After Summer Wars (2010) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) established Mamoru Hosoda as the most outstanding new talent in Japanese animation, fans were excited to see what he would do next. Wolf Children, Hosoda’s first release from his fledgling Studio Chizo, proved his highest grossing feature to date. It is as distinctive, ambitious and emotionally nuanced as its predecessors yet marks a decisive step away from teenage romance towards more challenging, mature and at times heart-rending drama. The film starts almost like a lycanthropic take on Twilight (2008). Sweet-natured Tokyo student Hana (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) falls in love with a broodingly handsome stranger (Takao Osawa) whose caring, sensitive nature belies a bestial secret. Their love endures even after he reveals he is a werewolf prone to midnight romps in the woods. Hana bears her wolfman two children. He in turns helps her cope with the strains of pregnancy and provides for his family. But just as they begin to settle down as a functional, albeit unconventional, family unit tragedy strikes leaving Hana to raise feral offspring alone with no idea how to cope with their unique needs.
Not for the last time, Hosoda masterfully shifts the story gears moving away from the low-key, introspective lyricism of the supernatural romance to embrace more universal themes including child care and social tension. Infected by the irrepressable spirit of adorable wolf cubs Yuki (Momoka Ono) and Ame (Amon Kabe) the tone grows more quirky and humorous with gags that play like extreme variations on real anxieties plaguing single parents everywhere. Poor, put-upon Hana struggles coping with rambunctious youngsters who morph literally into little monsters that run amok, trash their home and howl at night. One amusing scene finds Hana torn between rushing a sickly Yuki to the pediatrician or a vet.
Too scared to get her kids inoculated lest their secret come out, Hana finds herself pursued by Child Welfare Agents while also bullied by neighbours who suspect she is keeping illegal pets. Though the heroine’s passive, apologetic stance may grate with some western viewers, the film is deeply Japanese in its preoccupation with the tension between inner emotional turmoil and “improper” social conduct, using the monster as metaphor. Like almost all of Hosoda’s films, Wolf Children is part social study. So Hana moves her family to the country, whereupon the plot shifts gears again detailing the struggle of the deceptively frail but driven young woman to survive toiling the land and growing her own food. In this she is aided by a collection of colourful characters including grouchy old Nirasaki (yakuza film icon Bunta Sugawara) whose sharp tongue and belligerent manner mask his growing respect for the quietly determined Hana.
Scenes of children reveling in nature (fiesty Yuki takes to strangling snakes and chasing wild boar around the woods!) and the warm-hearted message stressing the importance of community and pulling together to help one another cannot help but recall the Hayao Miyazaki classic My Neighbour Totoro (1988), which is of course much beloved in Japan. In interviews Hosoda acknowledged his debt to Miyazaki (while stressing his own distinctive artistic ambitions) and the film steadily gains a Studio Ghibli-esque epic sweep culminating in a magical, exuberant sequence where Hana and her kids race across the snow-capped mountains. Thematically things come down to whether Yuki and Ame choose to be human or wolves. Part of society or apart from it, forging their own isolated path. At first fearless Yuki revels in her werewolf powers while meek, shy little Ame seems more insecure and vulnerable. Things change however as they start to grow up. Yuki (now voiced by Haru Kuroki) becomes more self-conscious and subdues her natural exuberance in an effort to fit in at school. An American take on this story would find the sacrifice of individuality for the sake of conformity deeply troubling, but from the Japanese perspective this marks a step towards maturity. Sure enough, after accidentally maiming Sohei (Takuma Hiraoka), a boy Yuki grows to like whilst trying to contain her feral urges, she forges a meaningful relationship. By contrast, Ame (Yukito Nishii) withdraws into nature and learns to scavenge and hunt from a wise old fox. Tensions arise as both siblings start forging their own diverging paths which culminates in a confrontation that proves unsettling for both Hana and the audience, reminding us these are wild creatures after all.
Inevitably things take a turn for the tragic as Hana grows to realise the emotional gulf between her and her feral son has become insurmountable. More melancholy and introspective than Hosoda’s previous work, Wolf Children lacks their exuberant humour and is over-earnest in parts. However, as a study of the eternal anxieties facing parents everywhere and the importance of learning to let go the film is undeniably stirring, powerful and often deeply affecting.