Reviewby Andrew Osmond, Nov 2nd 2012
Tokyo college student Hana notices a solitary youth at her lecture, and befriends him. They become closer, until the man finally reveals his astounding secret – he has both human and wolf blood, and can become a wolf at will. Hana's love for him is steadfast, and soon they have two children – the boisterous girl Yuki (“snow”) and her far quieter little brother Ame (“rain”). Yuki and Ame inherit the power to transform, with Yuki revelling in her wolfish nature. Their loving parents are ready to accept whatever the children want to be, wolf or human. But a catastrophe forces Hana to bring up her offspring alone in remote mountains, as we follow her little family through the next dozen years…
The Wolf Children is the new feature by Mamoru Hosoda, the director of Summer Wars and The Girl who Leapt through Time. It's a story of parenthood and childhood, of cycles of the earth and human life, and of how a young person's identity is both chosen and found. It's the tale of a boy and girl who can become wolves in a blink, and of the “ordinary” woman, no less amazing, who bears and raises them. And it's wonderful.
This is the third stand-alone feature by Hosoda, and the first by his fledgling studio Chizu (Summer Wars and Girl who Leapt were by Madhouse). It starts with a woman; a Tokyo college student called Hana, who notices a young man sitting by himself in a lecture theater. Approaching him, she learns he's not a student but a drifting interloper, without four walls to call his own. (Ironically, his job is moving other people's furniture.) Drawn by his gentle manner, and her own impulse to help, she reaches out to him… and on a crisp starry night, he shows her what he is.
As you'll know if you've seen the trailers, he turns into a wolfman, though shorn of creature-feature mythology. Moon and silver have no hold on Hosoda's wolves; they change when they wish, or when they're stressed or threatened. Hana is amazed but not frightened by this fairy-tale Beast, and by the prospect of having his children. “I'm not frightened, because you're you,” she says, lying down with the tender wolf in an adult moment as wholesome as Snow White. There's no magical items, no destinies or fates to deny. The telling is resolutely natural. Few anime, even in the slice-of-life genre, show a pregnant woman making use of a sick bowl. But Hana's true challenge starts when the man suddenly vanishes from the film, leaving her and her children alone.
This story of resilience, of moving on, reflects Hosoda's own progress as a director. Girl who Leapt and Summer Wars relied on teenage love stories, though Summer Wars already took on much broader themes. In Wolf Children, the romance is truncated early, and the rest of the film addresses what happens after.
Hosoda's telling of his original story is populist without pandering, funny without mocking its strange premise. The humor is sweet but always grounded. Hosoda shows the wolf-girl Yuki roaring like a baby, scampering round a room in a tizzy, then clambering up a heavy cupboard and nearly pulling it down on herself, so that our chuckles turn to a gasp of fear. The scene ends with Yuki sitting sated among dismembered cushions and yawning; a fearsome creature indeed, with the demanding grouchiness of a healthy baby and the destructiveness of a confined terrier.
The cute wolf kids are a selling point, of course, even as the film keeps away from genre anime tropes to court a mainstream audience. Wolf Children earned more than $50 million in Japanese cinemas, which is phenomenal for an anime film not linked to Studio Ghibli or an established franchise. (Hosoda's Summer Wars earned $17 million). The first act has long passages of “silent” montage, showing the future parents' converging lives without the need for speech. Both here and through the rest of the film, the story's so lucid that a foreigner could follow it readily without subtitles.
But Wolf Children is also physically immersed in Japan. The realistic landscapes shift from the first act in Tokyo to the remote mountains of Toyama prefecture, populated by bulky boars and hoary whiskered foxes (though wild wolves are extinct, we're told). We're shown the hard toil of farming, as Hana labours to raise her children in peace. The scenery is backdropped by terraced rice-fields and the great white clouds that Hosoda loves.
The country scenes take Wolf Children into another studio's territory, though Hosoda tried to pre-empt the inevitable Ghibli comparisons. Interviewed in October 2012 in the UK magazine Zoom Japan, he said, “I can't say Hayao Miyazaki didn't influence me, but I would like to write my own films.” In the event, Wolf Children's setting recalls Totoro, Only Yesterday and Princess Mononoke. The mix of a matter-of-fact fantasy premise and the believable striving of an independent woman recall Kiki's Delivery Service. The sedate portrait of everyday living is nearer Takahata than Miyazaki; Hosoda favoured a similar pace in Girl who Leapt, when he depicted the golden drift of schooldays.
But Wolf Children is too strong in itself to feel like an imitation, thanks to its cross-species family. The enduring guardian Hana smiles and smiles with dreadful determination; the impetuous girl dynamo Yuki chases cats and strangles snakes like a wilder version of Totoro's Mei; and even the fearful, quailing boy Ame eventually blossoms in his own way. Each character follows a compelling arc, which pulls the family in contrary ways.
Hosoda shows this with unforced grace. At one point, a child has a potentially fatal accident. In a different film, this could just be cheap filler to scare us. Hosoda, though, shows that while Hana is consumed by terror, the child sees the event as a thrilling epiphany of what it is to live in the world. When Ame and Yuki grow up in grade school, a year and a classroom apart, the picture sidles back and forth down the corridor to show their differing rates of progress. When a character is devastated by disaster, Hosoda eschews melodrama, confining the action to long and medium shots.
Like Summer Wars, Wolf Children is about more than two generations. Once again, Hosoda venerates Japan's hearty heritage. In the country, Hana receives help from a grumpy 90-year old rural patriarch, voiced by Bunta Sugawara, who was the spider-man labourer in Spirited Away and the fatherly wizard in Tales from Earthsea. He is, in fact, the most familiar element in the film, though the subplot has charm. But the punchiest scenes show the rebellion of the children, heartbreakingly framed through Hana's eyes as she sees her family outgrow her.
The rural art rivals Ghibli's; the family members are strongly demarcated in the drawing. The music has a lullaby flavour, reminiscent of Girl who Leapt, but it also accommodates trumpeting fanfares, fretful strings and delicately ominous shifts to minor keys. There's some very obvious use of CGI in the film's second half: zooming wolf eye-views, a mighty waterfall and a windblown mountain lake. These may jar some viewers, but there's a cinematic defense; they represent emotional peaks in the film, lyrical expressions like the back-projected horseride in Hitchcock's Marnie or Disney's 3D ballroom in Beauty and the Beast. And most viewers will enjoy Wolf Children far too much to care.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Hosoda's ascent as one of Japan's best directors continues. A charming, funny, enthralling film, invigorating anime as a mainstream art-form.
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