By Anthony Franco
Wolf Children was an animated film that was conceived of and directed by Mamoru Hosoda and produced by the studio company Madhouse. The film was released in its original Japanese in 2012, and in 2013, it was released distributed in English. It is said that Mamoru Hosoda’s recent marriage and growing family inspired him to create this film. Wolf Children was received well critically earning seven different awards, two of them included a Japanese film academy and publication, and another was an audience award from the New York International Children’s Film Festival.
Wolf Children uses a linear narrative and begins with narration from the daughter, Yuki, as she tells the story of her parents and the beginnings of her family. As told by Yuki, this story begins with her mother, named Hana, whose name is derived from the Japanese term for a flower. Hana is a young, studious and independent college student who works at a dry cleaner. She is a rather optimistic and self-willed individual, having a positive outlook and making it a point to keep a smile on her face when life seems hard. Within the course of her time in university and her studies, she encounters a strange young man who initially seems to be cold and distant but is actually warm-hearted, kind, and a loving person. As they get to know each other better, they fall in love. At some point, this young man reveals the ground-breaking secret to Hana that he’s a werewolf or wolf–man and they wind up becoming a family, as well as parents to two children, not long after. However, this blissful period ends with the tragic death of the father.
Afterward, the film’s focus shifts on to Hana and her motherhood, beginning with her vow and her determination to raise their children as best as she can. From their little apartment in the city she persists in her care and providing for these children, but it proves to be a challenge. Hana isn’t always sure about what they really need or who to turn to for help and the children are rather unruly and noisy, the neighbors and even some agencies have complaints and tend to pry, and much of her effort is spent on covering up the fact that her children have abilities that they can’t always control. When these things come to a head, she decides that they should move out of the city for fear of discovery. But before that actually happens, she asks her young children a question that proves to be of great importance throughout their lives: “If you could only be one thing, would you be people or wolves?”
Hana continues this struggle in the country with a positive attitude. With some studying and talent on her part, and the help of her neighbors in other places, the family thrives as members of the little community they are part of.
The film’s focus shifts once more, and it shifts unto the children: Yuki and her younger brother Ame. In truth, Wolf Children has tracked their development along with the story of their mother. Yuki is loud, rambunctious and has an exuberantly happy disposition. When they moved into the country she was excited and enthusiastic about exploring her surroundings, she wasn’t at all bothered by nature which surrounded her new dwelling. Ame, in contrast, is timid and passive, quiet, and reserved. He’s also homesick and frightened by the little intrusions of nature that the insects and little reptiles that appear, or that Yuki freely plays with, represents. As they grow, they begin to struggle with themselves and with each other, their mother, the surrounding nature, and the pressure of society over this question of who they are and who they want to be. The final focus of this film is more of a coming of age story for the siblings, their personalities and identity being tested and shaped by each other and by life.
The role of editing in Wolf Children — If animated film has a special need for editing like live action film does — is rather important. As one might imagine, this film covers an extensive period of time. What they do very well is that they cover some of that time in the montage. Some of the relationships between Hana and the Wolfman and the birth of their children occurs along a rather calm and soothing musical segment, as scenes and snapshots of their time spent together, their feelings about the situation they’re in, their tenderness towards each other, and the growth of that family goes by. This montage was so well executed that you probably wouldn’t feel the need to extract details, yet it still artfully conveys, mostly through non-verbal expression, body movement, and some imagery, much of their daily lives within the period and their emotional reactions to the events that came by them. At this moment, the film provides a consistent overall tone and mood of lovingness and warmth, even as some of the emotions of the two primary characters shifts in response to some of the crucial events that occur to them. The montage is also used, to some limited extent and with Yuki’s narration, shortly after in order to convey some of Hana’s struggles in dealing with the pressure of single motherhood. She protects her children from the certain harm they at times place themselves in, she’s exhausted and almost falls asleep while doing some household tasks and watching the kids, and provides sustenance and comfort for the bottomless stomachs and endless cries.
Another editing tool that they use is that of repetition, mostly for humorous effect in Yuki’s case, in order to display her excited and at times wild and unruly nature, but also for an emotional effect, along with montage, in Ame’s case, in order to display his own problems with his social environment. Other editing moments were a momentary shift in art style, such as the use of a sketchbook in a scene that is supposed to be a moment in which Hana is imparting certain values and warnings to her children, and going back in forth in order to show frantic fear and panic in a scene involving the children that raises certain fears on an adult level.
