In some reviews of “The Boy and the Beast,” reviewers complained that the last part of the animated feature didn’t fit in thematically to the first two thirds. Yet to me, it was an intriguing blend about broken boundaries and barbarians.
“The Boy and the Beast” involves several worlds. On the surface, we have two worlds: The world of human kind represented by the muted tones of Shibuya and the more colorful world of the bakemono. Keep in mind that this time of “beast” is specifically a shape-shifter. There are other types of beast, such as kaiju, but this isn’t about them. This is about transformation. The presence of a character that looks like a Buddhist monk brings in the theme that transformation or change (impermanence is anattā in Pali, anātman in Sanskrit but 無我 or muga in Japanese) is the true nature of life.
Yet there world of the bakemono seems to be set in a more traditional Japan, one where great martial artists still take apprentices and yet a world without the war-mongering and political motivations of the daimyo and shogun. This sets forth an idealized concept of martial arts, battle for perfection and the betterment of society, a Zen Buddhist look at practice and perfection. While we have the modern Shibuya, a place that is home to the IT industry in Japan (as opposed to Asakusa) and known as a meeting place for man and beast (the faithful dog Hachiko), juxtaposed to the purified traditional world of the bakemono, we also have modern contemporary Japan compared to traditional Japan.
Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” represents a different traditional past, that of the United States. As discussed in my previous essay, whaling was one of the reasons that the U.S. sent Commodore Perry to force Japan open. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? Would it have been better if Japan remained stuck in its traditional time warp while other countries changed?
Yet Ren, whose very name suggests Buddhism and enlightenment, brings good to a world that would have initially rejected him. And Ren as Kyūta also benefits from being raised in a more traditional home. Both worlds are threatened by a child of the bakemono, but not the one initially thought as problematic. Both worlds are saved through noble sacrifice based on both love and respect.
Remembering the policies that came with and followed soon after Commodore Perry’s blasting his way through diplomacy, when the Western world came into Japan, one must recall that both sides had apprehensions, suspicions and prejudices. The U.S. could not immediately capitalize on its actions because by the 1860s, it was involved in its own Civil War. France, Germany and Great Britain joined the Netherlands (who had been allowed contact during the 200 year of seclusion) in the newly opened Japan. Yet for the most part, the Western nations did not come with respect for the Japanese.
The clash between Ren/Kyūta and Ichirōhiko/Moby-Dick can also represent the clash between modernization against Westernization against traditional Japanese values. The destructive Moby-Dick can be seen as symbolizing both the past and present negative views of Japan from the Western world. The setting of a IT-centered business area (Shibuyta) also echoes the changing modern world where the young often learn from the old, just as Kumatetsu learned from Kyūta. The resolution is that each different world learns from the other and Kyūta as Ren becomes a better person by accepting the sacrifice of Kumatetsu and keeping Kumatetsu in his heart as he enters a local university.