Of all the directors who have been singled out as “The next Miyazaki” – including the one who calls the original “Otou-san” – Hosoda Mamoru the one who probably comes closest to being a candidate to fit the bill. I’ve written about this subject quite a bit – I expect it interests me rather more than than most people. But for all the improvement Goro Miyazaki displayed with Kokuriko-zaka Kara, he hasn’t shown the gifts of a true auteur yet (and seems to have limited interest in being a full-time writer/director). For all the unparalleled visual brilliance Shinkai Makoto has displayed, he’s much more of a poet than than a master of prose – an iconoclast whose work seems likely to thrill the serious anime community rather than become part of the public imagination. Only Hosoda, it seems to me, has both the gift of genius and the common touch – the potential to rival Miyazaki Hayao’s ability to create works of great art that also connect with viewers worldwide, even non-anime fans.
Of course that’s a blessing and a curse, because the last thing Hosoda-sensei needs or deserves is to be judged against the works of Miyazaki when he’s proven himself to be a singular talent at a relatively tender age. He’s directed extensively for television and several movies (mostly for Madhouse) but he’s effectively done three films that represent his own vision – The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and now Ookami Kodomo. All have been massive critical successes and all have been major commercial successes (especially Summer Wars). Rather than compare Wolf Children against anything any other director has done, then, it makes sense to judge it against those other two films if anything – and even more, on its own merits.
I saw this film in raw form in a Shinjuku Theater in October – in fact, it was the very first weekend after I arrived in Tokyo. I was very interested to see how my feelings about the movie would change after seeing it subtitled, and I’m surprised by how little they’ve done so. This might be because this was an especially good film to see raw – it’s far and away Hosoda’s most dialogue-free movie to date. He tells his story mostly through images here – in fact, I would go so far as to say Ame and Yuki is an astonishingly simple film. As such it seems a poor choice to burden it with a long and detailed analysis; rather, I think the best course is to speak in simple terms about the emotions the film elicits in me as a viewer.
As I said, this is really at heart an extremely straightforward and simple film. What could be more elemental as a basis around which to construct a story than a mother’s love for her children, to begin with? That spare sensibility extends to the visuals, too, which are beautiful in a faintly impressionistic way. This is not the hyper-realistic “God’s Eye” of Shinkai (who, in truth, I consider unrivalled in anime as a visual artist) nor is it the restless, spectacular creativity of Hosoda’s Summer Wars. This is if anything a series of interconnected still-lifes, depicting the odd little family at the heart of the movie as they progress in their journey through their life. Yet, for me it’s undeniable that the two most impressive scenes in the movie rely strictly on visuals, dialogue-free: a montage depicting the growing disassociation of brother Ame from sister Yuki as they spend their first years in school, and a wildly exuberant scene depicting the children and their mother as they rejoice in the wonders of their first snowy morning in the mountains. The ability to communicate so much through his eye alone is a talent that Hosoda has never shown to this degree before, and it implies great promise about his future as a director and the evolution of his vision.
Structurally, Ookami Kodomo is effectively a film in three acts. The first is a love story, depicting the warm and genuine but tragically short time together of young college student Hana (Miyazaki Aoi, truly superb) and a young man (Osawa Takao) whose name we never learn. The second is the chronicle of Hana’s years struggling to raise daughter Yuki (Ono Momoka) – born in the snow – and son Ame (Kabe Amon) born in the rain. And the third is the chronicle of those children beginning to find their own way in life, in unusual and challenging circumstances. All are charming in their way and each offer a unique pleasure to the viewer, but it’s in this middle section where Ame and Yuki really achieves transcendence – these scenes are beautiful both visually and emotionally, and the story they tell is the most approachable and involving.
The premise around which Ookami Kodomo is framed is that Hana’s lover is a wolf man – a descendent of the last wolves of Japan, capable of changing from human to wolf form virtually at will. The fact that this is never really explained might be an issue for some, but I’m comfortable with Hosoda’s choice here because it suits the story he’s trying to tell. This mixed heritage that Ame and Yuki share is the crux of the story – surely it’s metaphorical (and likely somewhat autobiographical) in the sense that Hosoda is trying to make a statement about the heartbreaking necessity that children choose a path that leads them away from their parents. But it also works as a conceit in and of itself because of the unique challenges it poses to Hana, and because of the places it takes the narrative and the opportunity it gives Hosoda to speak to the importance of acceptance, both of others and of our true selves.
The first major example of this is also perhaps the first time Ookami Kodomo reaches the level of greatness, and that’s with the integration of Hana and her family into the isolated mountain community where she’s chosen to raise her children free from prying eyes and child welfare bureaucrats. Hana rents a fabulously atmospheric but derelict old house and sets about trying to make a life for her family at the fringes of society. The locals are understandably skeptical, and have seen city folk pack it in and quit on numerous occasions, but there’s something in Hana’s determination that catches the eye of Nirasaki (Sugawara Bunta) the curmudgeon who acts as a sort of unofficial elder statesman for the locals. When he finally gives his grudging help to Hana, who’s failing miserably in trying to raise crops, it signals that she’s a part of the community – an irony as she fled the city to try and keep Ame and Yuki away from potential discovery by others. Surrounded by people Hana was alone, and in the wilderness she’s not – this is surely an intentional observation by Hosoda-sensei, who grew up in rural Japan before his career took him to Tokyo.
