Love stories are commonplace in all media, not just anime. Romanticised stories of people navigating their own personal challenges, whether they be mundane and everyday or epic conflicts in fictional locations, often share the same destination. With each eventually finding the other, as all struggle seems to fade away into a happy ending. This is a story that many anime often wish to tell, however, this is not the story that Mamoru Hosoda wanted to tell with this film.
Wolf Children is about what comes after and how life is very rarely so simple.
We follow Hana, a young, ordinary college student in Tokyo who one day in class notices a man sitting in front who seems different somehow. Over time the two form a relationship, fall in love and we learn that he is not so ordinary. The man she has fallen in love with isn’t a man at all, but a wolf, who is able to take the form of a human. This unexpected revelation does not change Hana’s feelings for the Wolf Man, they are in love and the two continue to build a life together. They get an apartment, settle into a routine, and most importantly to this story, have children. First, their daughter, the energetic and bold Yuki, then only a year later, their son, the mild mannered Ame, the titular Wolf Children.
This may sound like the summary of a whole film but trust me, this is only the beginning of the story. Although the children are the namesake of the story and are a significant focus of it, the story is Hana’s. We are regularly reminded of this through the narration of an older Yuki regaling us with the many challenges her mother faced in raising them, through tragic means, all on her own. This is a story about a person growing through having children and taking on the responsibility that comes with raising them, particularly difficult as a single parent. Wolf Children, at its core, is a film about motherhood and what it entails.
That’s where the film manages to strike an interesting balance, being both fantastical yet incredibly grounded. It does not take place in a land far away but in common settings such as the urban environment of Tokyo and the vast, vibrant Japanese countryside, giving the viewer familiar locales to grasp. This choice to set it in our world is a fascinating one. It’s interesting how a story about raising young werewolves can be surprisingly mundane, whether it’s trying to get them to eat their food or keep them safe from the everyday dangers any concerned parent would face. It’s this approach to the events and setting, while making the story more relatable, can also make the film feel slow or subdued at points which may not be to the taste of some. Ultimately though, I feel it really helps in creating a strong and rather honest understanding of the family dynamic, grounding the story around the bigger, more cinematic moments.
If you are familiar with any of Hosoda’s earlier films then you will already know what to expect with the animation style used in Wolf Children. Character animation is typical of Hosoda’s films so far, being both simple, loose but incredibly expressive. Detail is drastically reduced as characters move further into the often beautiful and painterly backgrounds. The action that takes place is not a dynamic spectacle of thunderous movement, but much more subtle and subdued, particularly early in the urban environments. However, Hosoda’s films have always managed to excel in these quieter moments. Whether to showcase more true-to-life emotional moments or simply to capture the humble day-to-day of this unexpectedly normal (at times) family. That is not to say that Wolf Children cannot create an animation spectacle when it wishes to. There are rare scenes of beautiful sweeping movement that swell from amongst these more subdued parts that demonstrate Hosoda and his team’s restraint with these more dramatic sections. When they do occur, it is with a swell of music and beautifully smooth visuals that feel earned by both us, the audience, and the family we follow.
The music is a nearly constant presence throughout, only being absent for a few dramatic moments. The story spans more than a decade of time so through the many montages the film presents, composer Takagi Masakatsu, creates an almost dreamlike atmosphere. With soft piano arrangements that often make the film feel comforting and nostalgic as Yuki tells us of her mother’s experiences with admiration. Whether the memories are good or bad, the music gives the impression that these events are looked back upon with fondness. An important step in the family’s journey.
The voice acting is solid across both the sub and dub of the film. The expressive range of emotions shown through the animation is complemented by strong voice acting, with particular credit to both the Japanese and English voice of Hana, being Aoi Miyazaki and Colleen Clinkenbeard respectively giving a voice to a woman that is loving and vulnerable, yet strong and persevering. Hana could be one of Hosoda’s most relatable characters, but at the same time she could be his most admirable, and this layered complexity is interpreted through the range of both actresses’ performance. If there is any negative that could be pinned on the voice acting, it would be that of the voices of the young Yuki and Ame, particularly Yuki. It’s rather petty but they can be incredibly grating. Screaming, crying and complaining through much of their youth in the story. Although, I feel that despite this being pretty annoying on viewing (and requiring a quick adjustment of the volume on a couple of occasions) I think it is clearly both intentional and appropriate. It emphasises how much of a handful children can be, and that’s even if they weren’t half-wolf.
With Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda has created a story that not only shows the trials and tribulations of raising children convincingly, but also the growth of both parent and child through it all. The journey shown may be extraordinary but the roots of the story are grounded. Starting from young love, to parenthood and to the point where we watch children find their own path of independence. Wolf Children may not be Hosoda’s most dramatic work but it is easily his most intimate and is well worth the experience.