Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time director Mamoru Hosoda continues to develop a singular style with his most beautiful animation yet…
Hana is a young student who falls head-over-heals a mysterious man, Ookami, who sneaks into her lectures. After dating for a while he reveals that he is a wolf man, the only surviving descendant of the last Japanese wolf. Undeterred, their relationship grows as they move in together, and begin to have children, first Yuki then her little brother Ame.
When Ookami is killed in a tragic accident, Hana is left to bring two children alone. Finding it tough to keep their abilities to swap between human and wolf form under wraps in the city, she decides to make a new life in the country. But as Yuki and Ame grow older, they must decide which path they wish to take…
With Wolf Children director Mamoru Hosoda really seems to be growing both in confidence and style. For the man who is said to have walked away from working on Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle, he has truly broken away from the big franchises that helped him gain his experience, like One Piece and Digimon, to exert control over his own stories. He even founded Studio Chizu to produce Wolf Children alongside Madhouse, so it would be easy to read that this could put him in direct competition with Ghibli.
There is much here that will be familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli. The protagonists move to countryside and rural settings are a recurring theme in much their work. (And, to be fair, most children’s fiction. There’s wonder to be had in nature alone if you’ve only ever experienced an urban city.) The mystical, magical creatures. The lush quality of animation is almost unparalleled, and transformation from man to wolf quite beautiful and as far away from the Prosthetic makeup of Rick Baker as could possibly be imagined.
Yet unlike Ghibli, this is less of a clear-cut children’s film; it feels more aimed at parents, and particularly an older female audience (or at least teenage). The frankness of Hana’s trials of bringing up children is surprising (at least in Western terms), though very welcome. Hosoda has stated much of his inspiration for Wolf Children was watching his friends start families, and just how impressed he was by the job they were doing.
The gushing romance of the first part would hardly keep younger children entertained. And the pace itself takes it’s time, and sometimes that detracts greatly from the films more dramatic moments; particularly the conclusion, heralded by a typhoon (another natural disaster in post-Tsunami Japanese cinema). But I was a little uneasy with the BFI’s tagging of this under their ‘Family’ category, it seemed a bit over-simplistic.
From the arrival of the children on, Hosoda plays on the cuteness of these children, and their ability to change forms. It something he does well, having fun with amusingly ridiculous situations. Such as when Hana doesn’t know whether to take her sick child to a paediatrician or a veterinarian, or when guest are round and comment on how cute it is their dog has matching clothes with Yuki, even though they are one in the same. In one scene Hosoda masterfully charts the passing of time scanning across several classrooms as the kids go from firth to fourth grade in school.
Though highly enjoyable, Summer Wars sometimes felt a little at odds with itself; the virtual world made far too many concessions to anime clichés, and the sort of franchises he made his name on, while the real world and the interaction within felt more genuine, like Hosoda wanted to stay there. Indeed, he pulls back from much of the fantasy elements to set them in more of a real setting.
In some senses Wolf Children also feels a little schizophrenic, summed up best in Mark Schilling’s review for The Japan Times where he said the film appealed to ‘Jane Eyre fans in one scene, Call of the Wild fans in the next’. A little exaggerated, but you get the idea. But overall it works. He uses the heightened lifespan of animals as opposed to man, so well-used in such films, to reveal a message to parents– and one that seems a little surprising to young parents that he was so impressed by: that at some point they will need to let go, to let their children support themselves in the world.
Working with longtime screenwriting collaborator Satoko Okudera, Hosoda has created a fine, beautiful looking film. Cute, but maybe a little too romantic in the first reel… for me at least!
Wolf Children played as part of the 56th London Film Festival, and is released in UK cinemas from Friday 25 October.
Review originally published 18 October 2012.