Wolf Children (2012)

Review first published by Little White Lies

Hana (voiced by Miyazaki Aoi), a good-natured, lonely student in Tokyo, befriends a young man who “didn’t look at all like the other students”. Discovering that he is a werewolf, Hana remains unperturbed, and they become lovers — but he dies shortly after their second child is born, leaving Hana to raise two children alone. The three move out to the country, where Hana sets up house, establishes a working farm (with some help from the local community), and lets spirited Yuki and her frail younger brother Ame decide over time whether they want to live as human or wolf.

“Maybe you’ll laugh and say it’s a fairytale, that it’s too preposterous to be true,” declares Yuki (Kuroki Haru) in voiceover at the beginning of Wolf Children, “but it is a true story about my mother.” For all their claims to veridicality, Yuki’s words are in fact accompanied by images of a dream that will recur in variant forms to Hana at key points in the film — which is to say that the truths on offer here are of an allegorical rather than a literal kind.

It is possible to regard the lycanthropy of Hana’s children as merely their otherness, their fatherlessness and their unruliness, raised as they are on a liminal margin — a realistic yet symbolic space where domestication borders wilderness and nature meets nurture. Of course the children’s semi-savage nature is occasionally allowed to manifest itself physically in long-eared lupine form, but even if you abstract away from the mechanics of their (mostly hidden) hybridity, there remains a recognisable, realistic portrait of a single mother’s determined struggle to do the best for her children — including, ultimately, letting them go.

There is a scene near the end of the film where a field of wheat is shown shimmering in the wind. Devotees of Miyazaki Hayao will recognise this as his signature motif, present in practically every film that the grand master of Japanese anime has directed for Studio Ghibli. Here the wind specifically foreshadows a torrential thunderstorm that Yuki will describe as “like the ocean, swallowing the world”, in what appears to be an allusion to Miyazaki’s Ponyo. More directly, the family’s move to an old house in the country – and more particularly Yuki’s wide-eyed, joyous exploration of these new environs — evoke Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, while sequences in which these half-breed children play out their animal side in the deep, dark woods are a clear nod to Princess Mononoke.

Now that Miyazaki has announced his retirement from filmmaking, his son Goro (Tales from Earthsea, From Up on Poppy Hill) is often regarded as his natural successor. But evidently there are other pretenders to the Miyazaki throne. Hosoda Mamoru, director/co-writer of Wolf Children (as well as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars), could certainly make a claim, even if this melancholic idyll is a little overstretched, and overobvious in the way that it tries to pull at the heartstrings. The animation is stunning, but what distinguishes Hosoda from Miyazaki is the fluid way that he uses montage techniques to compress the passage of time (the film’s story spans 13 years) into a few short sketches. Shape-shifting is not the only kind of change we see in these children who grow over the course of the film’s two hours into young adults following their own individual paths.

Enjoyment: Beautiful, elegiac portrait of a family’s triumph over dysfunction – if at times also schmaltzy and repetitive.

In Retrospect: An understated celebration of single motherhood, and the challenges of keeping the wolves at the door.

© Anton Bitel