Posted on March 18, 2013 AT 09:00am
Mamoru Hosoda is like no other animation director. From his days doing Digimon and One Piece movies to making a name for himself with such critically-acclaimed films The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, Hosoda has showcased a sort of unique talent regarding how a story is told and how it looks. Because of his talents he has been called “the next Miyazaki” by many critics in Japan and the rest of the world.
With his latest film Wolf Children, Hosoda doesn’t just reach the top of the anime directorial mountain; he claims the throne that rests on its peak.
Wolf Children tells the story of Hana (Aoi Miyazaki), a college student who falls in love with a secluded man (Takao Osawa). After a few dates the man reveals his biggest secret to Hana: he is a wolf that can switch to a human form. Instead of running away Hana embraces this discovered side, and the couple become closer than they were before.
Hana later bears the wolfman’s children: a daughter named Yuki (Haru Kiroki/Momoka Ono) and a son called Ame (Yukito Nishii/Amon Kabe). Soon after the birth of Ame tragedy strikes, leaving Hana to take care of the two children on her own. As one can probably guess, raising half-human/half-wolf kids is a lot of hard work. The city life turns out to be a burden on keeping her kids’ identity secret, so she decides to move her family to the quiet, peaceful, and above-all private country life.
Once Hana, Yuki, and Ame settle into their new lives, the story begins to focus its slice-of-life approach on the kids. How they cope with being these human/wolf hybrids; the challenges of fitting in with the other regular kids at their schools; most of all, how they connect with the nature around them. Growing up has never been showcased like this in any shape or form.
It’s this sort of original style of storytelling that makes Wolf Children stand out from the rest of the anime pack. While the concept of families aging and changing has been done, there have been no circumstances film-wise that has been taken to such extremes as how Ame and Yuki go from infants to schoolchildren. On top of that, it’s the way the film is presented that makes Wolf Children the breath of fresh air the animation world has greatly needed.
The cities, the countryside, even the weather is drawn with such intensity and detail. It’s the sort of beauty that was first captured in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, with a brightness, warmth, and personality that made Hosoda the director to watch out for. How Ame and Yuki change between their two forms is like the work of magic art. Its fluidity and process give the film a sort of natural feel, more-so than any wolfmen seen in a big-budgeted live-action flick.
Mind you, the colors don’t quite reach the Oz-like brightness levels a la Summer Wars, but for what Wolf Children portrays it’s very welcoming and above all a proper coloring for the world around Hana and her two kids. While these elements in the film don’t reach Studio Ghibli levels, for what it wishes to showcase it does a great job. That being said, there’s one thing Hosoda and Studio Chizu does that not even Hayao Miyazaki has been able to accomplish: the capture of real human emotion.
As it was in his last two films, how characters react to various situations is done with a very realistic approach. The way Hana gets upset over her lover’s death, how Yuki’s friends freak out when they see her animal bone collection, and the worriment of Ame as he copes with being different from other kids is not drawn in a cartoonish way at all. It’s something that no other animation director, be it hand-drawn or computer-generated, has been able to do. When one of Hosoda’s character laughs and smiles, they look as happy as any of us; and when they are sad or find themselves in a dark place, they get upset in the same way we would. There are no eye-popping or goofy exaggerations to be found, just a humanistic impression drawn in the most authentic way possible.
Of course, to really bring the realism to an animated film, you need a great cast of voice actors, something Wolf Children has plenty of. Miyazaki’s portrayal of Hana is one filled with confusion and gumption, with a never-give-up attitude mixed with a worriment of being the only mother in the world with human/wolf kids. Ono and Kabe perfectly capture the innocence and curiosity of Yuki and Ame as young kids, and once Kiroki and Nishii take over when the kids grow older the attitude of fitting in and finding their true identities comes off with sort of performance that many children their age can relate to. The one who steals the show, however, is Bunta Sugawara, who plays the tough old man who teaches Hana how to properly farm in her yard. His character is like that of a Gran Torino-era Clint Eastwood: rough around the edges, with a good heart hidden away for when it’s needed.
The animation, voice acting, and emotional aspect are shown greatly throughout Wolf Children, but there is one scene in particular where it all comes together harmoniously. Snow has fallen throughout the countryside, and Hana & her kids decide to have some fun in the forests. Halfway through their run, Ame and Yuki quickly change into their wolf forms, as Hana runs closely by. Soon we see the kids’ perception of the run, with snowy hills and trees whooshing by while Takagi Masakatsu’s score plays parallel to what’s happening on-screen. How this particular scene looked, felt, sounded, and moved induced both a warm heart and goosebumps all over this reviewer, and wouldn’t be shocked if it does the same for you.
I am well aware that most Americans will probably look at some dumbed-down CGI Pixar/Dreamworks/Universal animated film rather than Wolf Children. It has its comedic allure, granted, but it’s smarter and not at all like the slapstick brouhaha that most cartoon movies made in the US have. Plus despite the way it speaks to the younger audience it probably won’t grab the attention of someone raised on the likes of Yo Gabba Gabba! and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. On top of that, it gets dark in some places, especially when it deals with the death of the father wolf.
But I cannot stress this enough: Wolf Children deserves to be seen by all, thanks to its beautiful animation, great story and cast, a good amount of humor, and has some problematic elements that kids can relate to. I’m hoping I’m wrong, and the American audience makes Wolf Children a hit in some way, shape, or form. What Hosoda has achieved here is nothing short of brilliant, and thanks to the success of this and his last two films he is now in a league all of his own. (Perhaps Pixar and Studio Ghibli could benefit from learning a thing or two from this guy.)
One last thing: before the screening I got to meet with Hosada, and one of the reps from the film’s international distribution agency was also in the room. She had mentioned that — in regards to licensing Wolf Children for the States — they had contacted everyone from Warner Bros. to Paramount to see if anyone was interested in distributing it across the country. Not a single one of those studios returned their call. Without thinking I had uttered, “It’s okay. Those people are idiots.” Hosoda, the NTV rep, and the rest of the guests at the meet-and-greet responded with a laugh, because they knew that those so-called bigwig studios had made a dumb mistake.
When FUNimation releases Wolf Children later this year, and these suit-and-tie film executives who passed on it get their chance to see it in its limited run, no doubt many will be kicking themselves for thinking so stupidly.
Voice actors/actresses: 10/10
Final Grade: 10/10
Wolf Children was screened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Japanese with English subtitles. Special thanks to Prof. Ian Condry of MIT for putting the event together. Wolf Children has been licensed in America by FUNimation, with a US theatrical release due sometime this autumn.
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