Move over Studio Ghibli for there is a new contender primed and ready to challenge for the throne. Mamoru Hosoda has been on a roll as of late. Once attached to direct Howls Moving Castle before Hayao Miyazaki took over. Hosoda would later go on to establish his own studio, Studio Chizu. With two acclaimed animated features already under his belt, The Girl Who Leapt through Time and Summer Wars, Hosoda returns to tell what might be his most emotionally engaging work yet.
Wolf Children tells the tale of Hana. While studying at university, she catches a glimpse of a mysterious young man who has been sneaking into the same classes she attends. They meet and immediately fall in love, although he has a secret. His secret being that he is, in fact, a Werewolf. After revealing his secret to Hana, she remains in love with him none the less, and together they give birth to two children; a girl named Yuki and a boy named Ame. Soon after, tragedy strikes the family with an unexpected death of the father. Leaving Hana to raise her two hybrid children alone. In order to escape the prying eyes of social services, Hana moves her and the kids from the hustle and bustle of the inner city to an antiquated homestead along the countryside.
Hosoda has said that he was inspired to make this film after having a discussion with a friend who had given birth. He asked her "how it was to raise children?" To which she responded that it was the "equivalent of raising feral animals. You love them to no ends, but they'll test your patience none the less." Using this response as his starting point, Hosoda has framed a story about the unconditional love that a mother has for her children, and the trials and tribulations thrown before her as they inevitably grow older and seek their own paths. Given that they are, quite literally, feral children, of sorts.
Her firstborn Yuki (literally meaning "Snow") is quite the spitfire. A self-assured and overly confident girl who desires to fit in with her peers by attending school. Hana is initially at unease about sending her hybrid children to school, but Yuki challenges her Mother by showing a boisterous confidence in her own ability. As she matures, she struggles to fit in, dealing with the pressures of social engagement and even a first crush, while keeping her inner wolf repressed.
Ame (meaning "Rain"), on the other hand, is quite the opposite personality. Ame is quiet and reserved. At a young age, he grows distressed by the depictions of "Evil Wolves" in Fairytales, as he asks his mother tearily "why does the wolf always have to be bad?" As he grows older, he grows more in tune with the calls of nature. The wildness of the surrounding countryside beckons his inner wolf. He rejects schooling in favour of spending time in the woods learning the lessons of his animalistic nature.
The two children eventually find themselves at odds, leaving Hana to contemplate over her role as a mother. Is she doing the right thing by her children? Are her teachings helping her hybrid children and are her shortcomings affecting their growth? Are her methods of letting them both explore their own path in life the best thing to do? Hana works hard to provide for her children, but still, she struggles in not knowing all the answers to parenthood. Hana is a strong and loving woman who has a hint of a never say die attitude. As such, the movie becomes a loving ode to motherhood.
What does it mean to be a wolf? What does it mean to be a parent? What does it mean to be human? These are the main questions Hosoda ponders over. Unfortunately, the narrative does lose some momentum briefly midway. Hosoda loses a few potentially interesting subplots and minor characters, as he struggles to tie together the numerous plot threads. However, Hosoda does manage to reign in his two main parallel story threads thanks to a rewarding climax that pits the ravaging destructive nature against human-will.
The animation is quite simply luscious in presentation, and furthermore, is a testament as to why 2D cell-based animation is far from dead and buried. Watching Yuki and Ame transition back and forward between wolf and human form is seamless and adorable. There is a stand out scene that involves the kids frolicking in wolf form in thick snowfall that combines the elements of cell-based painting with some subtle Cgi touches. Hosoda clearly has a luscious love of nature, which only evokes inevitable comparisons with the works of Studio Ghibli. Although, Hosoda still manages to etch his own path as a storyteller and further exhibits his maturing as a fine storyteller on his own terms.
Hayao Miyazaki recently lamented that the Japanese animation industry could learn a lot from simply observing and depicting slices of real humanity. It would seem that Mamoru Hosoda is more than willing to follow the advice of a preceding master. Wolf Children is a warm slice of humanity. It is a beautifully told tale about a mother's unconditional love for her children. One would have to be pretty heartless not to identify with that.