Director and co-writer Mamoru Hosoda delivers in Wolf Children a gem of an ode to the heartrending challenges and unimaginable joys of parenthood. Hana is a university student who falls in love with a kindhearted man who gives her a daughter and son–and also happens to be a wolf–but is taken from her all too soon. Enduring through her tears, Hana gathers every ounce of her strength and determines to make a life for her unusual family, and to raise her children into wonderful people who would make their father very proud, wherever they may go and whatever they may be.
A dove in wolf’s clothing
Wolf Children opens softly and elegantly; it’s narrated from the perspective of Hana’s daughter, and she doesn’t need to say much. The initial scenes are lovingly slow-paced, with little to no dialogue and extended sequences of people simply living life. The academic and urban environments are flawlessly beautiful, and the buildings, decorations, and plant life are more gorgeous than those I’ve seen in a lot of live-action movies. The story isn’t a supernatural romance per se: the actual establishment of the relationship takes little time, plays out much like a normal relationship would, and ultimately serves as only a prologue.
The premise doesn’t really spend time asking whether it’s normal or healthy for this woman to be attracted to this man; it treats the events pragmatically and instead asks, “What’s done is done, whether right or wrong, for better or worse. What happens next?” Scenes of Hana and her unnamed mate are lovely and restrained in terms of sentiment; the couple does share a brief moment of intimacy, but it’s tactfully shown and never left to become exploitative. Even Hana’s pregnancy sickness after she ends up conceiving is depicted with sympathy; her [unnamed] wolf loves her through the midst of her struggles and even ends up helping deliver their first child, a beautiful baby girl named Yuki. Roughly a year later she is joined by a little brother, Ame.
Hana’s world is broken when only a few minutes into the movie, she happens across her lover’s wolf form, lifeless. The music drops out as if in mourning, making this scene even more emotionally powerful as his noble body is treated like common refuse. But Hana and the rest of her film spend little time dwelling on the shock and sorrow: with or without a father, her children need all the love in the world, and life must go on.
Where the heart is
Soon thereafter, the film tries to give its family a normal life, which is made difficult by the aggressively realistic treatment of the premise. The children are considered dogs, which aren’t allowed in Hana’s apartment; one of them has a medical emergency, and Hana agonizes over whether to take the child to a veterinarian or a pediatrician; child-welfare services investigate the family’s well-being, but no one winds up happy. (Given how cynical toward medical science I’ve known all too many people to be, I can only imagine how scenes like these might possibly have progressed and ended up.) On the bright side, the children are adorable when life is going well: watching them ‘morph’ to and from their animal forms is an act of animation so refined that it looks like it was drawn effortlessly. Other than the events that led to the premise, the story generally lacks magical or supernatural elements. Hana must look for realistic and often imperfect solutions to her problems, and the film’s most compelling moments are most often found in its depiction of day-to-day life.
She’s an amazingly hard worker, somewhat like I would imagine Hayao Miyazaki’s lovable depiction of Kiki to be as a mother: after moving into a house far out in the countryside, Hana makes substantial ladder-and-hammer repairs, usually without help. She visibly nurses Ame at one point. She even starts a garden, or tries (over and over again), and makes an extraordinary effort to keep her children eating. Her affection for Yuki and Ame is readily apparent even while the three sit under a leaky roof. Hana winds up with numerous bandages on her fingers, each one a show of love. The movie doesn’t really have a ‘plot.’ Hana works even to exhaustion in order to provide for her family, and for the first hour the movie proceeds largely normally. Japan does not have a great deal of arable land, but the poor irrigation and the sometimes hostile climate bring people together in this setting to help each other.
Hana does find ‘friends’ in her new neighbors, inasmuch as they can be called thus in an environment where people live far away from one another, let alone from convenience stores and elementary schools. These neighbors have a wide variety of personalities, some of which are very abrasive, but everyone tries to lend their aid in their own unique and sometimes indirect ways.
There is a beautiful if lengthy scene of Hana running wild with her two children in the snow. The CG forest they run through is gorgeous, and the blend of computer-produced imagery and hand-drawn animation works surprisingly well. Without spoiling any details, their joy soon turns to horror, but it’s just the sort that would be deeply emotionally resonant for parents or sensitive older viewers without being inappropriately graphic for children–even as they still deserve strong guidance here.
May they hold you even when you can’t hold them.
The film really begins to build its story once Yuki and Ame are old enough to go to school. Hana kept her lover’s driver’s license as part of a memorial for him, and the way Yuki naturally calls the memorial ‘Daddy’ is indescribably precious. She and Ame grow toward becoming very different people once they enter an academic environment. (As a note, there are two scenes of notable violence here, one of them bloody but very brief and the other bloodless but prolonged and troublesome because of its underlying implications. Other scenes prove to be profoundly upsetting even without a traditional conflict.)
The story’s simple approach to its core issues gives some room for expansion. A secondary character whom Yuki encounters seems like a sort of contrast to her: he carries a profound need for (and lack of) the sort of familial love that has defined Yuki’s upbringing, and it manifests in actions that feel somewhat inappropriate on his part even as they earnestly plead for attention. While his needs don’t feel completely addressed, the film ambiguously plants seeds of emotional tenderness and friendship that may someday help to fill that void.
In terms of production, this is an artistic beauty from start to finish. Environments are rendered with enough quality and detail to be mistaken for a Studio Ghibli work. The story is an emotional beauty, as a love story not of romantic partners but of a devoted mother toward her rapidly maturing children. Hana (“flower” in this context) isn’t a perfect parent, but her passion is an enduring blessing for her family even without comfort, luxuries, easy answers, and often the approval of the people around her. Some of them curse her or her family, and it’s meant to be hurtful. There is much that she cannot give her children, but she gives them love, which they in turn give back to her. (Minor spoiler) The film’s ending does gloss over some of the same brutally realistic legal concerns that drove the prologue (spoilers end) and put what passes here for a plot in motion, but the rest of the story is cinematic gold.
Conclusion: When things get tough, give life your best smile, and get through it.
Wolf Children is a moving and powerful work. Hana’s unwavering devotion engraves itself on the viewer’s heart, and even with the logical questions it leaves, the conclusion delivers an incredibly satisfying catharsis for a mother who has worked so hard to give her children all that she has and all that she is. We see the carefully built and very different development of Yuki and Ame, both of whom have become beautifully mature in their own ways, and while none of us knows what the future will hold for either of them, or for Hana, the mother’s love is a jewel of an example for her children, who are well positioned to bless her and the world in their own unique ways.
Hana deserves to rest satisfied in the family she has helped build. Her mate would surely be pleased to see what will carry on his legacy, her children well deserve to appreciate all she has done for them (the movie’s website even has downloadable appreciation cards for real-life mothers), and this movie does a great service to a simple but deeply important story. There’s no real villain–life itself often feels like one here–but there are definitely heroes who are bound and determined to make the most of life’s myriad opportunities, and Hana is one of them.