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Secret Santa Review: Wolf Children

Mamoru Hosoda makes family movies. That is, he not only makes movies that are suitable for a broad range of ages and backgrounds, but his movies are about families in deep and insightful ways. The families can be biological (Summer Wars, Wolf Children) or the virtual ones of friendship (Our War Game, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), but Hosoda is most interested in exploring the interconnected bonds between people and how they help individual characters become more than they would be by themselves.

The first quarter of Wolf Children depicts the mother, Hana, and the nameless werewolf father falling in love and marrying, and it is one of the most heartwarming and unpretentious courtships in recent anime, comparable to the first scenes of Pixar’s Up. This is, of course, how new families begin, and the film makes clear about how this is just like any other marriage but also different, given the father’s background. In homogeneous Japan, this mixed race marriage–for lack of a better term–is perhaps even more unique, and by hammering home its ordinariness, it helps the audience empathize with them and paves the way for later conflicts in the story.

For the bulk of the film, however, Hosoda examines what is perhaps the most direct, elemental act of family: parenting. And make no mistake, this film is about the mother much more than it is about her son Ame and daughter Yuki, the half-offspring of an actual, literal werewolf and who have a divided heritage. This detail is simultaneously crucial and inessential to the film’s central themes. The way that Ame and Yuki follow diametrically different paths is a direct result of the different ways they respond to their wolf natures, but it is also an easily relatable analogy for how any children in the same family can follow profoundly different life paths. There is also the specter of racial prejudice hanging over all of their lives, beginning with the death of their werewolf father. The family must figure out just how much to show or hide their lineage, confronting stereotypes about wolves that threatens their self-image, living in fear that their mixed heritage will be discovered and lead to ostracization. It is an unusually sensitive film for an anime in that regard, and perhaps it could only be told in this semi-allegorical, magical realist mode to make it resonate with audiences.

Caught inbetween is the protagonist, Hana, whose efforts to raise her children after their father’s death are nothing short of heroic. Wolf Children may be the perfect Mother’s Day film. Hana refurbishes an entire abandoned country house, struggles to learn how to grow vegetables in the field while suffering the suspicions of the local community, goes out in dangerous conditions to look for her lost son. These are actually the routine kinds of sacrifices that parents make every day, but they are presented in the film with such grace and nobility, it serves as a reminder to appreciate one’s parents.

To Hosoda’s credit, however, the story does not end there. To some extent, the story arc of Wolf Children covers the entire cycle of parenthood in accelerated time: from dating to marriage to conception to birth to growing up and, finally, to the children leaving home. Ame, who wishes to embrace his wolf nature fully, leaves first, as a costly act of independence that is both painful and necessary to anyone who has grown up (or who has watched their grown children leave the nest). Yuki, by contrast, chooses to focus on her human nature and thus moves to a boarding school to be closer to her peers. Part of the story fo a family is that the child’s relationship to his or her parents changes over time in just this way: no longer dependent, but hopefully still filled with love and respect. Wolf Children recognizes both the pathos and the necessity of this process. It is how the film can be shot through with melancholy and yet still feel so affirming and warm-hearted by the end.

In my view, Mamoru Hosoda comes much closer to the inheritor of the Ghibli mantle than Makoto Shinkai or, of all people, Hideaki Anno. Hosoda, like Hayao Miyazaki, writes about children and families with unusual perceptiveness, though his imagination is more grounded than the whimsical Miyazaki–it is closer to Isao Takahata’s sensibility and mood. Like Ghibli’s general output, his films have broad appeal that go beyond the otaku audience, and the background art and animation quality are never less than outstanding. Wolf Children represents a further maturation of his exploration of family ties and how they shape people in meaningful ways, and a sincere celebration of parenthood in its trials and joys.


This review was part of the Reverse Thieves’ annual Secret Santa project, in which an anime is recommended for review anonymously until Christmas. The other choices were Tatami Galaxy and xxxHolic, and I chose this one by virtue of its being the shortest. :) The last time I participated in the Secret Santa, I reviewed the first season of A Certain Scientific Railgun.

