“Wolf Children” is very much a movie that proves what is missing in today’s animated venues. Not just originality but subtly placed messages of deeper meaning. On the surface, it seems like a typical “coming of age” story but that’s only scrapping the surface. I’d go as far to say its more compelling and dynamic than “My Neighbor Tortoro” or if not, at least on par with its mystical wonder and multiple morals that can give viewers their own interpretation of what this movie is about and what its trying to say. But yet, it all connects and gives something everyone wants in the end.
The story concerns a young college student named Hana who falls in love with a new student. But when he tells her the secret that he is a werewolf, she looks past the fur and fangs and sees him as who he is; someone to love. No sooner they have two children and upon unfortunate fate, her lover gets killed while giving into his animal instincts. Leaving behind their two kids who can shape shift into wolves at any given will, Hana finds that being a mother to her strange children is not easy at it appears. But with a bit of luck, she stays every step of the way to make sure they are given the care and love of a mother but then things get harder when they have to learn exactly who they truly are and how they fit in the world.
I should probably talk about the small elephant in the room at this point. Some might be turned off by the questionable nature of “Wolf Children” as the main character develops a son and daughter with a half-human/half-wolf. However, this is only for the first 15 minutes of the movie and if you can get past that, things really get rolling when Hana has to deal with how to raise her canine children. This element didn’t bother me that much seeing this is a Japanese anime and I took it as more of a modern day fair tale as well as the popular mythos of werewolves and kitsune tales. But I probably should address some viewers might take this as a form of bestiality and I can see why. But they never show anything explicit or heavily imply seeing Hana’s lover can form between human and wolf. Some sensitives might be bothered by this so this is just a fair warning.
But after that, the story becomes a cross between a coming of age fable and one about motherhood as well. Hana’s kids Yuki and Ame have some interesting scenes that range from basic cuteness to elements never questioned in some animated films. Like the idea of finding where you truly belong or how to accept what you are and try to balance that. Or even the choice being what you want while struggling against what others think. Yeah, these are elements done before like in Disney’s The Little Mermaid but I feel they are executed better here. It knows when to have its cute and moments of awe before delving into dramatic tension.
On such example is Ame wondering what he should be in life. At first he is unsure but he grows an appreciation of the forest more than living a normal life. This works best because we see development of that choice over time. At first, Ame is frightened of the wide world and its things but then begins to understand the value of nature so well that he wants to live in it. Even his sister Yuki starts to understand the hardships of trying to be normal as she tries to hide her secret from classmates and even the new kid who seems suspicious of her odd actions like avoiding him at every angle. Yuki wants to be a person but knows her animal instincts can be dangerous or even risk relationships with her friends. So is it best to chose the life of an animal or the life of a person? “Wolf Children” brings this in different perspectives with Ame trying to break from his life with people to be more of a wolf while Yuki wants to distance her animal life to be a normal person. Never have a seen a movie that presents this perspective in two different ways. And considering we spend so much time with their progression from child to adult, we feel like we want to see them make the right choice they feel best fits them in the end.
But what holds this movie together is their mother Hana. We see her difficulties trying to raise her unique kids while also trying to be a mother they can depend on. One notable scene is when Yuki gets ill and she has a hard time deciding if she should consult the hospital or the vets for help. Its a humorous but very smart scene. Hana doesn’t treat her kids like the animals they can transform into but there are times when she questions the appropriate time to raise them like children and sometimes like a zoologist. Regardless, she sees them as her own despite the fur and fangs. I was even surprised to see how far she would go to protect her kids from the dangers of the world and even give them the life they deserve. Even in the final 30 minutes, she puts her own life on the line. I won’t say how but its a gripping and intense climax that ends satisfying but yet sad at the same time.
The animation in the first half didn’t feel that spectacular to me until the later scenes when Hana moves to the countryside. At that point, it starts to show what it can do removing itself from flat urban designs to beautiful forest backgrounds. The highlight of the movie is the three chasing each other in the snow as the kids delight in having fun for the first time in the winter season as their mother tries to catch up with them. Even through there is little to no shading on the characters or even things like snow, it still feels amazing. Even the score by Takagi Masakatsu powerfully complements the scene with a piece that is fast and powerful but yet has the whimsical charm of John Williams. In fact, the score of this movie is so well done that I’m nearly close to finding a copy of it to listen to. It is that good and rare has there been a musical score to give me joy and goosebumps at the same time while knowing when to play it dramatic and subtle.
And that’s the key word here; subtle. On paper, “Wolf Children” sounds like it has elements that may either turn off viewers or even make them feel its a typical picture with the usual cliches of prejudice and knowing your place. But yet, it goes deeper than that. We get well developed characters, spell-bounding sequences that feel like art pieces coming to life and by the end you feel like Hana did her job well as a mother as both kids go off to become what they truly wish. At the end of the day, you will get something satisfying but yet moving at the same time. Its unlike any anime I’ve seen to date that successfully blends the elements of a fairy tale and realistic elements. Never have I seen a story about the importance of growing up and when its time to let your kids know what is right for them. If you look pass the elements of werewolves and some of its questionable content, there is a truly remarkable picture here that will leave you breathless.