Region: 2 - UK
Length: 117 minutes
English 5.1 Surround
Japanese 5.1 Surround
Hana is a 19-year-old student who falls in a "fairy-tale like" love with a "wolf man". Over the course of the 13-year story Hana gives birth to two children - older sister Yuki, and younger brother Ame, or "Snow and Rain". At first the family quietly lives in city trying to hide their wolf heritage, but when the "wolf man" suddenly dies Hana makes the decision to move to a rural town, far from their previous city life.
The most generous thing I can say about my parents is that I don't always know why they say the things they say or why they do the things they do. Parents are a mystery to me. I love them, I live with them, I'm being raised by them and they are kind of fun to hang around. But as they are people themselves, they are prone to the same wants, needs, problems and crises that I am. Except they have me to deal with on top of that. So Wolf Children shouldn't really be viewed as a story of a mother raising her children (though that is what happens). It should be treated as a story about a mother who is changed by and changes the destinies of her children.
Hana is a student in a busy Japanese city who is attending some kind of community college. While there, she encounters a young man her own age and they are inexorably drawn toward each other. He reveals to her that he is a wolfman and the last of his kind. She accepts him for who he is and falls in love with him and he with her. Soon after that, they become a couple and Hana gives birth to a daughter, Yuki, and a son, Ame about a year after. However, one day her lover is killed while in his wolf form and Hana is left to raise two small children who are half wolf, half human. With local officials asking her questions that would be fine if she didn't have wolf children, Hana needs to get them somewhere they can all be safe from prying eyes. Despite the enormity of her task, Hana packs her and the children off to the countryside in the hopes of providing a life for her offspring and keeping them safe from the world. We then follow Hana and the children as Yuki and Ame grow into young adults.
Mamoru Hosoda is a name that most modern anime fans will be familiar with, if not interested in. Having cut his teeth on Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon and Yu Yu Hakusho he graduated to directing the Digimon film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and 2009's Summer Wars. Summer Wars got shortlisted for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Animated Film but didn't make the cut. Nevertheless, it is a great film with a wonderful sentiment and stellar cast of characters. However, if I was looking for something in Hosoda's work that is similar in tone to Wolf Children, it wouldn't be Summer Wars, it would be The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Both films feature female leads, heartbreak and triumphs, an unusual setup that ultimately turns out to work brilliantly and a slow, careful pace that builds until you're right there with the characters as they suffer and delight in the mystery of life. Wolf Children might have a few problems but they are more a consequence of the story rather than the storytellers.
The film marks the passage of time very well. When Hana first arrives in the countryside, she's not welcomed very well by the locals. This is partly her fault as she just wants to protect her children but slowly the bulk of the neighbours come around to help her, have a chat and give her support when she needs it. The only holdout is a cranky old codger who doesn't take to Hana all that well. I think, and it's not spelled out, that he wanted to see if she was a tourist wanting to play at being a farmer or if she really wanted to own her patch of ground. For a long time in the movie, Hana doesn't make a clear statement on this one way or the other. However in a special moment, she and Crankyboots work out their differences in a nice scene. The last few sentences I've written actually take place over a number of years as the children grow into young teenagers. It's as if the director deliberately doesn't show you the years passing but gives markers as the children mature. Yuki starts out as a very hyperactive child who delights in changing into a wolf and back again much to the consternation of her mother. Ame is a timid soul who really doesn't want the outside world in his world. He isn't a wimp or weak but he is painfully shy and doesn't like being a wolf. He'd rather be a little boy and be happy with that. In what I think is the strongest points of the film and what ultimately starts to shape the third act of the movie, giving it an emotional resonance, are moments of reflection and transfiguration. For Yuki, she almost has her secret revealed to the world and for Ame, he almost dies. From that moment on, both children undergo such a radical change that it could be said that they switched temperaments. Ame develops what can only be described as an obsession with the local fox who he begins to see as a mentor while Yuki would like cut the wolf part of her out if she could. Any other script would have the two youngsters either fight each other or fight someone who threatened them. Hosoda decides instead to have them face inner demons rather than external threats. For Hana however, the hardest blows fall. She just can't let go of the fact that she promised to take care of the children for her beloved and tries to shield Yuki from the horror of duality and desperately wants Ame to be the boy she raised. As the film comes to an end, I found myself understanding her plight and that of her children. It's so hard to know how to act when your family is the thing that maddens and drives you at the same time and Hana does her best, better than most people would, I imagine. Interestingly, the film spends half the film trying to understand, through Hana's eyes, what it would be like to raise wolf children and then flips it over and shows the struggle Yuki and Ame are facing.
