The whale in the tale of ‘The Boy and the Beast’

When Americans think of whales and Japan, most likely they will be thinking of whale hunting. A lot has changed over the centuries and the significance of the whale in Mamoru Hosoda’s 2015 animated fantasy film “The Boy and the Beast” ties in pre-Meiji and post-Buddhist thought with current day dilemmas.

The Japanese title of “The Boy and the Beast” is “Bakemono no ko” (バケモノの子) with only one kanji (Chinese character) used. The word bakemono is shown using katakana, a syllabary usually reserved for foreign words or onomatopoeias). Obake (お化け) or bakemono (化け物)  is a class of yōkai or preternatural creatures. The Chinese character refers to things that change, shapeshifters.  Ghosts are often called bakemono but also yūrei (幽霊). A bakemono often has a true form.

The Japanese title translates into “The Bakemono’s Child” or “The Shapeshifter’s Child” or could also be “The Bakemonos’ Children” or “The Shapeshifters’ Children.”  In any case, the structure of the title is possessive, something that is not expressed in the English translation, “The Boy and the Beast.” The movie begins with a nine-year-old boy with the unusual name of Ren (蓮). His mother has passed away. He is estranged from his father since his parents divorced. Rather than live with his legal guardians, he runs to the Shibuya district (渋谷区 ) in Tokyo and gets lost in the crowd. Shibuya is a busy and fashionable shopping district that was once the site of a castle. The name translates as “bitter valley” and has become a hot spot for young people and the IT industry. It is also famous as the meeting place where a dog, Hachikō, now commemorated by a statue, once waited for its deceased master for over nine years.

There Ren meets with the bakemono Kumatetsu (熊徹) and his companion Tatara (多々良) and enters the Beast Kingdom or the Jūtengai (渋天街 Bitter Heaven Town). Kumatetsu one of two contenders to take over as lord of Jūtengai. The other more likely candidate is Iōzen (猪王山).  Ren witnesses a match between Kumatetsu and Iōzen and ends up as a disciple or apprentice for Kumatetsu. Kumatetsu names his trainee Kyūta (九太) and things do not start out well. Kumatetsu doesn’t know how to teach and Kyūta doesn’t show him the kind of respectful attitude one might normally expect. Kyūta finds that Kumatetsu’s battle strategies are predictable and the apprentice helps the teacher better master his skills as they train together for eight years.

As a result, other bakemono request to become Kumatetsu disciples, including the younger son of Iōzen. Kyūta is now a young man and finds his way back into the human world where he meets a young female student, Kaede(楓), who helps him learn things he should have learned as a human. Kaede’s favorite book happens to be “Moby-Dick.”

This sets up a show down between Kyūta and Ichirōhiko. On the day Kumatetsu and Iōzen duel for succession, Kumatetsu almost loses, but takes heart when Kyūta suddenly reveals he is in the crowd and cheers Kumatetsu on. At the battle, Ichirōhiko is revealed to be a human. He could also be the child of the title and with his telekinetic powers, Ichirōhiko seriously injures Kumatetsu. Kyūta  and Ichirōhiko are both threatened by an emptiness in their hearts. Battling against each other, they are almost both consumed by this emptiness.  Kyūta wins the battle but is saved from his own emptiness when he remembers Kaede. He doesn’t kill Ichirōhiko who disappears. Kyūta pursues Ichirōhiko into the human world where Ichirōhiko appears as a vengeful destructive whale, like Moby-Dick. Both Kyūta and Kumatetsu consider sacrificing themselves, but Kumatetsu does so first and becomes one with Kyūta and helps him defeat Ichirōhiko .

The ending finds both Ichirōhiko and Kyūta accepting their families. Kyūta re-unites with his father and attends university. Ichirōhiko awakens in the beast kingdom surrounded by his adopted family.

There are various connections here. Ren means lotus, a flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus is the flower who floats above the mundane muck and mud. The connection to Buddhism is further emphasized by Kumatetsu’s companion, Tatara (多々良), whose names means very much or more and more good. Tatara is presented as a Buddhist priest in a pig form.

