by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 29 of
Wolf's Rain ?
How would you rate episode 30 of
Wolf's Rain ?
Going into this finale of Wolf's Rain, I was keenly aware of the frustrations its fans have had with my muted take on the show, and to a degree I totally understand their frustrations. I wanted myself to love this show more than anyone, I'm sure, and I have been equally daunted and inspired by the challenge of unpacking just why I have been so ambivalent about a series that, on paper, should be something that I'd fall head-over heels in love with. I've retread my issues with the show's human characters and frustrating plot plenty of times by now, and I get what Wolf's Rain has been going for, at least in theory. It is a story that plays in a world of raw feeling and dream logic, and its characters operate with a classic, archetypal relationship to the tragedy they've been trapped in. So, in these last chapters of the Good Wolf Pack's long and difficult quest, the question on my mind was if this fable's gambits would finally pay off, or if instead its stubborn commitment to mythic style and form would collapse under the weight of its ambition. Or to paraphrase Roger Ebert's review of Mulholland Drive, which was one of the first times that he felt he truly “got” what David Lynch was going for as an artist, I wanted to see whether or not the Wolf's Rain experiment would finally shatter the test tubes.“High Tide, High Time” didn't have me fully convinced that things would hold together, initially. Everything that happens here is again, on paper, something that ought to have totally worked for me. By all rights, spending so much time grieving with the surviving wolves (and Hubb) as Toboe and Quent slowly die in each other's arms — while Darcia makes his way to the gates of Paradise all the while — should have had me in tears. Tsume's first truly engaging moment as a character comes when he finally opens up about his tragic past as a cast-off and exile, and his open anguish over the loss of his dorky little runt. Even Hubb's death had a beautiful sort of poetry to it, given that the last living testament to humankind's existence has to suffer such a pitiful end. He was a man who didn't realize his love and his need for Cher until she was already gone, and even going to the very literal end of the world to get her back wasn't enough to keep them both from being consumed by an unforgiving wasteland of ice and silence. It is, like almost everything else Wolf's Rain has given us, a terrifically haunting idea.
The problem, of course, is that an idea can only get you so far, especially when stretched across such a long and convoluted path as Wolf's Rain has taken. As emotional concepts, I fully understand what Quent, Toboe, Hubb and Tsume represent; as characters in a story, I still find it strangely difficult to connect with them. I didn't feel much of anything when these characters died, though I recognized the deaths as being sad, noteworthy events. “Well, there they go,” I said to myself, less invested in Tsume's grief and more frustrated with how the show waited until very nearly the last minute to give Tsume anything at all to do besides grunt and fight. I was fully prepared for that detached but vaguely interested feeling to be the long and short of my experience with Wolf's Rain's finale.
Here's the funny thing that you might not have predicted: I think the final episode, aptly titled “Wolf's Rain”, is nearly perfect. I was legitimately bowled over by how much I loved it, by how much I was fully on board for its total descent into phantasmagorical allegory. Even though I have been just as skeptical of Hige and Blue's forced romance as anything else in the show, I was deeply moved by their bloody and lonely quietus. Despite still not fully understanding or connecting with Darcia's basic motivations and backstory, I accepted this insanely sneering wolf as a perfectly wretched symbol of avarice and arrogance. All of that is just prelude to the true climax, too, which abandons any pretense of literal interpretation in favor of completely surrendering the story to an unfettered Gothic nightmare apocalypse. Kiba and Darcia descend into the cavern beneath the Red Moon, wherein lies the murky waters that are said to be the gates of Paradise. Cheza's body is consumed with what are either rotting veins, wild roots, or both, and they twist and break her form in a horrifyingly beautiful way. Darcia monologues about his true intentions and whatnot, which is all infinitely less interesting than the almost throwaway cut where he vomits up the magic black stone that allowed him to unlock his wolfen form. Here, Kiba confronts his own twisted foil in a dreamscape blood pageant staged in requiem for a dying world.
How much of this is literal, and how much is just a kind of ritual of the mind and soul, is anyone's guess. When Darcia's lone eye begins to stain the ethereal waters of the true Paradise black, we can only understand the raw, symbolic power of the image. It is a stain upon the soul of the Earth itself, an original sin of human folly that can never be truly washed away. Not when the last human on Earth is masquerading in a rotting wolfskin, a parody of the simple and pure reasons for being that Kiba and his comrades clung steadfastly to even as their growing fears and their relationships with each other made them more human than, well, the humans around them.
So when we witness the last remnants of those humans and animals alike who sought refuge in Paradise from the endless cycles of violence and retribution, what are we to think? That Kiba and the others truly died frozen and alone at the end of a journey that was doomed from the start? Or that, as Cheza said, this period of death is merely an interlude, and the vision of our reborn heroes that concludes the series is more than just a bittersweet dream before dying?
I don't know, and I'm glad to revel in that uncertainty. I'd go so far as to argue that the finale of Wolf's Rain is nearly good enough on its own to cement the series' place in the popular anime canon. I still don't think we needed to spend a full twenty-six episodes (and four recaps) establishing the visual language and context necessary to get us to this impeccable conclusion, however, and I maintain that Wolf's Rain's biggest flaws were a result of stretching its premise and characters much too thin. If Wolf's Rain had compressed its ideas and motifs into just twelve episodes, or maybe even a single film, it might have been a stronger and more cohesive work of art.
As it stands, this deeply flawed story has too many frustrating moments of wasted potential to be an unqualified masterpiece. That said, its occasional flashes of pure brilliance cannot be ignored or dismissed. In the end, the fairest way to describe Wolf's Rain may be that it truly is a dreamlike experience: Some of it may well end up easily forgotten or shrugged off, and even the more interesting moments will seem jumbled and aimless in the light of day. At its absolute best, though, Wolf's Rain seeps into the deepest parts of your mind, the parts that speak the language of instinct and sense-memory, where it can haunt and inspire in equal measure, long after waking up.
Odds and Ends
• If I had to give the entire series of Wolf's Rain a grade right now, I'd probably give it a solid 3.5/5, which might grow into a 4/5 after getting some time to chew on it. I'd also still defend its status as a classic anime, which just goes to show how meaningless numerical scores are in the grand scheme of things. Art doesn't have to be perfect to matter, and sometimes the messiest projects are the ones we remember best.
• I know my very critical and reflective reception of Wolf's Rain isn't in line with many fans' experience of the show, and I appreciate everyone in the comments who were able to get something out of my reviews despite vehemently disagreeing with me. Even though I did not unabashedly love Wolf's Rain, writing about it has been a uniquely fascinating experience, and I have honestly loved the challenges and opportunities it represented. Thank you all for reading!
Wolf's Rain is currently streaming on Funimation.
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