On paper, I can see why Wolf Children, a 2012 anime film by rising anime name Mamoru Hosoda, would turn a lot of people off. After a chance encounter, a college girl named Hana falls in love with a boy whose character model looks like an amalgam of every “dreamy loner” signifier you could think of: all tousled hair, sleepy eyes and scruffy mustache. Of course, the boy turns out to be a werewolf (isn’t it always the way?), which doesn’t phase Hana in the slightest, and the two begin a whirlwind romance and start a family.
But just as Twilight comparisons flare up in the viewer’s mind, either as a positive or negative, the boy (who conspicuously goes nameless) dies offscreen, his body found in a drainage canal and dumped in the back of a garbage truck with all the ceremony of a pizza crust being dropped in the bin. It’s at this point that the film seems to meet the viewer with a look of mock-innocence and says “Oh what, you thought this was a romance? Oh heavens to Betsy, no, it’s about a single mother you silly goose!” and that’s about where things start to get interesting.
Rather than the impossibly saccharine teen wish-fulfillment fantasy romance the first fifteen minutes or so seem to promise, Wolf Children is very much about the relationship between parents and children rather than an impressionable college chick and her oh-so-dreamy supernatural paramour. Of course, in this case, the children in question can also turn into wolves, because raising two kids on ones own wasn’t evidently hard enough for the poor gal. The film takes us through Hana and her children (a girl named Yuki and her brother Ame) as they grow and mature, leaving the city for a quiet country home, and Ame and Yuki’s unsteady steps towards adulthood, your basic slice-of-live coming of age yarn across two generations and two species.
About midway through, I had convinced myself that this must have been an adaptation of a comic or light novel series. Structurally, the film isn’t really one large story so much as a bunch of small sub-stories woven into a larger structure, really more of a series of episodes or vignettes than anything else. Because of this, I can understand why some people may find it a tad on the dull side.
To borrow a literary turn, it isn’t what you’d call a page-turner. It doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat so much as comfortably recessed in it, lulled into a daze by how mellow it all is. There’s no villain, no looming threat beyond the danger of Ame and Yuki exposing their true nature to those around them, no real sense of urgency or suspense. Just a series of challenges to overcome, with only a few of them involving life-or-death stakes. It’s really slice-of-life in the truest sense, like some werewolf-y, Japanese version of For Better or Worse.
The major problem that comes up is that the film may have just a bit too much story. Some of these little sub-stories never feel fully resolved, like Hana’s relationship with the grumpy old man who teaches her how to garden properly before more or less vanishing from the film entirely.
Similarly with the fact that there’s a lot of time-condensing going on, Yuki in particular feels a bit schizophrenic. For the first half, she’s a hyperactive, tomboyish enfant-terrible, but just before the one major time skip that takes the two from children to adolescence (which by the way is done in a rather ingenious series of side-to-side tracking shots that one Youtube film analysis channel devoted a whole episode to) she decides to switch gears and become your average grade/highschool girl, and the gulf between the two versions of her character is wide enough that you could only cross it on a rickety rope-bridge like the one from Temple of Doom. Ame’s transformation from quiet, nervous mama’s boy to broody loner feels a bit less jarring, but not by much.
It feels as though the movie needed more run time or less story to fill it with, and it’s odd that a movie this calm and serene can suffer from too many things happening in not enough time. It isn’t really a problem that breaks the movie, but it does call for a certain taste.
If you’re the kind of person who demands a tight, streamlined narrative with very little fluff, Wolf Children may not be for you. The fact that it’s also aggressively heartwarming and “feel-good” also means it has a very specific audience, and if you’re not in it, the film may be a fairly dull affair for you.
But all the same, I’d give it a chance. Let it draw you into that serene space it’s creating, that gentle mood it weaves. It does know when to ramp up the tension just enough to make the finale feel appropriately climactic, and it rises and falls from a soothing melody to a stirring crescendo at a few carefully picked moments throughout the run time. It’s certainly easy on the eyes, though not as visually stunning as something like The Garden of Words or Giovanni’s Island, and has some pretty striking formal qualities like that tracking shot I mentioned before.
Despite its flaws, and it does have them, Wolf Children is another strong film in what has been a fairly good few years for anime feature films not based on any pre-existing property. It isn’t the best one I’ve seen recently, but it has a speed and mood all its own, and sometimes that’s enough.