Secret Santa Review: A Certain Scientific Railgun (70%)

railgun
It really isn’t quite this sort of show, actually.

My anime fandom has two touchstones, Evangelion and Honey and Clover, and that should clue you in to the sort of stories that I enjoy. A Certain Scientific Railgun, which was handed to me as part of the Reverse Thieves‘ Secret Santa project, is the sort of title that I would normally avoid. My thought was: it’s about yuri fanservice; it’s more oriented toward action rather than drama; it features the kind of fan pandering that peaked at the time the show aired (2009-2010) that I generally disdain. (Though, looking back at my first impressions at the time, I wasn’t that put off by the first episode. It was more what I heard later that discouraged me from following up.)

Fast forward three years later, and I’m ready to expand my horizons, put aside some old prejudices, and give a different sort of show a chance. Out of the three titles that were suggested to me—the other two were Aquarion EVOL and Sora no Woto, both of which I’d seen and in the latter case wrote about extensively)—I chose the show I was least likely to watch on my own.

So what did I think?

In short: A Certain Scientific Railgun was better than I expected, but I wasn’t expecting much. It’s competently directed in spots, reasonably paced when it’s not indulging in filler (which is often, unfortunately), and has a few decent cliffhangers. The action animation is frequently impressive, befitting its high budget. Aside from some of the milieu/world, however, there is little originality to the plot, and most of the characters fall flat. It is, really, a glossy but ultimately average anime series. It’s the equivalent of a second-tier Hollywood summer blockbuster spinoff; the X-Men Origins: Wolverine of anime.

***

mikoto-pose

There’s actually an old-fashioned action anime story buried beneath the yuri and filler. The best parts of Railgun tell that story, about experiments done on children going out of control with a scientist facing a moral dilemma and the need to atone for her actions—to stop the ultimate baddy from taking over. Shades of Akira and other classic sci-fi anime lurk here, with an almost late 1980s-1990s approach: big robots, thunderbolts and lightning courtesy of our human railgun Mikoto, and highways and trucks being ripped apart and thrown. Not to mention pulsing globules of monstrous flesh forming in the middle of cities. The storytelling approach and the outcome couldn’t be more different, of course, but the homages seem clear. And for someone like myself whose fandom teeth were cut on this sort of show, the feeling was familiar and even occasionally welcome. It was like watching something like Saber Marionette J or Burn Up again; not because the plots or characters are similar, but the feeling was. This is bread and butter type of anime.

Tatsuyuki Nagai, the series director, did the best he could with the material. I was most impressed with the way plot threads and hints, even from supposed filler episodes, made their way into the main story. His talent for managing multiple characters and pacing them evenly also showed, especially when all four leads are out doing different things. In the few moments of introspection given to the characters (particularly Saten, Dr. Kiyama, and Mikoto), we see flashes of the Nagai of Ano Natsu and Toradora. When the characters ruminate on whether Academy City is truly a meritocracy, what it means to be a certain Level, and who gets left out in such a system—the show rises above itself. Dr. Kiyama’s backstory episode, and the way it tied into the final episode, was handled with the sort of deftness and emotional sincerity that I expect from Nagai. It made the otherwise predictable ending feel stronger than it actually was. He even manages to sneak in some of his trademark yearning romance, albeit in compressed form, in the two episode arc about the Big Spider/Skill Out gang.

Quality villain dialogue.
Quality villain dialogue.

