Wolf Children screens nationwide at Reelanime, 13th – 26th of September. Check the website for session times.
You could probably be forgiven for wondering whether you’re watching a secret project of Hayao Miyazaki’s in Mamoru Hosoda’s new animated feature film Wolf Children. His sweet-bordering-on-saccharine domestic fable about two siblings gifted with the tendency to turn into wolves shares many a standard “Ghiblism” – the quaint rural setting to which the family escapes the stress of urban life; the charming reinstatement of traditional values regarding community and family; the joy and wonder of a child’s perspective; the quirky, humorous characters in support; the see-sawing between the mundane and the spiritual; the not-terribly subtle moral messages.
But perhaps instead of regarding Hosoda in that light, it might be more accurate to come to the conclusion that the idea of returning to simpler times and values as represented by idyllic rural life are a source of deep-seated fascination for the Japanese psyche. Hosoda’s previous features – the stunning Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) and the wonderfully humorous and entertaining Summer Wars (2009) – more than prove his credentials as a unique storyteller and animator and not at all a Miyazaki look-alike, but it’s difficult when handling the sorts of rurally focused themes that Studio Ghibli has made a name with to come across as truly original. Hosoda makes a fair go of it, but if he’s looking for his own voice, perhaps he needs to make it a little louder.
Beginning with dreamy contemplation of the story that you are about to hear, in a field of perfect flowers and with a hazy figure on the horizon, Wolf Children immediately sets it’s tone – one of fairy-tales. If the dialogue had started with Once upon a time, you would hardly have found yourself less unsurprised. Once upon a time, a girl met a wolf who was also a boy and they fell in love. And then they had puppies and he died. Not the end. On the surface, this is a gentle ode to the mother, as Hana – the girl named for flowers who smiles even when life is hard – begins to realise that she’s not really coping as a single parent to a couple of children under the age of five who turn into anthropomorphised wolves without warning. And coming to this realisation, she does what any sensible girl trying to raise were-wolves would do – she moves out to the country to be alone, in the vague hopes that being closer to her husband’s home turf might help her children find a way to fit comfortably into the world.
The story then begins to unfold in a delightful slice of life fashion through gorgeous scenery, wonderfully fluid animation and uplifting passages of music complete with heart-touching scenes of simple, wholesome happinesses. The brave single mom battles alone with the restoration of her dilapidated new home and trying to feed her kids; the villagers make casual bets about how long she’ll last and all the while cicadas chirp and the sun shines and the children/puppies grow as both children and puppies do – too quickly. Eventually, we know that they will have to choose which world they will live in, and how. It’s only natural. But their mother, as all good mothers should, has given them the best possible place to make that decision from – a place of love. Awwww. What can possibly go wrong?
Hosoda’s use of time lapse, it has to be said here, is utterly superlative, as is his application of the Buddhist concept of mu – in the case of the animated film, those long contemplative moments where nothing much is happening – is fairly masterful. But at the same time, perhaps the director’s overall vision is just a little too perfect, a little too fairy-tale like. There are glimpses of that sense of impending doom that threatens to encroach upon the characters of Miyazaki’s worlds, that hint of internal darknesses that the auteur director handles so deftly, but Hosoda perhaps hasn’t quite ventured far enough along that path. The emotions are cushioned, and the conflicts that arise in due course only brief colours in an otherwise fairly muted hue. What we feel in response to Hana’s situation is less a sense of the inherent unfairness of it all and perhaps a better appreciation of our own mothers, but more a kind of fleeting sentimentality. In the end, Wolf Children is something of an idealised impression of the super-heroism of parenting achieved to lovely effect: a fairy-tale, a gentle lesson, and definitely nothing like a big bad wolf.