One of the great things about the speculative fiction genre of sci-fi and fantasy is that it allows you to tell stories about everyday life in very exciting ways. At its heart, director Mamoru Hosoda’s 2012 animated movie Wolf Children is the story of a single-mom struggling to raise her 2 children after their father, who is referred to only as the Wolfman, dies. It’s just that here, the two children happen to be werewolves.
What makes Wolf Children especially unique is that it really is a slice-of-life story, about the day-to-day lives of the main characters. That means no over-arching villains. The closest you have to an external threat is the fear of the children’s true nature being found out, but it’s not like there are any government agents looking for them. Instead, the movie is simply about the trials of parenthood and growing up, as seen through the eyes of a rather unique family.
What’s even more amazing is that Wolf Children pulls it off.
The movie is told by the daughter who begins the story with the future mother, Hana, in college where, one day, she sees a mysterious young man in a plain t-shirt and pants. Eventually, they grow close and fall in love, prompting him to reveal his secret to her; he is a werewolf and is the last of his kind. He quickly dispels the stuff about full moons, silver, and the rest as “dusty myths and bad movies.” He simply transforms into a wolf, at will, at any moment, daylight or nighttime.
They soon have a daughter, our narrator, named Yuki, and one year later she becomes pregnant again. Unfortunately, before the boy is born the father dies (in a truly heart-wrenching scene), leaving her to care for Yuki and her soon-to-be-born son, Ame. And, if raising human children on your own is a headache then just imagine raising children who can shift from human to wolf to human to wolf at a moment’s notice.
Hana struggles to raise her two children. In many ways, it’s a fairly normal story of a single mom, only again, her children are “wolf children.” For example, she has to deal with the question of whether to take her children to the Vet or to the hospital and, when the obvious difficulties of raising wolf children in a city become too much, she moves to the Japanese countryside. And that is the first 30 minutes of a roughly 115-minute movie.
From here on out the movie’s focus becomes less Hana’s struggles as a single mom, though it’s still a huge focus, and more about how Ame and Yuki handle growing up. That means you have things like first day of school, making friends or struggling to make friends, and so on. As I said, it’s about their day-to-day lives.
Now, it would be very easy for this movie to become slow or episodic. Instead, the movie is as engrossing as can be. That, I think, is because the movie’s conflict derives largely from two questions: First, obviously, is “Will Hana succeed as a single mom?” Will she manage to raise her kids well and will she end happy, or at least contented, with how the kids turned out?
The second question drives the kids’ storyline and it is one posed to a toddler-aged Yuki early on in the movie: “Would you rather be wolves or people?” Ame and Yuki are growing up with essentially two separate aspects of themselves that must be reconciled, their wolf side and their human side. So, the movie asks, will they live at the end as wolves or people? Or will one choose to live as a wolf and the other as a human?
This means the movie is also a coming-of-age story for the two children and therefore every scene involving the children, at least the ones in the country, raise questions, the answers to which move the two children closer to their respective answers to that big question. How will they do in school? Can they make friends? With whom will they choose to make friends? Will they find a friend or friends who can accept them for who they are? And will they be happy with where they are? This, of course brings us back to Hana because the answers to those questions, especially that last one, will tell Hana whether or not she has succeeded as a single-parent.
The children, Yuki and Ame, in their mannerisms, behavior, and dialogue come across like real children. Further, as younglings they both act exactly as you would expect a toddler/puppy. They cry (or howl) in the middle of the night, run around as if they’d been given IV shots of sugar, and chew on, well, everything in sight. Then, as they grow older and start to come into their own as wolves or people, it does not feel forced. Because their personalities are both well-established by the half-way point (Yuki, being an out-going extrovert, and Ame, a shy introvert) their choices about who and what they want to be flow naturally from the story. It’s hard to think of a moment where I thought, “this is how the director/writer thinks children behave.” Nothing felt artificial.
Then there is Hana, who is probably one of the best movie moms I have ever seen. She gets points for her determination alone. There are movie moms who can dual-wield pistols or who can do karate movies like a martial arts master while others can lift 20 tons as if it weighed a feather, but I doubt many of those could hold a candle to the maternal awesomeness that is Hana. This woman never quits. Without a boast, brag, or complaint she perseveres through all her obstacles to raise her kids the best she can. The movie never feels the need to tell us she is awesome because we know it and we admire her because of it.
And the movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that with the death of Wolfman, she might as well be hopping around on one leg. Even though he dies less than a quarter of the way into the movie his presence, as well as the lack of it, is felt constantly throughout the movie. And from the glimpses we had of him early in the picture, it is clear he would’ve been a fine dad. So, in a way, this movie is not just a coming-of-age drama and a motherhood film, it’s also a love story, too, and a good one.
The technical aspects are near flawless. The animation is wonderful. Now, Tristan Gallant, the Youtuber behind the anime review series Glass Reflection, who loved the movie, has pointed out that the animation style is rather rougher than most, saying that “the farther a character is from the camera the less distinction they have to the point where some of the characters don’t even have faces.”
Whether this was due to budget constraints or not I don’t know but if it was, they spent their money well. Because of the characters’ body language as well as their placement in the frame, and everything in the frame itself, not to mention the voice acting and the superb score (more on that in a bit) the movie nearly always managed to convey whatever emotions and information it needed to. In short, when the emotional demands of the story permitted it, rougher animation was used and when the story demanded more, such as the ending or the amazing scene of Yuki and Ame running through the snow, it was as finely detailed as anything out of Studio Ghibli.
The score composed by Takagi Masakatsu is probably one of the best movie soundtracks I’ve heard in a long, long while. There are two requirements for a soundtrack to be great and it hits both of them. The first is that it perfectly complement and enhance whatever is being shown on screen. Tracks like “Nene” have a bouncy, upbeat theme for the scenes of their childhood antics while the more tender, lullaby-like tunes such as “Lullaby in the Peaceful Light” fit Hana's storyline and development perfectly. Also, there are lush, orchestral themes to fit the bigger, more sweeping moments of the movie.
The other requirement is that the score makes for great listening separate from the movie. And here, Wolf Children knocks it out of the park. Much of the soundtrack makes for great listening on a long drive or when I’m just trying to relax. In fact, I’m listening to it while I’m writing this review. I recommend “Maternity Sky,” “Kito Kito - Dance of Your Nature,” “All the Warm Lives,” and “Home After Rain.” “Mother’s Song,” which plays during the end credits, is good too, despite being in Japanese.
Walt Disney once said that “For every smile there should be a tear.” Wolf Children, with a story that is both fantastic and immediately relatable, has plenty of both. By the end you will be crying but you’ll be smiling too. And you’ll walk away with a warm, tender feeling that will last you long after the credits have finished rolling.
Wolf Children is available on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.com: LINK.