The show suffers most when it bows to stale comedic conventions and refuses to let the female leads grow beyond their typecast characters. Kuroko eventually proves her professional competence and dedication, but before that, her yuri slapstick antics only made me laugh a little before becoming simply irritating. Mikoto, the nominal protagonist, is the most straightforward and balanced character, but has few distinctive traits other than her love of cute things, wearing shorts under her skirt, and her powers. She’s likable but bland, and she’s the same at the end as she was in the beginning. (Compare with her doppelganger, Mai of Mai Hime. What does Kuroko see in her?) Saten, apparently a fan favorite, has a few moments given her status as a Level 0—she gets some touches of the Nagai treatment in the unusually quiet coda to the first arc—but not nearly as much as the conflicted and haunted Dr. Kiyama, who steals the show as the most complex and interesting character. (Her “undresstress” quirk seems altogether disconnected from her character.) The de rigeur swimsuit episode attempted to do something different with its shifting settings and relative lack of camera ogling*, but felt oddly paced and disjointed. Perhaps the worst offender was a single episode in which the girls attempt to matchmake their dorm matron: a cliche anime sitcom plot that felt willfully anti-climactic and emotionally unresolved by its end, because the episode has to end in the way it does for it to fit the type.

Nagai has only directed one other series with two cours, Toradora, and Railgun could have been a more propulsive series had it only been one cour. Much of the second half especially could have been cut without doing much damage to the plot, as well as the first few episodes, which did not leave the best impression until the story actually started. This is a plot rather than character-driven series, because the characters are mostly too flat to carry the story without the Big Baddy Threatening the City While Cackling and Overexplaining Her Plans. It’s a plot that we’ve seen many times before too, offering few surprises, but at least it would have been fast paced and the sleek action sequences—anime is a visual medium after all—would provide excitement.

Instead, we have a loosey, sometimes funny, sometimes actiony series. It’s neither more nor less than the sum of it parts; it’s essentially a grab bag of various anime elements that cohere somewhat when the main story is being told. I did enjoy watching Railgun, because it’s undeniably fun at its best. It’s like a lot of anime that way; not everything is a Kaiba or a H&C or Hyouka or, to use a better piece from Nagai’s repertoire, an Ano Natsu. Nor does everything have to be. It wouldn’t be fair for me to dismiss it out of hand, but it wouldn’t be fair for me to put it alongside my favorites either.

Railgun, in other words, is ok.

Rating: 70%—average.

*Granted, the standard for anime when it comes to camera ogling/male gaze is, shall we say, exceptionally low cut. But Nagai’s beach/swimsuit episodes are usually more tame than most and often contribute meaningfully to the story. See Ano Natsu‘s beach arc for one good example.

This post is part of the Reverse TheievesSecret Santa Project, where anibloggers anonymously suggest shows to other anibloggers for review. Tomorrow we’ll find out who suggested this series to me. Railgun is legally available in the United States by streaming on both Funimation and Hulu.

Secret Santa Survival Guide: Part Neko Otaku

mreowr!

It’s that time of year, and silly games abound. You reach into the hat and draw a name sealing your fate as someone’s Secret Santa. What… this person!!!! NOT THIS PERSON!!! Yes, this person. Often, they are wearing kitty ears. They like to meow and purr. Sometimes you wonder if they don’t secretly drink milk from a saucer off the floor. When a cat comes on the screen while watching anime, suddenly everything ceases to exist as their heart melts into a sweet and oh-so-fluffy oblivion.

You have to get a gift for a Neko Otaku.

You can always go for the basic Totoro Cat Bus plushie or even get them the ever-useful Hello Kitty toilet paper roll.

Or… you can really knock the adorable socks off your secret santa recipient.
You may have to buy them another pair to make up for it…

I recommend these;
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or these;
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There are a lot of types of cat-lovers out there, and I’ll try to find something decent for each of them (^-.-^)~

Best Anime involving Cats;

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A young man breaks a sacred cat statue and is indebted to the species until he’s made up for his wrong doing.

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Studio Ghibli’s enchanting tale of a young girl who saves the life of what turns out to be a very special someone in the Cat Kingdom. I’m not typically a fan of subbed anime, though Anne Hathaway and Tim Curry are some of my favorite native-english voices.

