Back in the golden age of Anime, the appeal of this formerly niche Japanese art-style broke down all manner of barriers because it actively incorporated global inspirations. Fast forward to the modern-day and its fan base may be bigger than ever, yet the gap between those that like and those that don’t couldn’t be bigger. This is due to the distancing effect born from the incessancy of creators to adhere to a very strict and singularly ‘anime’ way of presentation alienating anybody unfamiliar in the process. It’s by no means an antidote to this deeply entrenched way of thinking, but Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children works as a deceptively mature contrarian – his film functions akin to a Japanese film and not an anime.
The execution and design are great components in achieving this approachability. While undeniably Japanese in its style, all characters have the most basic appearances necessary to effectively emote. The background too, the animators have given the film a detailed painterly aesthetic, alternating between immense natural beauty and the more dreamlike scenarios where imagery is toned down to its sparsest. That Japanese cinematic quality is realised through patience and tradition. Montage is used to stunning effect and non-sequential unrelated imagery is used to frame the drama, this is all cinematic language that the Japanese auteurs champion, it’s invigorating to see animation directors follow suit. For those that enjoy world cinema, there’s nothing that could be lost in translation.
There is all manner of contemporaries that could be cited to express the key the film fits in, the most fitting example would be My Neighbour Totoro. Miyizaki’s masterpiece takes something as universal as grief over family member’s illness and embeds the magical quality of the natural world. In what could be Hosoda’s masterpiece, he takes an even more common life experience in single parenthood and children leaving home and implants that fantastical spin. In what may prove to be an oxymoron, Wolf Children is both restrained and fantastical. There are none of the ludicrous tropes that make anime so hard to penetrate, no superfluous or boisterous anime eccentricities, everything about Wolf Children is 100% committed to the narrative.
In that narrative, Hana is an unassuming student at University whose attention is caught by a mysterious man in her lecture; through studying together the two grow to be friends. That same young man has a secret; he is the last of the Wolf Men. This bizarre revelation brings the two closer than ever as they become lovers and eventually parents. The children they have are the titular Wolf Children, their first being Yuki and their second Ame. Together they are the picture of a happy family. Until tragedy strikes. The father tries to surprise his young family by preparing a special meal, unfortunately he dies in the hunt leaving Hana alone with two children she loves deeply but doesn’t fully understand. In her desperation and paranoia she moves the family to the seclusion of the countryside to give her children the best possible upbringing.
As the family move to the country the complexion of the film changes from perfectly run of the mill romantic drama to something fresher. Hana learns how to live self-sufficiently and keep a degree of privacy and she struggles through the trial and error that comes with children who cannot decide whether they want to be Human or Wolf. In Hana’s learning process, the film waxes lyrical about the value of community. After all the tragic death and complications she has went through it’s heartening to see everything fit into place for Hana. Years pass with each new act, so by the time the third act comes around we are hitting junior school bringing a new series of issues that paint an image of the difficulties of being such an outlandish outsider. That much being said the way the film ends is a little hardnosed. While it makes perfect sense in the natural world it feels like the humanity of these characters is given too much of a wide birth, like it’s superfluous to the goals of the story meaning that many may leave such a gorgeous film feeling a little cold.
The comparison to My Neighbour Totoro wasn’t just a conceptual one. Miyizaki has called time on his career as an animation director on many occasion and if The Wind Rises really is his last, then Wolf Children is the perfect CV. Like Pixar in the West, Studio Ghibli is the animation studio that elevates the form beyond the mass media’s claims that animated media is ‘merely for children’. With Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda beautifully tells a beautifully simple story with the same positivity that elevated anime beyond bootlegs and onto the high streets.