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In a bleak, post-apocalyptic future that blends elements of decaying urban steam punk and animalistic mythology, a divine Arctic wolf named Kiba leads his pack on a journey towards Paradise with the angelic alchemical being named Cheza (known as the Flower Maiden) as their guide. The people of this world no longer believe that wolves exist, and to survive, they must disguise themselves as humans as they search for the land promised to them while facing dubious Nobles, a vengeance-crazed wolf hunter, and struggles with self-doubt running parallel to those of their human companions.
When I was in middle school, I wrote off anime as childish garbage with tired tropes and stale story-telling. Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist showed me how wrong I was, but once again I made the mistake of jumping to conclusions with Wolf’s Rain. I immediately assumed, because the leads were four pretty boys who alternated between being wolves and people that Wolf’s Rain was furry fan girl bait, you know those wolf-obsessed freaks who wear wolf ears in school photos (there was a girl like that in my graduating class). Being an otaku freak, I had to check it out anyway. (I watch way too much anime).
Once again, I stand corrected SO HARD.
Technically speaking, Wolf’s Rain is not some of Bones’ flashier work (it’s not Brotherhood or anything) but that doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most beautiful shows in the business. The background art is melancholy but lushly detailed, the character designs are distinct and attractive (but not girly enough to put off male audiences) and the animation is under-stated but still very fluid. The wolves leap and bound across the screen eerily like real animals. I still don’t really care for the way Tsume is drawn, as I think his clothes are in poor taste, but this is only a small hitch in what is otherwise an elegant feast for the eyes.
The soundtrack was composed by Yoko Kanno, which means you should already know what I am going to say about it. All of Kanno’s work is fantastic, (she has written what is arguably the greatest theme song of all time) but this may be her best. It’s a great score to listen to on its own, but it never overwhelms the story, choosing instead to support the action beat by beat, the way every good soundtrack should. The music really enhances the emotional scenes, and if the scene in which Kiba and Cheza meet for the “first” time, (major spoiler) with “My Little Flower” playing in the background doesn’t move you to tears, check around for your soul. Chances are you don’t have one. The opening theme has a different feel than the rest of the score, and a lot of people don’t like it (it makes me want to break out my sweat band, single white glove, and leg warmers because it is SO EIGHTIES) but you should watch it anyway because it will give you a very valuable hint about why the show ends the way it does. Trust me, you’ll need all the help you can get.
As far as the audio goes, the Japanese track is a solid listen. With that being said, you absolutely MUST watch the English version instead, because it is better by a factor of about four million. In my experience, I’d say about seventy percent of anime is more proficient in Japanese. About a quarter of shows sound fine both ways and a small five percent are undoubtedly better in English. Wolf’s Rain is very firmly in that five percent; with one of the best dubs I have ever heard, right up there with Cowboy Bebop and Paranoia Agent. There aren’t really any stand-out roles to comment on, as everyone is consistently good, even the extras. It’s a pretty all-star voice actor cast, with Johnny Yong Bosch as Kiba, Crispin Freeman as Tsume, Mona Marshall as Toboe, Joshua Seth as Hige, Steve Blum as Lord Darcia, really I could go on and on. Every actor delivers every line well, even in the particularly dramatic scenes. You know why? Mary Elizabeth McGlynn directed the dub, that’s why. Hey, if I was a voice actor and Major Motoko was telling me what to do, I’d act my ass off, because it’s the Major, bitch. The original script was written by the brilliant Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bebop, the dub of which McGlynn also directed) so I hope they give her every script of his from now on.
These top-notch production values would not even be enough to make this a great show, but Wolf’s Rain delivers in story as well, although here is where things might get difficult for some people, myself included (the first time I watched it). For the first few episodes you may find yourself shouting, “This is amazing!” only to echo yourself a few episodes later with, “Wait, what’s amazing?! Huh? What’s going on?! Wolf’s Rain, tell me!” The show takes placed in a minutely imagined fantasy world with a rich and fascinating history, but you really have to be paying attention because you will not hear a single line of blatant exposition in the show. This is a good thing because well, “show, don’t tell” but Wolf’s Rain will tell you very little and show you even less. I like this approach though, because unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion, (that show really thinks who it is) which talks very obviously about postmodern existentialism textbook-style, Wolf’s Rain is subliminal rather than preachy, but it is still just as passionate about its message.
So what is the message exactly? Well, I can’t say without giving away spoilers, but keep this in mind as you watch: It is an allegory, both a sociological and religious one. The Divine Comedy is a religious allegory and The Sound and the Fury is a sociological allegory. Wolf’s Rain is not as obvious as either one. Everything you see is symbolic of something else, much like Revolutionary Girl Utena. I am not going to say that Utena is easier to interpret than Wolf’s Rain, but Utena is at least nice enough to make it obvious when it’s trying to make a point. Utena dances around with all of its fanfare, gleefully shouting, “SYMBOLISM SYMBOLISM SYMBOLISM HEEHEE!” (That show is eccentric, to say the least). Wolf’s Rain creeps past you, whispering inaudibly, “Symbolism, symbolism, symbolism, and you missed it because I’m sneaky like that, just how I roll, you know.” Hang tough though, and if you’re like me, then you will actually want to know why it ends the way it does, (hint) what makes the Nobles different from ordinary humans, (hint) what happened to the world to make it what it is today, (hint) and why wolves are considered divine (hint). You may also get more out of it if you have read the Book of Revelations or understand Shinto animal symbolism, but the writers don’t expect anything. Even if you want to watch with your brain turned off, the emotionally moving artistic merit rings true. The epic journey is interrupted only by the four completely useless recap episodes stuck there because of production delays (episodes 15, 16, 17 and 18) but you won’t miss anything if you skip them, so just skip them. Seriously, SKIP THEM. If you buy DVD set, they are all on one disc, so just don’t bother with it.
Wolf’s Rain is a true work of art amongst anime and possibly the standard by which all other fantasy anime should be judged. That being said, this is not for everyone, and certainly not for the casual viewer. If you prefer to watch things with your heart rather than your head, steer clear. However, if you want a mature fairy-tale with refreshing originality, subtle but effective allusions, and sophisticated imagery, then you may just find yourself in Paradise, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Also, as a little side note: I’ve watched Wolf’s Rain several times now and I completely understand it, so if anyone has seen the show and is confused, feel free to private message me. However, please don’t do so unless you have seen the entire show, and try to be specific in your questions.