Hosoda is a director that is completely aware of the story's surroundings as evidenced by his earlier works. For Wolf Children, he and the art designers have created an aesthetically and tonally beautiful world with, as my mother would say, a place for everything and everything in its place. The bustle of the big city with its cold impartial evenings and its timeless summer days gives way to the stillness of a sleeping land and the colourful mosaic of the world of nature living side by side with humankind. The way the snow in winter allows Hana and the children to have fun without giving away their secrets is contrasted by the viciousness of the land when a storm arrives to wreck the fragile equilibrium the characters had forged for themselves. Truly, it is a wonderful setting and the story feels like it's taking place there because it could happen anywhere not because the storytellers decided to set it there. I know that they did intent to set it in the world they created but it doesn't feel like a consequence of the script dictating it and that's a hard thing to find in live action film much less animated ones. The look of the film is equal with Ghibli's output or that of Makoto Shinkai and Comix Wave. That Hosoda trained as a watercolour painter doesn't surprise me as the look of the film is almost painterly without it leaving the traditional look of an animated film.
Where the film goes astray for me is in the middle of the third, and final, act. I can't really mention specifics without spoiling things for you but there is a point where Hana finds herself in difficulty and it goes on and on. There's a setup then a payoff and then that plays into a second problem and into the final denouement. It just goes on for too long and could have been tighter in editing and direction. Really, that is the only thing I could find wrong with the film. I said once that I had a hard time with the 2010 film, Welcome To The Space Show in that it didn't know when to end itself. Wolf Children knows when to end itself and it's twenty minutes shorter. As the film starts to wrap up, the story's elements start to come together and points that were raised that you thought were window dressing become very important. Without spoiling anything, the main characters arrive in states of mind that they might not expect but that once there, they deal with the problems with the skills and temperament that you have watched them learn. It culminates in an ending that I can only describe as quiet, life affirming and beautiful.
The performances from the voice actors absolutely give credibility to the roles. Aoi Miyazaki absolutely nails it as Hana. From being a frightened teenager and then widowed young mother, she transfers into a person who absolutely will defend her children against anything. The moment when she realises that her love has died are very sad and heartbreaking and only the sheer joy of her with her children in the film's lighter moments can equal that. Haru Kuroki as Yuki and Yukito Nishii as Ame bring a growing maturity and fragility to their characters. Ame starts off being unsure but honest and grows as he takes on elements of Takao Osawa's performance as his father. I'm not saying he's copying Osawa's reading of the character, more like he shows traits that his father had. Kuroki defines a more focused performance, if anything. Yuki just wants to be a girl but she fears the other side of the coin will bring heartache. When her test of strength as a character comes, Kuroki shows a kind of transcendence where who she was does help her define who she is but her upbringing, feelings and demeanour will help show her who she will be. The rest of the cast show how good Hosoda is at having a great backing trope. They all work and you never doubt that they are anything but social workers, farmers, zoo keepers or retired folks. Musically, the score by Takagi Masakatsu is an amazing work. I don't know how but I had forgotten all about it until I listened to it a second time. It's a triumphal score with a compositionally complex tone. I'm listening to it now, getting goosebumps as I remember each scene from the movie. The main theme is something worthy of my favourite American composers, being heartfelt and character affirming.
The poster for the film really does encapsulate everything you need to understand the film, its motives and it's resolutions. I thought it was quirky going into see the film but now that I look at it, Hosoda was also communicating the tone of the film with the poster as well. Wolf Children is a great film to experience and it is, head and shoulders, a cut above the rest. If nothing else, it will give you some insight to how we as people learn to become better than our parents, sometimes with their help and sometimes by ourselves. It's a quintessentially Japanese story with a fantasy background that strives to let the audience invest in its characters rather than its supernatural elements. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it as much as I did.