The greatest loss any mother or wife can expect to endure is that of her children or her husband. Wolf Children is about a woman who endures both of those things, one literally and the other metaphorically. And while it examines this material through the lens of fantasy, it's unlike most fantasies in that the fantasy is not simply a way to ditch out on mundane worldly responsibilities (you are the chosen one; come with me on an adventure; there is another world you know nothing of; etc.). Here, the fantasy elements are used to argue for embracing those very worldly things all the more.
Anime of this caliber is rare, and not just because most anime is produced for a target market that opts for the fantastic over the realistic. Most audiences, no matter who or where they are, would do the same. They don't want some drag of story about a single mother; they want to get their world rocked. But Wolf Children is anything but a drag. After the fake "fun" of dead-on-arrival stuff like Guilty Crown, it's a dose of real and lasting joy.
The kids are all right, even if they're wolves
Hana, the single mother in question, is only nineteen when she meets and falls in love with the man who will become her husband and the father of her two children. He's ostensibly auditing the same courses she is, but she senses some deeper need for companionship with him. "I bet it would be nice to have my own house," he says idly one night, and she replies, "Then I'll say 'Welcome home,' if you want" — realizing almost too late the gravity of what she has said. The whole movie is shot through with that manner of absolutely precise observation, more so than in many live-action films.
They begin dating, and in time he reveals to Hana the source of his loneliness: he is a wolf-man, one who can shift between forms at will, and one of the very last of his kind. Shocking as this is — for both her and us — it's not enough to dislodge her feelings for him, whom she knows only as a good and tender person. They marry, have a child, enjoy life together. He does have the odd habit of going out at night in his wolf form and hunting down birds for the pot, an instinct he can no more suppress than her own need to be a mother to her own children. But she loves him, not merely his quirks, and so such behavior becomes endearing to her instead of strange. It's touching that he would do this, when at the end of the day most men would simply throw themselves on the couch and open a beer.
In time they have a boy and a girl, Yuki and Ame ("Snow" and "Rain"), each of whom share their father's ability to switch back and forth between wolf and human form. Unfortunately they don't (yet) have their father's discipline over this ability, and so life at home is never dull. The movie finds wonderfully specific ways to show us Hana's dilemmas: at one point one of the kids mistakenly eats a silica desiccant packet and becomes sick, and she can't decide whether to take him to the vet or to the pediatrician. (She settles for a call to the poison control hotline.)
Then her husband dies, drowning in a canal while hunting game. His instincs have become his undoing. The scene where his animal corpse is discarded by thoughtless trashmen is all the more harrowing for being shown unfolding at a distance. Hana, faced with the gloomy prospect of having to raise her unusual children all by herself, realizes a city apartment is no place to do this. Not only do the neighbors complain about her keeping disallowed pets, but the child-protection officers are getting concerned that the kids haven't had their shots.
But Hana cannot succumb to the idea that her children are wrong, that they somehow don't deserve to exist at all. A mother's going to love her children for what they are, not what they ought to be — yes, even if those kids have a tendency to transform into wolf puppies.
A nice little place in the country
Hana pulls up roots and heads to the countryside, where she's able to find a rundown old house in a bucolic little farming village (shades of My Neighbor Totoro, but not in a bad way). With no one around to pester her, she's free to let Ame and Yuki live as they are, and not feel any pressure to conform to a society that would only look for an excuse to shun them anyway.
Before long Hana draws the attention of the local Gruff Old Man, Nirasaki (voiced by Japanese live-action veteran Bunta Sugawara), who has no patience for newcomers — especially not this soft-handed city slicker who can't even plant a vegetable patch properly. He's a type we have come to know well through anime, the outwardly prickly one, male or female, who conceals his caring side behind a firewall of undifferentiated annoyance. She needs his help, and she knows it — and by the same token, she needs to not wall herself off from the rest of the world as a cautionary measure.
It's easy to forget nature is an unforgiving mistress, and that animal instinct sometimes means succumbing to impulses that are not alwats wise. This comes home most directly during one of the film's best and most moving scenes, where the three of them frolic in the snow, and then Ame almost drowns — much like his own father did — when chasing prey into a river. Rather than put him off nature, the incident has a galvanizing effect on him: where before he shunned the forest around him, now he grows enamored of it.
