Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
It's been said that when the world is about to come to an end, Paradise will appear somewhere on the earth, but only the Wolves will know where to find it. Of course, Wolves were hunted to extinction by the Nobles well over 200 years ago. That's just common knowledge for what remains of human civilization on a rapidly freezing planet. But there are still a few wolves left, scraping out secret lives in the domed cities, disguised as regular humans by some supernatural spell.
Kiba is a young wolf, full of righteous principles and violent energy, determined to search for Paradise until his dying breath. His ardor inspires a few other packless youngsters to follow him: the scarred loner Tsume, the fluffy and streetwise Hige, and the human-loving runt Toboe. Together, they embark on a journey across their dying world to find the last Lunar Flower who can lead them to Paradise, pursued by a pair of curious divorcees (scientist Cher Degre and detective Hubb Lebowski) and vengeful hunters (alcoholic ex-sheriff Quent Yaiden and his loyal dog Blue).
But above the human threats or environmental hazards looms the terror of the Nobles, a legion of superhuman tyrants who keep the secrets of Paradise under lock and key for their own dark designs. The most dangerous of these is Lord Darcia III, who has kidnapped Cheza, the earth's last Lunar Flower given temporary human form by his family's mysterious experiments. Whether these wolves, the humans, or the Nobles will determine the future remains unwritten in the Book of the Moon, but it is written that Paradise will only open if someone can reach it before the red moon finally goes dark over this icy world.
As Wolf's Rain finally arrives on Blu-ray at the respectable age of 14 (surviving a decade in anime fan memory is no small feat!), the series may stand out for a reputation that can only be called "emotionally paradoxical."
Even its most affectionate fans would probably call Wolf's Rain "cold," as its emotionally distant (and non-human) characters drive forth a larger-than-life fantasy plot through an austere wasteland of ice and snow. The story's world seems to deliberately hold viewers at arm's length by introducing us to an elaborate universe teeming with forgotten lore and political intrigue, but then choosing a pack of orphaned wolf pups as its protagonists, who are impossibly disconnected from this human history and culture. Add in the show's grim and earthy yet bold and high-contrast production design, and Wolf's Rain seems on its surface like the fantasy equivalent of various sci fi contemporaries like Texhnolyze and Last Exile. This is heady, navel-gazing, post-Matrix speculative fiction that ditches the cyberpunk aesthetic in favor of more diverse settings but otherwise checks off most of the same beard-stroking boxes. Even if Wolf's Rain plays around with supernatural concepts more than scientific ones, they would all seem to fit in the same bin.
Of course, that's where the emotional paradox comes in, seemingly shunting Wolf's Rain into a completely different category with an unusually large female fanbase for its genre and frequent appearances on fan lists of emotionally fueled superlatives. You're not likely to see the Texhnolyzes and Last Exiles of the world stealing the show with fans recounting the most tearjerking death scenes or heartbreaking romances in anime, but Wolf's Rain could stuff both lists with weepy outpourings of affection for a wide range of favorite moments and characters that may not even overlap. Maybe it's the growing sense of brotherhood between the wolves (and Cheza) that tugs at your heartstrings, or maybe it's the human element seen in Cher, Quent, or even Darcia's stories. Regardless, any given discussion of Wolf's Rain tends to turn to the characters first and the philosophy second, which seems pretty paradoxical for a series that is driven on emotional vagueness and big existential questions.
