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Chasing Flowers - Wolf's Rain and Romanticism

by Anne Lauenroth,

"It is not the treasures [...] that have awakened in me such unutterable longings. Far from me is all avarice; but I long to behold the blue flower. It is constantly in my mind, and I can think and compose of nothing else. [...] It seems as if I had hitherto been dreaming, or slumbering into another world; for in the world, in which hitherto I have lived, who would trouble himself about a flower?"

Wolf's Rain tells the story of a group of wolves walking the earth in search of a mystical flower in human form, said to be the key to opening Paradise as the world comes to an end. The series' allegorical nature lends itself to being interpreted in a myriad of philosophical and religious contexts, from apocalyptic prophecies to the cycles of reincarnation to moral ideas of the journey being its own destination. The show's ambiguity also means that there isn't one right way to appreciate it or even a need to decipher it. Maybe you just like wolves and find them romantic. For my part, I want to talk about Wolf's Rain and the kind of Romanticism that begins with a capital R.

The flower-cherishing quote above isn't from Wolf's Rain, but from the first lines of Henry von Ofterdingen, a novel written in 1800 by the German poet Novalis, who would become one of the Romantic period's most influential figures. In the novel, young Henry embarks on a journey to travel the world in search of the mystical blue flower he envisioned in a dream, which sparked a longing or “Sehnsucht” that he had never felt before and cannot fully understand. And yet he is driven to find it, just as Wolf's Rain's protagonist, Kiba, is drawn to Paradise by an inner voice.

"It's screaming inside of me. It's just that I've always had to know. I've kept running just to reach it. I can't imagine living without believing in it."

In reaction to the rational values of the Enlightenment, the Romantics were big on intuition and putting emotion above reason. Feeling disillusioned by the materialistic world in the early days of industrialization, the nostalgia felt for bygone times where humanity was one with nature gave rise to a new celebration of folk art and mysticism, culminating in a renaissance of fairytales, collected by The Brothers Grimm among others.

"This world has split into a world that we humans can see and a world that we lost sight of at some point."

The world is a cold place in Wolf's Rain. Most of the natural world between the few surviving human strongholds has become a wasteland - inhospitable yet beautiful in its roughness and decay. The “Book of the Moon” that foretells the wolves' search for Paradise has been banned by the Nobles who rule over what remains of humanity. One might think such a bleak world would leave little room for believing in anything, let alone fairytales, but in apocalyptic times especially, weeding out the fuel for dreams proves to be a lot harder than just banning books.

"Flowers are tenacious. Even if they've vanished, they haven't gone extinct. Almost like wolves."

Unbeknownst to most humans, there are still wolves in this world, and as the emissaries of its impending end, they gather in search of the Flower Maiden. Wolves might be the only ones able to detect its scent, but they're not alone in dreaming of Paradise. Even if humanity at large has forgotten their origin as descendants of wolves, an inkling of the wolves' dream remains. On their larger-than-life journey through allegorical landscapes evoking a melancholy akin to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the wolves are joined by a few human characters who provide a more nuanced, grounded reflection of this great sense of longing that Kiba follows without questioning.

After becoming obsessed with the Flower Maiden to the point of destroying her marriage, Cher tries to find answers through science before realizing that this deep, all-consuming longing isn't something to be explained rationally. After losing Cher to her work, her ex-husband Hubb follows her to the end of the world hoping to win her back, only to find himself awakening to the same questions that drove her obsession, gradually losing his allergy to wolves in proportion to his exposure to their legend.

"I've always had this strange sense of restlessness. But I could never figure out what was causing it."

When this strange restlessness got the best of the Noble Darcia I some 200 years ago, his attempt to forcefully open Paradise set into motion an acceleration of the earth's decline. In a very literal translation of the “sucht” in “Sehnsucht ” as an “illness” of painful longing for something forever closed to them, Darcia's house was cursed ever after with a sickness that steals its victims' souls away to Paradise. The same destructive yearning that renders Darcia's grandson unable to find peace is also what created Cheza, the Flower Maiden and symbol of hope.

In Novalis's novel, the mystical flower Henry seeks isn't something he can simply find and move on from, because the object of his yearning represents desire itself. The blue flower became a central symbol of Romanticism, the objective that prompts a hero to walk the earth in pursuit of their dream. Many Romantics followed this example in the real world, traveling to understand the nature and origin of what they felt was calling out to them.

"Why do humans do nothing but look at the sky? Why do you want to fly even though you don't have wings? As for us, we run. We keep running on our own legs no matter how far we have to go."

Created from Lunar Flowers, Cheza embodies a dream that has haunted humanity since its birth. While Lunar Flowers aren't blue like their Romantic equivalent, their symbolic nature is supported by the properties of the plant they're based on - epiphyllum oxypetalum. Nicknamed the “queen of the night”, these cacti bloom rarely and only at night, before wilting at the onset of dawn. In India, praying under their blossoms is said to make wishes come true, while in China, the same flower is used to describe a fleeting moment of glory. However, this bloom isn't Cheza's true form any more than the lovely man-made maiden form. Cheza's true form is seeds. In a world without Darcia's curse, these seeds would create the Paradise we tend to imagine: a peaceful world, free from any longing or pain.