What's more, Yuki is now taking the opposite path, one leading her back into the human world. When she learns of how the neighborhood kids attend school, she begs for a chance to do the same — yes, even if it means concealing her wolf side in public. Ame soon follows suit, and soon both of them are enrolled in school, but it's clear from early on that the world outside is far more interesting to him than the classrooms around him. The movie finds a wonderful way to show this to us: the camera dollies past a series of classrooms in timelapse, where we see brother and sister growing older, growing apart, growing that much more unalike.
Of wolf and man
By the time they are adolescents, the divide between siblings has become all but complete. Ame spends his spare time in the forest, learning about survival in the wild from an old fox; Yuki has become that much more social. But even she can't help but sometimes let her wolf side slip its leash. When her brother is picked on a by a transfer student ("You smell like an animal," he tells Ame), Yuki lashes out, in partial wolf form, against his tormentor. And as with Ame's near-drowning, the long-term effects of this aren't what you'd expect: at first Yuki shuns school, fearing another relapse, but then the boy she hit shows his kind side, and soon she even befriends him. The two are now even more unalike.
It's every mother's destiny to let her children go, but every mother worth her salt will stall as long as possible before letting that happen. Unfortunately, Hana may have run out of time. When Ame learns the old fox of the forest is near death, he's compelled to take his place — to turn his back entirely on the human world, but especially on his own family. Hana knows, all to well, she cannot make him do anything; all she can do is plead with him to not be so hasty with his life. His decision is made in a climactic sequence where a heavy storm threatens the area, and his mother searches for him in the forest while Yuki finds herself trapped at school.
Watching this last section of the movie unfold reminded me of how the main difference between a greater film and a lesser one is how they make use of their subject matter. A more plot-driven movie would have made all this into an action sequence — or, worse, made Hana (or one of her children) into some kind of last-minute superhero, all in the name of twisting our arms to make us care about what happens. But the film doesn't need to do anything so cheap to be effective. It simply gives us the consequences of Ame's decision — and, in turn, Hana's. It may not be her choice as to when her work as a mother is finished, but she faces that with the grace every mother has to learn to muster.
That grace, it seems, can only come from the wisdom gleaned in the moment. There is really no manual for raising kids; one simply does the best one can. That might be all the message needed from this film.
The extraordinary in the ordinary, and the "new Miyazaki"
One criticism that's been floated about fantasy films that take a grounded view of their subject matter is that they have a tendency to let the mundane material call the shots. Instead of being about something fantastic, they end up being about something that most any film with the same ingredients could give us. What's the point of putting fantasy elements in a story if you're just going to make another cop drama, or another action film — or, for that matter, another family melodrama?
My counter-argument is that having the mundane material take over isn't the worst thing — provided that mundane material is character-centric and compelling to begin with. Here, it is, and so Wolf Children can afford to not be about things that a more conceptually ambitious but less emotionally ambitious movie would place front and center. Example: Hana is less concerned with the mysteries of her childrens' natures than the simple, pressing questions of how to raise them properly. In a lesser film, a less character-driven and emotionally attuned one, this would be a failing: why is she so incurious? But in this film, it's not incuriosity; it's priorities. And ultimately, the more heart-tugging questions of how, or whether or not, Hana can bring her children into human society is more enthralling than any fantasy plot contrivance.
There's much discussion in anime fandom right now about who will be "the next Miyazaki", now that the man has retired from filmmaking a second and most likely final time. Mamoru Hosoda, director of Wolf Children, is touted as one of the candidates, with this film as Exhibit A for the defense. I take exception to this notion, but not because I think Hosoda is undeserving: I think calling him Miyazaki-esque comes too easily at the expense of not being able to call him Hosoda-esque. He has already developed a viewpoint (and, it has to be said, a set of sentimentalities) that are as distinct from Miyazaki's as they bring his work to mind.
Hosoda debuted as a director with his animated version of Yasutaka Tsutsui's perennially adapted novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which like this film starts with a fantastic situation and by degrees reconnects it with worldly responsibility that cannot be shirked. What's the point of having godlike power over time if your imagination for what to do with it mostly amounts to selfish, boorish mischief? When Hosoda's next film Summer Wars came out, I thought slightly less highly of it, mainly because its theme of family and "social networks" (the analog kind vs. the digital kind, so to speak) was laid on a little thick for my taste. But its sincerity and great visionary sweep — the online world of "OZ" was visualized wonderfully — won me over, and I felt I had good reason to expect great things from Hosoda in the future. Now, with Wolf Children, I wonder where he can raise the bar to from here.