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“I don’t understand that at all,” I complained to Sensei after he tried to answer my umpteenth question about a technique we were practicing. He had made a correction to my form that seemed completely contrary to what he had told me before. It was counter-intuitive and suddenly made the movements awkward.
Now, I totally appreciate how fortunate I am that my martial arts instructor is not only patient and an excellent teacher. Thankfully, unlike the protagonist of Mamoru Hosada’s anime fable The Boy and the Beast/Bakemono no Ko (2015), my Sensei is nothing like Kumatetsu—a giant, anthropomorphic bear with a foul temper and poor hygiene. But when young Ren struggles to comprehend his teacher’s first vague and cryptic lesson in swordsmanship, I still can empathize with his frustration.
As a martial artist, I found it gratifying to see Ren following Kumatetsu’s every move (however insignificant it seemed) to “become him” and learn from the beast, despite all the misgivings and rebellious skepticism the boy had. It showed a great deal of humility on Ren’s part to acknowledge that he was weak and that there were things that he could learn from Kumatetsu in spite of their differences. Just because Kumatetsu didn’t know how to teach him didn’t mean the bear had nothing to teach. Eventually Ren discovers, to his surprise, that he is not only able to mimic, but can actually anticipate his teacher’s footsteps without even seeing them.
It’s not that Kumatetsu meant to keep his techniques secret from his student. It’s that he simply understood that some kinds of knowledge are difficult to comprehend until you have lived it. The problem is, being expected to do something that you don’t know how to do is completely counter-intuitive. It’s a little like a young job-seeker’s lament; having received your shiny, new Social Insurance Number, you discover the paradox of employment: how to get hired when it seems that all the jobs require experience first. At some point, you have to move forward with the confidence that even if you’re brand new to something and don’t completely understand it, you can still do it. But you have to believe that the knowledge is there to apprehend in the first place, even if you can’t see it yet.
In our own everyday world, much is hidden in plain sight. C.S. Lewis once described miracles, for example, as “a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” In a similar vein, The Boy and the Beast reminds me that all is not always as it appears to be—it can depend greatly on my perspective.
Sometimes, I can get so used to seeing something in a particular way that I can’t imagine seeing it any other way. Or I become convinced that an event will never happen because I have never seen it before. Ren, for example, is initially unable to comprehend what Kumatetsu means by “the sword in your heart,” so much so that he outright dismisses the possibility of its existence. But by the end of the film, Ren’s understanding of what his teacher meant is deepened in a most poignant way.
Kumatetsu himself is another excellent example of the influence of our biases and preconceived notions on our perspective. He’s selfish, reckless, undisciplined, and has managed to turn almost everyone in the beast kingdom of Juutengai against him. Yet the grandmaster still considers Kumatetsu a potential successor. Clearly, there is something the grandmaster sees in him that no one else does.
The contrast between appearance and reality in the film doesn’t end there. Just as there is a kingdom of beasts hidden somewhere at the end of a maze-like series of alleyways in Shibuya, Tokyo, so too the story tells us of a secret darkness buried deeply within every human heart. It’s telling that in Ren’s Tokyo, there are cameras watching everywhere and yet not a single one can pick up on what’s really happening. We’re presented with scenes that alternate between footage taken by street-level security cameras and the actual goings-on, which reveals to the viewer a discrepancy between the external appearance of things and reality. And so I am reminded that what comprises the real world is far more than what I physically see. Ultimately, it’s the humans in the story—not the cameras or the beasts—who have the ability to recognize the pain that lies behind a person’s external appearance and actions.
Immersed in the fantastical world of The Boy and the Beast, I can’t help but contemplate how much I may be missing that’s hidden in plain sight in the world around me. What am I taking for granted? Who are the people I pass by every day without bothering to acknowledge them? Who is the janitor who comes to empty the trash in our office? Who is the man sitting on the sidewalk, panhandling? What assumptions am I making about them based on their appearance? Like Ren and Kumatetsu—and like you and me—they are not as they appear to be. They each have something hidden deep inside them. They each have a story. Chances are, there are times when they too feel completely alone, unseen by the world and overwhelmed by the darkness of their own pain. As Kaede reminds Ren, no matter how alone we appear to be, “we never fight alone.” So I have to ask myself, like Ren and Kumatetsu did to fight the darkness of their worlds, who will I become in response to mine?