"In the place where you would go hand in hand with the Flower Maiden, there is neither perfect happiness, nor joy, nor life. This is because it also does not contain perfect sadness, misery, or death."

We see the realization of such a world in the Garden of Eternity, where perfect tranquility of mind makes Kiba forget who he is, what he wants, and why he's there - all the important questions Wolf's Rain asks so bluntly throughout the series. Life in Jaguara's city also appears peaceful and painless on the surface, especially when compared to the harsh conditions outside, but it's a world where the suppression of scents prevents people from dreaming of Lunar Flowers at all, turning them into desireless puppets and reducing their lives to meaningless day-to-day existence. "Heaven's not enough if when I'm there I don't remember you," sings Steve Conte on Yoko Kanno's transcendent soundtrack, and so Kiba returns from the Garden of Eternity to a painful world, where everyone he ever cared about will die horribly at the hands of a man who uses his own pain as a hollow justification.

"Now that I have lost you, my beloved, Paradise holds no meaning for me."

Love is incredibly painful in Wolf's Rain, from the doomed Darcia and Hamona to Toboe killing his beloved human guardian in an accident of overenthusiastic affection. It's painful when Hubb is forced to watch Cher die just after getting her back, when Hige begs Tsume to end his suffering after a mortal wound, and when Quent's quest for vengeance almost takes his soul along with everything else that was precious to him.

"We gotta have something to cling to. We gotta resent something. Hate something. Envy something. We gotta love something."

The Romantic notion of longing wasn't always content with the noble sincerity of the pursuit. Some journeys of self-discovery, both in fiction and real-life, ended not in self-realization but glorified self-destruction, with a romanticized death wish as their ultimate destination. Despite all its death and tragedy, Wolf's Rain never indulges this conclusion. Kiba's unwavering determination comes from an acceptance of pain as a reference point for the happiness he seeks. This stands in sharp contrast to the dangers of longing that grows into feelings of entitlement, as exemplified by the once-human Nobles. In all his painful existence, Darcia is pushed to the edge of madness at the realization of his desires' unattainability. But only when he loses his ability to feel pain does he truly lose his sanity. It isn't pain which drives him mad, but the absence of it. He is the ultimate Byronic hero, portrayed with brutally unromantic honesty.

In the Garden of Eternity, pain is only nonexistent because everything happens without consequence. When Kiba picks a flower and watches it wilt in his hand, it grows right back as if he'd never picked it. In poignant contrast, when Kiba and Cheza embrace at the end of the world, their love is so painful that they physically hurt each other, yet they cannot let go. As their blood flows to the spot where Darcia's curse is waiting, the new world they create will be defined by the same mutually dependent triangle of love, pain, and longing that brought the last world to its end.

"This world has been destroyed and reborn time and again, being resurrected each time as Paradise. It has happened before, and it will happen again. The endless cycle of life and death. This world is a Paradise which someone opened."

The “Paradise” they open largely resembles our own world. It's far from the fleeting Eden that Kiba sees when the rain lets Cheza's seeds bud, simultaneously painting the flowers of indescribable yearning on the blank final page of the Book of the Moon where a description of Paradise should be. Paradise in Wolf's Rain cannot be described. It's the Romantic hunch of a transcendental something, the future Henry sees in Novalis's unattainable blue flower during that feverish midsummer night's dream, and the glimpse of perfection that Kiba briefly glimpses at the end of the world. This memory will be enough to make him search for the flower in the next imperfect world. Tsume points out cynically that Paradise is a dream somebody once had, but there's nothing cynical about Wolf's Rain's first and last lines.

"There's no such place as Paradise. At the ends of the earth, there's nothing at all. No matter how far you walk, the same road just keeps going on and on. But in spite of that...why am I so driven to find it?"

The world that Keiko Nobumoto creates would qualify as low on legends by Romantic standards, but it gives us a creation myth of extraordinary Romantic proportions. While the glimpse of perfection at its birth immediately falls to Darcia's curse, Cheza's Paradise cannot be tainted, because she exists to create a desire for the unattainable in an imperfect world. After she blooms, her true form is the seed of longing, which can grow in even the dirtiest, rat-infested back alleys. As a symbol of metaphysical longing, the blue flower can never be found, it can only be sought. This deep, all-encompassing kind of longing can only be fulfilling when chasing the infinite.

"You never find what you are looking for. If a searcher were to find his objective, it would become a mere object. The answer lies within the darkness."

There's nothing more painful than this unfulfillable longing, but all Kiba can do is try to get as close to its origin as possible, in this world and the next. This world created from the seed of longing and the pain of love might be cursed, but it's the only world where humanity is free to dream of Paradise. And since it was humanity's yearning that created Cheza, could there even be a Paradise without someone searching for it?

"Flowers won't die so long as there's a moon. And neither will wolves."

I always liked wolves. But if I had to give a reason why I appreciate Wolf's Rain, I'd say it's for my love of flowers.

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