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.