, fully cognizant of the boy’s humanity (just like Kumatetsu with Kyuuta–except Iouzen did everything right). Somehow, Iouzen’s influence led to his son’s downfall while Kumatetsu’s fostered growth. In other words, Ichirouhiko became “insecure” when his father emphasized the similarities between humans and beasts. Kyuuta, on the other hand, turned out A-Okay because Kumatetsu was real with him (telling him he was weak and stupid from the beginning). In reality, its thanks to everyone except Kumatetsu that Kyuuta barely squeaked through the slamming door of existential doom.
The Return of the King influence shines through during the latter part of the film, as Hosoda creates multiple endings and lets the audience pick the best one. I’m partial to the one where the shadow whale destroys Tokyo, but the “Kumatetsu transforming into Kyuuta’s chest-microphone” one did not disappoint.
Hosoda compromises the integrity of his filmography with The Boy and the Beast. While the visuals match those of other powerhouse entries in his catalog, the once untouchable director sabotages himself with incompatible character pairings, fragile premises, and haphazard subplots. He creates a menu of father figure entres for us to choose from: sirloin steak (Iouzen), salted cardboard (Kumatetsu), or six-week-old pizza (bio-dad) and forces us to eat the cardboard. Eventually, Kyuuta himself becomes a better parent than Kumatetsu. One hopes that the title of Hosoda’s upcoming work, Mirai of the Future, signifies the director’s willingness to leave TBatB’s narrative baggage behind and get back to the masterpiece-making.
And, please remember:
~ Don’t Shoot the Messenger