The contradictions seem to dogpile on from there, as Wolf's Rain indulges risky choices that could alienate brainiacs and bleeding hearts alike. This is an elaborate fantasy world that refuses to indulge in exposition; nobody ever stops to explain what the government's like or how technology works, nobody breaks down the history of the world or even their own backstory in any way that would crack the veneer of the show's persistently naturalistic dialogue. That's right, characters not only refuse to explain their world, they refuse to even explain themselves. Following on the heels of her similar character writing in Cowboy Bebop, Keiko Nobumoto develops a large cast of rogues who are doggedly tight-lip about their real feelings, preferring to obfuscate with jokes or lies or pregnant silence. It's the kind of show where it's possible to watch all the way through without ever realizing that one of the main characters is blind (no one ever says that Cheza's big expressive eyes don't actually work), the kind of show where the impact of one character's tragic backstory is supposed to come from never actually revealing that backstory, only its horrific present-day consequences. And yet, despite these risks, Wolf's Rain still stands as one of the most critically acclaimed and memorable TV anime ever made. Even if you're not a fan, it's an extremely difficult experience to forget.
There's no one explanation for this unique place Wolf's Rain holds as equal parts navel-gazing philosophy major's darling and Kleenex-destroyer of choice for melodrama-seeking fangirls. Maybe there doesn't need to be one; those two appeals aren't mutually exclusive, it's just rare to find them coexisting, even if it's easy for people to enjoy a story on both those levels at once, nerds with hungry hearts and brains. But if I had to explain this extremely "cold" show's overwhelming emotional power, I think the secret is hiding in plain sight, right in the basic premise. Unlike most apocalypse stories, Wolf's Rain isn't about barely averting the end of the world or rebuilding after some other "apocalypse" has already happened. It's about being alive when everything ends. It's about finding a way to live when there is no way forward but a dream, nothing but a drive that tells you to keep going no matter what, that there is always more living to be done and always more purpose to pursue as long as there's still breath in your body—even if it's just struggling to survive long enough to turn out the lights on a dying world.
It's a unique situation that allows the show to squeeze massive emotional gravity out of characters who mostly communicate like they've had their ability to emote ground down to a weary nub. Rather than begrudge these poor wolves and humans their bitterness and paranoia like we might in stories with shallower stakes, we come into their world with a sense of the weight they already carry as survivors with their best years behind them, taking joy in their tiny victories and interpreting the inevitable moments of animosity between them more charitably. It's easy to lose your patience when you haven't eaten in days, and it's hard to connect with new people when you've already lost so many over the years. The brotherhood that forms between these tenuous allies (and even enemies, when things get really bad) isn't always the cuddliest, but it's deep and hard-earned, allowing the audience to relish even the most fleeting bonds between characters who're all struggling for a future together, even if they have very different ideas about Paradise, which gives us plenty to think about along the way.
All that said, the show isn't consumed by misery, since the world it explores is perpetually beautiful. Despite the oncoming apocalypse, Wolf's Rain embraces its road trip conceit wholeheartedly, traversing diverse vistas and climates in every new episode, from crumbling frozen cities to haunting desert canyons to decaying forest mazes to false utopias with suspiciously clinical architecture. Sadly, all this beautiful art design can't be enjoyed in native HD, since Wolf's Rain was conceived in the tragic window between cel animation and more advanced digital animation methods. There's just no way to make low-resolution digipaint not look blurry and smeary when it's blown up to 1080p, but setting the perils of upscaling digipaint aside, it's still an incredibly handsome show with smart color design for its time and character designs that have aged flawlessly (save for some giggle-worthy wolf wardrobe choices). The relatively young Studio BONES created this world with stunning attention to detail, blending a civilization built on art nouveau design with grand uninhabited landscapes to communicate the ruins of aristocratic ambition that crushed the earth with their hollow manmade beauty.
This art nouveau aesthetic is equally important to the show for thematic reasons, which is another secret to Wolf's Rain's power as a profoundly philosophical show that still succeeds as basic emotionally-driven entertainment. Not only was art nouveau infamous as a movement driven by the aristocracy to immortalize nature's beauty (especially flowers) in wrought iron and stone, it also just so happened to come into fashion at the same time that the Japanese wolf was hunted to extinction. This complex layering of political and folkloric meaning is so ingrained in Wolf's Rain that you could spend years and dozens of rewatches discovering new meaning in its use of culturally impactful symbols that span the globe to create a new, incredibly unique mythology that still feels familiar and ancient.