Along with editing, there is the “camera”. They occasionally use distant shots in order to establish certain emotions and for moments through the ways certain characters behave and react. The medium distance shot sees the most use within the film as body language and emotion plays a greater role in the film. The camera tends to become close mostly for the intense moments within a few emotional moments in order to emphasize feelings of great sadness or fear, even some paranoia, with the exception of two intimate scenes near the beginning and end. As for camera angles, they aren’t always there to illustrate unpleasant imbalances of power between characters, but it is used in order to capture their daily life, with some distance but with a sense of care, or their vast and surroundings.
The colors of Wolf Children are mostly light and bright colors, not that the darks and the gray are totally excluded. Gray is present for a few of the sadder or darker moments of the film. Though the majority of colors aren’t that deeply hued, it doesn’t stop them from being striking at the right moments in the right places. This doesn’t limit any emotional moments that the film wishes to express. Once again, it can be used for intense emotional moments. There is a small bit of coloring to indicate gender, but the color is used more symbolically elsewhere. There was a use of white and deep blue in order to display innocence, excitement, and immense joy in a moment of family activity. Warm colors tend to sort of dominate or tint certain moments of comfort and calm combined with affection while cool colors tend to dominate and tint other moments of varying tension including when certain characters are in a moment of truth.
The narrative of the film is expressed, in part, as a sort of memoir or personal story. Some of the themes of identity and the actual choices the viewer is led to believe the characters would take are shown through the characters behaviors and personality throughout the film. There is some irony in the choices they, the thoughtful and timid Ame and the wild and adventurous Yuki, make over the course of the film. There is also some irony in Hana’s reaction to one of her children finally answering her question that she asked near the beginning, “…would you be people or wolves?” as her humanity comes into conflict with aspects of what it means to be a wolf. There is some sentimental or emotional logic that runs through the film on this part. There is also some thematic similarity between the parents and the offspring, mostly on part of the father, on the superficial level of appearance but also on the deeper level of their actions late in the film.
Despite how well executed it was, Wolf Children isn’t perfect. There are a few issues with the narrative, in that there are a few logical problems that become apparent when a bit of extra thought is put into some parts of the film. In a sense, they were rather masterfully glossed over; you don’t worry about it except in how it portrays the characters in the film sympathetically. There is also a bit of feminist critique of the film that has much to do with the fact that this film pretty much praises motherhood. We never learn much about what Hana aspired to be before she became engaged with the Wolf-man and had kids, and much of her life in the film is spent on her involvement with, and in relation to, the Wolf-man and the wolf children. So one kind of lacks a sense of Hana all by herself. There is also some criticism, at this same angle, to be found in Yuki’s social situation as she grew up. After some time spent with other kids, she later resolved to “become more lady-like”. She gets a dress, desists from playing with bugs and wildlife, and generally becomes less wild and more moderated. There is a question of whether it was Yuki’s free choice to decide to imitate the femininity of her peers, or if she was socially pressured into doing so. However, there is something to be said about at one of the characters, namely that character of the Wolf-man, which sort of counters the previous feminist critiques. If you thought the Hana or Yuki weren’t treated well, then the Wolf-man in some ways has it worse in the eyes of the viewer. The Wolf-man is shown to be caring, loving, thoughtful, and tenderhearted. He’s far from a ravenous “animal” or macho-male stereotype, even considering fact that wolves, a creature he can morph into, are thematically a masculine animal best known for being fearsome, savage and untamable creatures. Recall that he dies early in the film and, similar to his lover, we have a poor sense of what his life was like independently. Now, knowing all that we know about him within the film, this reviewer would like to ask an important question: What is the Wolf-man’s actual name?
Wolf Children was generally well done, even if a few details don’t add up or run afoul of some problems. The voice acting, in the English version at least, was well executed, and the emotional tones expressed through sight or sound, were carried out well. The art and designs in and of themselves were also rather well done. Throughout the film there seldom lacks a sense of humanity, even if the story itself deals with some fantastic subject matter. And while a bit magical, it remains mostly down-to-earth in its handling. This film is awash in the subject matter of love, especially a mother’s love a consistent theme throughout the film.