Kaede means maple, a tree associated with autumn (the season of love in Japan) and change. The kuma in Kumatetsu means bear and tetsu means to pierce or penetrate and Iōzen means Pig King Mountain. For most English speakers, the relationship between Buddhism, pigs and mountains would be meaningless. When Buddhism came to Japan, dietary concerns followed. Animals with four legs were not to be eaten, but some Japanese worked around these constrictions by including rabbits as birds and wild boar as fish. The term yamakujiru literally means mountain whale. There are no whales in the mountain; yamakujiru is an old folk term for wild boar.  Tatara’s presence as a pig monk emphasizes this connection.

Other aspects of Buddhism may suffer in the translation. There is a danger in the English translation that I don’t believe exists in “The Beast and the Boy,” but I’d have to see it another time to be certain. In the English translation, the problem that both Ichirōhiko and Kyūta/Ren face is their anger and inner “emptiness.” Sometimes the Buddhist term of ku (空) is translated as emptiness and that along with mujō (無常) seems to mean a lack of feeling. Yet the emptiness or voidness (空) of Buddhism is not without feeling or an appreciation for the impermanence (another translation for mujō) of the physical world. In Japanese, the term used to describe this emptiness in both Ichirōhiko and Kyūta/Ren is the darkness of the mind/heart (心に闇).

While attitudes in the U.S. toward whaling has changed since the 1800s, we have to remember just how important whaling once was and how that differed from pre-Meiji Japan. Whaling in Japan was severely limited prior to the introduction of Western whaling techniques. The Japanese at first caught whales that swam into bays and later developed net whaling methods in the late 1600s. However, Japanese whalers were under the National Seclusion policy of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867).  This meant, they could not stray far from the coastal waters of Japan. Yet by the 1800s,  U.S. and Russian whalers began to appear in the waters near Japan.

Whaling was one of the reason Commodore Perry was sent to open Japan and did so by force. As the Department of State Office of History relates the reasons were as follows: “First, the combination of the opening of Chinese ports to regular trade and the annexation of California, creating an American port on the Pacific, ensured that there would be a steady stream of maritime traffic between North America and Asia. Then, as American traders in the Pacific replaced sailing ships with steam ships, they needed to secure coaling stations, where they could stop to take on provisions and fuel while making the long trip from the United States to China. The combination of its advantageous geographic position and rumors that Japan held vast deposits of coal increased the appeal of establishing commercial and diplomatic contacts with the Japanese. Additionally, the American whaling industry had pushed into the North Pacific by the mid-18th century, and sought safe harbors, assistance in case of shipwrecks, and reliable supply stations. In the years leading up to the Perry mission, a number of American sailors found themselves shipwrecked and stranded on Japanese shores, and tales of their mistreatment at the hands of the unwelcoming Japanese spread through the merchant community and across the United States.”

Whales were, at the time, like today’s oil fields. Their oil not their meat made them valuable. Whale oil was used in lamps before kerosene became a cheaper and longer lasting replacement. Other uses for whale oil included soaps and margarine. Whale oil was once even used in cars. In Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the ship Pequod sails toward Formosa (Taiwan), and into the Pacific Ocean.  It is in the Pacific Ocean that Ahab meets and is defeated by Moby-Dick who destroys the Pequod.

After the opening of Japan to the Western world, the Japanese learned their modern whaling techniques from Norway and currently besides Japan, Norway and Iceland still continue commercial whaling for the meat.

Whaling as practiced by the Victorian era U.S. set up the violent collision between two worlds, the secluded Japan and the U.S. Navy under Commodore Perry who went in with canons blasting. In “The Boy and the Beast,” the mythical Moby-Dick becomes the destructive avatar, the medium through which  the bakemono world spills out into the human world in Shibuya, Tokyo.  Japan’s current whaling is in part a cruel legacy of the Perry expedition while the term yamakujiru is a laughable legacy of how a segment of the Japanese population got around the dietary restrictions of Buddhism. All of these things resonate in “The Boy and the Beast.”



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