Limiting yourself to "why wolves?" alone will take you from the show's use of Japanese folklore to Native American stories to even how the Greeks saw the wolf as a symbol of divine power very differently from the former two examples. (The name of the town that is sacrificed because of wolves is "Kyrios," the loss of which causes Quent to lose his faith in both men and wolves.) You're probably not expected to think about this very much or even notice it at all, but like most other blink-and-you-miss-them choices in the show's deep-dive storytelling, you could write a whole essay on it. Behind the scenes material from this release's video interviews to the meticulous details revealed in old editions of Newtype make it clear that this project was incredibly important to lead writer Keiko Nobumoto (who was developing it while wrapping up her script on another ambitious masterpiece, Cowboy Bebop), and all the staff from the studio producer to a fresh-faced Mamoru Miyano in his first anime role speak about the project with a truly unusual level of reverence. Whether you decide to trawl the depths of the show's political, spiritual, or existential questions or just skim the surface of its engrossing hero's journey, the staff clearly intended viewers to come away from this story moved by their own myriad of interpretations.
Strangely enough, both Wolf's Rain's greatest outlying strength and weakness don't invite much discussion themselves, at least not in a general review. Yoko Kanno's soundtrack is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest anime soundtracks of all time, easily rivaling if not surpassing her work on Cowboy Bebop. Even if the story of Wolf's Rain leaves you cold or confused, the wide range of tracks that score the series are transcendentally thoughtful and powerful from their composition to instrumentation to sometimes even lyrics, giving piece after piece scene-defining power throughout the series' run, which would be an impressive feat for one song on a soundtrack, let alone most of them. Likewise, the four superfluous recap episodes that were broadcast while Studio BONES was in the throes of a SARS epidemic might have been a severe handicap to enjoyment when the series first aired, but they barely register as a hiccup in the age of binge-viewing and easy internet access to information about what to skip and why. Since the planned four episodes that were cut from broadcast were still produced and released, it's easy to just pretend that these recap episodes don't exist, resulting in an otherwise normal 26-episode series with a weird speedbump in the middle that you can drive right around.
Funimation's blu-ray release retains all the standard definition on-disc extras from the Bandai DVDs, with audiovisual quality as good as it can get for a gorgeous series produced at such a low original resolution. Although its ardent but much smaller fanbase obviously didn't merit the super-deluxe special editions that its spiritual predecessor Cowboy Bebop got, Wolf's Rain did get an English dub on the same level of refreshingly high quality as Cowboy Bebop by the same ADR team and casting pool. Funny enough, it even has the same strengths and weaknesses compared to its Japanese language version; the dub is bold and archetypal in delivery while the sub is unusually naturalistic, with both approaches serving the story equally well somehow in completely different ways. It's nice to know that you can't go wrong with either option in a show that relies so much on delicate performances.
Overflowing with beauty and conviction yet challenging and biting to a fault, Wolf's Rain remains extremely difficult to interpret but almost childishly simple to understand, just like a fairytale. It's a paradoxical experience that wears your heart out and breaks it repeatedly, but it is never contradictory in its quest for meaning. Its passionate creators remained unwavering in their commitment to imagine the most hopeless world possible, a story that opens on its protagonist dying in the snow whispering "There is no such place as Paradise," and still make us believe that he can't give up yet. Whether you believe that Paradise is real, that Paradise is just the pursuit itself, or that Paradise is the people who are willing to travel through Hell with you, Wolf's Rain simply asks the audience to believe in something. Warts and all, it's anime at the peak of artistic ambition, an endlessly rewarding treasure trove of ideas for dreamers to dig through again and again.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A+
+ Incredibly powerful, complex, high-concept fantasy that explores apocalyptic emotions through the struggles of relatable characters; gorgeous artistry, excellent english dub, and one of the all-time greatest anime soundtracks
Full encyclopedia details about
Release information about
discuss this in the forum (24 posts) |
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history