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Aria the Animation is one of my most beloved animes of all time. On the water logged planet of Aqua (used to be Mars) a young girl trains to become an undine (femme gondolier). The cat aspect comes into play when one looks to the presidents of each of the companies/schools. They all happen to be cats. As real to the “real life” form of cats as they come. It’s just so sweet. The anime is smooth and flows along emitting tranquility and peace. Even the “action sequences” feel as though the writers just woke up from a nap and really feel like writing an anime based on the feeling of just-waking. Give it a chance, if nothing else, it’s a great anime to fall asleep to. I’ve never been able to finish this series because of that! *blush*

Best Cat-Game Gifts to Give;

*Let’s Meow Meow!
A unique dating sim where some eyebrow-raising events may happen depending on the way it’s played. A young man is visited by a sort of cat-genie and he asks for (what else!) a cat girl. He’s given more than he’s bargained for and it’s up to the player to decide the outcome.

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Simply and quick puzzle games that if you score high enough on, you’ll be able to save the mews in Kitten Sanctuary. It’s silly, though for a cat lover it’s really cute. It’s also only $7, which makes it a cheap and easy gift.

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Petz Catz 2 for the Nintendo DS is somehow far superior than Petz Catz the original. Same concept, yet the game play and secret clubs add an aspect to this expanded-giga-pet cat game. Raise a kitten… definitely great for those who can’t have any pets where they live.

Best Cat Clothing I Could Find (:D)
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For those that want everything they wear directly related to anime, an alternative cat hat is below;
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Moving on from silly hats;
because masks are SO different (they are)… great for Naruto fans AND cat lovers; Anbu Mask

This here is the ULTIMATE cat’s pajamas;
Kigurumi Brand Cat Suit
I don’t have the cat suit, though I do have another pajama that kigurumi makes and it is VERY comfortable!

Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to realize the extent of cat material out there. I should have known! I am, myself, a friend of cats ^.^

Perhaps a part 2 to the Neko Otaku gift guide is in order.

Until then; enjoy this lovely youtube “ultimate catgirl gallery”.

Secret Santa Survival Guide: Part Hikikomori

safety is an illusion

You draw a name from the hat, choosing your secret santa for the season.

Who IS this person you chose? You know nothing about them except that you don’t see them much. You think they have a job, working somewhere, doing something. You believe they exist, as occasionally you see a message posted under one of their million aliases on some forum in the vast interwebs.

You have to get a gift for the recluse: the hikikomori.
Don’t worry, I’m here to help you out!
Great gifts for the hikikomori;
Continue reading Secret Santa Survival Guide: Part Hikikomori

Secret Santa Survival Guide; Part Pedobear

You’re passed the hat full of all your anime club’s member’s names and you take a folded piece of paper out…

… darn it! You picked the pedobear of your crew. What in the world are you going to get them?

Here’s a guide to help you out;

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Boku no Pico… yes, yes. The ultimate “are you f’real?” pedobear fare. I haven’t seen it, and no one I know will admit they’ve watched it either. Leads me to believe this is undoubtedly the perfect anime for the Pedobear in your life.

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As the youngest member of the Azumanga Dioh! crew, she seems to be a fan favorite among many. Thank goodness she’s got friends to protect her, though if you feel up for it you can place her into the arms of the Pedobear. She won’t put up a fight.

Criminal Girls for the PSP Train your little girls to do bad things within settings such as a dungeon and when they disobey you, you get to punish them. This game also features interactive “rest” features. It’s really an adorable game, though I don’t think a Pedobear could ask for more.

Rilakkuma Room Shoes (Bear Slippers) Help them creep around more quietly by giving the soft house slippers in the shape of, what else: a bear.

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Sometimes, it’s good to know that little kids don’t like to be messed with. Remind the Pedobear of this with Gunslinger Girl which depicts young girls who were “saved” and trained by a government who brainwashes them along with handing them over to an officer in the force. Often the little girls become obsessed with the men. This is not the manga for the faint of heart, it gets quite gruesome and deranged at times.