“The next Miyazaki”.
It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the anime world these days as Studio Ghibli suffers a perceived decline in quality and people realize that The Master probably isn’t going to be around much longer, despite all outward appearances to the contrary. I’ve always felt that to take the title literally is to sell Miyazaki and his supposed successor(s) short, but I understand what the sentiment is getting at. People are eager for the next director to deliver a steady string of exciting, creative films, someone whose name will cause our ears to prick up in anticipation when we see it attached to a project.
Mamoru Hosoda has always been my front-runner for the title. Hosoda first came to prominence directing two Digimon movies that were far better than they had any right to be, the second in particular featuring a heavily CG-rendered visual style that looked mind-blowing at the time. 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was his first original project at Studio Madhouse and gave us a warm, pleasant high school drama tinged with nostalgia and also time travel. His follow up, Summer Wars, is the movie that really put Hosoda on the map. A hyper-kinetic story of family bonding and interpersonal dynamics and also virtual reality, Summer Wars simultaneously showcased Hosoda’s flair for fast paced action and genuine, emotional resonance.
And so we come to Wolf Children, a tale of family, childhood, parenting and also werewolves. AKA the one that settles the argument.
Hana is a young woman studying in college and living on a meager income from part time jobs. One day she spots a solitary man furiously scribbling notes by himself in a lecture hall. The two hit it off and the man reveals his long-held secret to her- he’s the last werewolf in existence, a hybrid between human and the extinct Japanese wolf, possessing the ability to change at will into a full animal form, a human or something in between. Hana, undaunted by this, becomes the proud mother of two werewolves of her own and the fledgling family settle down to get by as best they can. Unfortunately things don’t go according to plan and Hana is forced to retreat to the countryside alone to raise her children away from prying eyes.
Wolf Children might have one of the greatest opening half-hours in film history, sketching out the relationship between Hana and the unnamed “Ookami” in a whirlwind of quiet moments and delicate musical interludes. It engages with adult themes in a way that’s obviously idealized and tinged heavily with nostalgia, but never enough to feel completely disconnected from reality. By the time Hana moves to the countryside any viewer with a quarter of a heart will be fully rooting for her success, whether in keeping her children’s secret from curious neighbors or struggling to plant potatoes in the weed-infested garden of the ramshackle house the family moves into. Given that she’s the only principal cast member with no supernatural abilities it’s incredible how much Hana steals the show from the titular wolf children.
Which isn’t to say that the two kids Ame and Yumi aren’t fascinating in their own right. While never delving into the minutiae of how exactly their duel nature works (there are no full-moon bloodlusts or silver bullet weaknesses here) Hosoda has a grand old time playing with the kids’ animal identities by blurring the lines between human and wolf. Is Yumi’s trashing of the living room the behaviour of a puppy with cabin fever or a hyper-active two year old, or both? Does she feel alienated from the other girls in her class because she’s a werewolf or just because some kids are made to feel that way by social norms? The story of the two siblings ranges over the full experience of childhood in all of its joy, terror, meandering pointlessness and aching sorrow and it’s remarkable how little the fact that they periodically transform into wolves affects this apart from a few big dramatic moments.
The ordinary pitfalls of growing up and family life can make for either gripping or dry subject material depending on the skill of the director and thankfully this story is in more than capable hands. Hosoda continually uses creative ways to highlight the passage of time and the growth of the characters, often employing long dialogue-free montages to evoke a particular mood rather than trying to have his characters express what they’re feeling. In this he’s assisted by an excellent soundtrack that ranges from soaring Disney string pieces to percussion-driven indie movie tunes for when the characters quirkier sides are on display.
If there’s one problem anime as a medium tends to fall into repeatedly it’s pacing. In both television and film it’s very common to see stories crammed into too little space (*cough*) or padded needlessly to hit a seemingly arbitrary run-time. Languid plot momentum and long, slow pans are frequent, often to make up for a low budget. These problems crop up even in high quality and dservedly acclaimed films and were evident in Hosoda’s earlier works. Wolf Children gets its pacing spot-on. Every scene is exactly as long as it needs to be, every shot feels like it has a meaning and a purpose. Hosoda knows when to zoom past years in under a minute and when to slow down and linger on a character’s minute facial expressions. This feels like a movie made by a director who has truly come to know his craft on an expert level.
Wolf Children isn’t perfect. Like Hosoda’s previous films the animation on display is far better than TV quality but not particularly impressive by theatrical standards and the movie’s big climax isn’t quite as emotionally gripping as the preceding hour and forty minutes, perhaps because it takes just a bit too long to get to where it’s obviously going. But these are minor quibbles. Wolf Children is a big warm blanket of a movie, something that you can watch to lose yourself in happy nostalgia without ever quite feeling as though your intelligence is being insulted. I do wonder how well it will go over with younger audiences, however- both of Hosoda’s previous films were nominally family entertainment but clearly skewed toward a slightly older audience and this is no exception, probably containing far too much violence and nudity to be widely embraced by the mainstream in the same way that most of Studio Ghibli’s films have been. Then again if Miyazaki can gain a reputation as “Japan’s Walt Disney” despite making a film where a man’s arms are shot off by arrows I suppose anything is possible.
Wolf Children isn’t currently available in English officially, but has been licensed by Funimation for release in North America. I’d expect a Manga UK release to be announced before too long. The movie has been doing the rounds in festivals and limited theatrical runs (including one in Dublin, which I now severely regret not going to) so keep in eye out and see if it’s playing anywhere near you.