One of the best parts of a 14-hour flight is all the first-run movies available to keep you from going batshit insane. And when you fly Japan Airlines, you get some very exciting choices, like Mamoru Hosoda’s stunning WOLF CHILDREN.
I’ve been home from Japan for five days. I’m jet-lagged, just back from an amazing trip with my wife and two of our best friends. I have loads of work to do. At this moment, I should be doing any number of things other than writing this review - - but I can’t stop thinking about this movie!
And that means I should probably tell you about it.
This flick, from the same creative mind behind SUMMER WARS and THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME, concerns itself with the all-too common plight of a single mother left to raise two rambunctious kids on her own. Sound too simple? How about this: what if the father had been a wolf-man and the children, like him, were half-human and half-wolf?
It’d be way too easy for something like this to fall into trite, cliched territory and, in less-talented hands, it probably would have. Luckily, these wolves don’t hunt maidens under full moons, nor are they themselves hunted. In fact, the very mythology of werewolves is rather cleverly shrugged off early on. Hana (the mother of the titular “wolf children,” Ame and Yuki) says, simply enough, that everything we thought we knew about werewolves is wrong. And so, with a casual dismissal, Hosoda throws off the shackles of preconceived notions and is free to focus on telling his story.
And make no mistake, this is Hana’s story as much as it is Yuki and Ame’s. Yuki, Ame’s sister and the elder of the two, is our narrator, telling the story as it was told to her by her mother. It begins with Hana at 19, a university student who falls in love with a strange, kind man who sneaks in to audit one of her classes. The two hit it off, fall in love, and then... well... the man-sized dog is let out of the bag.
The werewolf conceit is treated with a fable-like quality, lightly draped over the very real, human, and grounded story. Early in the film, (spoilers!), Hana’s husband dies, leaving her to raise their two children on her own. Without her husband, the last of the wolf-men, to help her, she has to figure out how to raise two wolf children, each of them as different from each other, and from your average kids, as can be.
Complicating matters is the fact that the children can change from wolf to human at will and, when they’re young, they do this as much by instinct and emotion as by choice. When Yuki gets hungry (which is often) she turns into a wolf as she throws a tantrum. When Ame cries, he often howls. Neighbors complain about Hana keeping pets in the apartment, all the furniture gets chewed up, and Child Protection Services (or the Japanese equivalent) shows up. Wanting the children to grow up to be whatever they want and without being poked and prodded by the world, she moves them out to the country and away from prying eyes.
It’s at this point that you might expect those cliches to come into play. Maybe some dead chickens, angry villagers with torches, and a desperate subtext about how we can’t accept anything that’s different, no matter how beautiful, right?
Wrong. Like the best Ghibli films, there isn’t a physical antagonist here. Even the meanest of the villagers turns out to have a soft spot for Hana and her brood. Instead, it’s duality that drives the story forward. And if there’s anything to be taken away from how Hosoda feels about duality, it’s that he’s not a fan of compromise. To be our happiest, we need to commit to a course of action and stick with it, whether for ourselves or those we care about.
Hana understands this subconsciously - - indeed, it’s why she moved her children to a majestic, almost otherworldly, countryside - - but coming to grips with it is another matter entirely. Ditto for the kids, who must choose between their two very different lives whilst keeping in mind their father's unsuccessful attempt to live life as both man and wolf. Indeed, his death was a symbolic thesis for the rest of the film: living a compromised life just doesn’t work.
Now, it might be because of where I am in life (my wife and I have been married two years and kids are definitely on our more immediate agenda) but this film really hit me in the cold, shriveled corner of my chest where a heart should be. Not since UP have I wound up so close to unashamed tears in a film. And for every time I felt my eyes sting, I found myself smiling or outright laughing twice more. I’m sure it’s an emotional film for everyone, but for those of us thinking about starting a family, or who maybe just recently have, it has an extra bit of punch.
Following Hana and her children for a decade of their lives would have been a treat in any medium, but the beautiful animation by Studio Chizu, founded by Hosoda, and Madhouse, made it an absolute joy. There were a few instances where the use of CG backgrounds were jarring (in particular, two first-person sequences really pushed me out of the film rather than pulling me in), but it held together very well. Even being a fan of more conventional animation styles, I could appreciate the work and artistry that went into the film. It didn’t hurt that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION fame) was responsible for the character designs. Add in a score by Takagi Masakatsu that was as compelling as it was unobtrusive (a complement for any film score), and you have an absolutely fantastic package.
I could go on about themes and symbolism and all that stuff, but this isn’t a term paper and, honestly, if what I’ve told you hasn’t sold you already, you should probably get your pulse checked. FUNimation picked up the rights to WOLF CHILDREN and has announced plans to release it sometime in 2013. If there’s a theatrical release, run for the nearest theater. Pre-order the Blu-Ray.
And if you find yourself on a long flight home from Japan, watch it twice. I wish I had.
Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.