Mamoru Hosoda seems to have secured a fairly comfortable position in the hierarchy of current anime directors, being given the opportunity to oversee film after film for the past several years, beginning with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, continuing to Summer Wars, and now to Wolf Children. Though there were elements to his first two films that I enjoyed, I’ve always considered Hosoda to be a director who had potential but perhaps needed time until he produced what I would consider to be classics. I felt, for example, that Girl Who Leapt built to a powerful climax but chose to sidestep its emotional implications through science fiction logic. On the other hand, Summer Wars seemed content to be a straightforward summer blockbuster, visually dazzling but without lasting resonance. With Wolf Children, Hosoda makes a direct appeal to the audience’s emotions, creating a film revolving around such universally understood sentiments as the tribulations of raising children and the love between a parent and child.
The story revolves around a woman named Hana, who begins the story as a young college student who crosses paths with a somewhat disheveled yet kind student who appears quite different from the rest. As she gets to know him, he reveals himself to be more unique than she would ever have known, turning out, literally, to be a wolf in human’s clothing. This doesn’t hinder Hana’s affection for him, and they soon find themselves as young parents, with two children arriving before a tragic accident takes away the life of the father, leaving Hana to rear the children on her own. After struggling to mask the wolf-side of her children from prying city eyes, she moves to the country and tries to make a life for her odd family. It is, at its core, a film about a young mother learning to raise children that have inherited an identity to which she is an outsider and who seem to grow up on different paths.
I enjoyed the film more than Hosoda’s other works, and I certainly feel that its concise execution and confident pacing show the development of Hosoda’s skills as a director. At the same time, I would say that the film is still yet a few notches away from being compared among the best works in the medium. The reason for both is essentially rooted in the same core aspect of the film – that is, the fact that it tackles its concept in a fairly straightforward way, and the resulting emotional resonance feels sufficient and effective – particularly for viewers who project their own experiences onto it – but falls short of being extraordinary or memorable. The film does have a lot of universal, poignant ideas in its story: for example, the growing distance between siblings as they find themselves identifying with different parts of their mixed heritage – or the way the son, Ame, unable to find guidance for his wolf instincts from his human mother, finds it elsewhere and increasingly begins to grow disillusioned from his own family.
Ideas like these, though tied to supernatural elements in the film, have the potential to resonate deeply due to their symbolic resemblance to many all-too-real experiences of modern life. Hosoda does not probe too deeply into this angle – his treatment of these ideas is heartwarming and tender, but stops short of being thought-provoking or memorable in a more meaningful way. That is not necessarily a criticism of Hosoda’s skills but rather an acknowledgement of his intentions – I think that an analysis of his three most recent films shows a filmmaker who, at this stage in his career, wants to entertain his audience and is not trying to push ideas in the way that a director like Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon would do. There is certainly an audience for both approaches in film making and the subjective response to Wolf Children is proof of that. Personally, however, I always yearn for the latter, and in that regard, I wish the film had gone just a bit further in its exploration of the truly compelling ideas that its subject matter permits.
Consider, for example, a climactic moment in the film where Hana finds herself in an agonizing predicament over the fate of her increasingly distant son as he drifts towards his wolf instincts and away from the human world she inhabits. There is a brief respite from the tension of this moment in the story where, in her dreams, she is momentarily reunited with her deceased original partner, the father of her children. The reunion is portrayed as a joyful and reassuring one, but I could not help but think that there are additional layers to such a reunion, a mix of happiness, sorrow, frustration, and helplessness, that would have made the moment feel more true and more bittersweet. Yet, as I alluded to above, I recognize that this is perhaps not Hosoda’s goal, and the restraint he shows in handling this scene is indicative of his more practical and grounded approach to the film.
The film’s artwork, with much of the story taking place in the lush countryside, is – for the most part – quite beautiful. There are certain moments where the interjection of CGI is a bit too noticeable, particularly for a lover of hand-drawn animation such as myself, but it is not enough to be detrimental to the film as a whole. The animation of the children during their rambunctious moments is quite charming, but I must admit that I was not fond of how their half-wolf, half-human form was depicted, as I felt it looked somewhat out of place against much of the rest of the artwork.
Wolf Children is a simple, effective film that works as a heartwarming folktale with a bittersweet but positive ending. I certainly appreciated Hosoda’s approach here more than his previous works, and I would consider it the most complete package he has offered, with little in the way of overt flaws. I recognize that my overall feelings towards the film – that its subject matter permits more than Hosoda chooses to explore – is a subjective one, and Hosoda’s straightforward treatment is touching in its own right and will easily win over most audiences. Hosoda has achieved a lot in a short time, and is still at a relatively young age considering the opportunities he wields in the industry. Wolf Children is another step in a good direction for him, and I look forward to his next creation not only for the promise of skilled storytelling, but also to see how his artistic intentions develop with age and experience.
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