As Ame (now played by Nishii Yukito) and Yuki (Kuroki Haru, who also narrates) grow to school age, it appears that Yuki will be the one who embraces the lupine side of her heritage. She’s bold and fearless, forever restless and forever exploring. Ame, by contrast, is a shy and withdrawn boy who seems both afraid of his wolf lineage and of the way wolves are feared and vilified by humans, and mostly wants to stay close to his mother. But Yuki also desires to explore her human side by going to school, and resolves to blend in – which she does with mixed success until an encounter with transfer student Souhei (an excellent performance by 14 year-old Takuma Hiraoka) leaves him seriously injured and Yuki abashed and humiliated. Meanwhile Ame’s perspective clearly changes based on specific moments in his life. An impulsive attempt to hunt a kingfisher on that snowy morning. A lonely old timber wolf caged at the nature park where his mother takes a job for a pittance of a salary. And an encounter with a wild creature who, like Ame himself, is much more than it appears to the eye.
It becomes clear soon enough that Ame and Yuki’s hearts are pulling them in directions that are quite different than what we might have expected as the middle section of the film was unfolding. When I watched Ookami Kodomo raw, I felt that the lack of exposure to Ame’s perspective was a rare flaw in the film – the impact on me at the time was that his actions in the final act seemed to come on quite suddenly, and that the ending of the movie was rather jarring. I thought this might to some extent be a function of my limited Japanese comprehension, but in truth it’s clearly a conscious choice on Hosoda’s part. The movie is told in Yuki’s voice and mostly from Hana’s perspective, but in truth it winds up being a chronicle of Ame’s journey. I feel now that Hosoda kept us mostly in the dark about Ame’s inner conflicts quite intentionally. In part, I think this was to help us understand how distant he grew from his mother and sister. Whether it was a wise choice will be up to the individual viewer to decide – as to Ame’s decisions I do feel as though I understand them better upon a second viewing, though the subtitles have nothing to do with that – it’s strictly a matter of time and reflection on my part.
The ending has certainly proven the most controversial part of Wolf Children, and it’s easy to understand why. There are elements here that seem to me mysterious by design, because there are so many things Hosoda chooses not to share with us. Do Ame and Yuki age at a normal rate, or are they to some extent living the life of wolves? Yuki seems quite the normal tween, and an obviously deliberate contrast is painted between she and Souhei, desperate to be grown-up but feeling like children, and Ame. At age ten he’s still very much a child in his mother’s eyes, yet he seems remarkably mature for a boy of that age both mentally and physically (there’s a quite memorable scene where Yuki learns the terrifying reality of this). Perhaps the message here is that every child is unique, and so is the path they must walk.
That’s a hard lesson for a mother to learn, and make no mistake about it – the ending of the film is heartbreaking (in fact. as a whole, this is one of most heartbreaking anime I’ve seen in many years). Yet it might be seen to be a happy ending as well, depending on your perspective. I’ve seen quite vicious and vitriolic criticism leveled at Ame, but while my heart aches for Hana, I think his actions make perfect sense in the context of the story Hosoda is trying to tell. Ame has made his choice – he tried to tell his mother as a human, but her heart refused to let her see the truth. Ame finally trusts in his mother to understand him for what he is, and to accept him. As well, he trusts her to understand what he’s telling her about his feelings for her – and I think it’s very clear that she does. It’s an unconventional ending and a difficult one, bittersweet to be certain, but probably the only possible one Hosoda could have written.
While Ookami Kodomo doesn’t attempt to match the exuberant energy of Summer Wars or the youthful defiance of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I think it takes Hosoda-sensei to deeper emotional waters than any of his earlier work. It’s certainly his most subtle and reflective film – filled with moments of great joy but ultimately a more difficult work that explores the painful path that leads children away from their parents. Without question, Hana stands out as one of the most extraordinary characters of this or any anime year. She’s a hero in every sense of the word – both for what she does for her children and for what she doesn’t. Anime doesn’t celebrate motherhood all that often when you think about it, and Hosoda has righted that wrong in glorious fashion with Hana. Her labors are not tales of Herculean grandiosity, but no less heroic. She simply gives everything of herself for Ame and Yuki – she takes herself where she thinks she must for their sakes, and gives them everything that’s in her power to give, emotionally and otherwise. She smiles through her troubles and never allows her children to feel alone, right up until the moment where she realizes that for Ame’s sake, she has to act against every instinct and imperative in her being.
That Ookami Kodomo hasn’t proved to be quite as big a blockbuster as Summer Wars is hardly surprising – this is a film whose charms require a little more investment on our part to fully appreciate, and which asks more understanding of the audience in embracing its conclusion. The art of finding the profound in the simple is what separates great writers from good ones a lot of the time, I’ve always felt, and that’s what Hosoda has done here. It’s a different sort of brilliance than he’s shown us in the past, and perhaps surprising in that sense. Yet I think it’s a testament to his talent that his vision is continuing to evolve, and that he’s trying to find new ways of challenging both himself and his audience. He’s truly one of the giants of anime, and has already proved himself worthy to be one of its standard-bearers – if he should emerge as the next singular voice of the medium, films like Ookami Kodomo give substantial reason to believe he’ll be up to the challenge.