NYICFF 2013: Wolf Children w/ Mamoru Hosoda

narutaki Who wasn’t excited to hear about Mamoru Hosoda’s next movie? At this point, he is the anime film director I have my eye on most. Us New Yorkers have been very lucky to have his films appearing at the New York International Film Festival.

I often feel one of the main problems with success is that it raises people’s expectations for your next work. J. D. Salinger’s famous struggle with the success of The Catcher in the Rye immediately comes to mind. Mamoru Hosoda might not struggle with a pressure to the same degree but I feel fandom watches him with a certain amount of expectations after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars.  I know that Narutaki and I had a decently high level of expectations as our Summer Wars review clearly shows. So the question becomes does he live up those high expectations as one of the few young directors still able to make original anime movies that have a wide range of appeal? Does Wolf Children live up to high bar we set for it based on his previous works?

 Wolf Children is a film that I mulled over quite a lot after it and was able to realize a few things about the themes. That’s not to say that my gut reaction was irrelevant, but more that the story has layers that can be peeled away. This movie is told from the mother’s perspective of watching her children grow up, change, and move through life. And it is about accepting their decisions even if they aren’t the ones she’d choose for them.

Honestly, being the selfish twenty-something that I am, it was hard to accept the outcome and some of the choices of the characters in the movie. People don’t always turn out the way you want them to, but that doesn’t make their decisions any less relevant. Acceptance is a big part of this film.

Hana, a college student falls in love with wolf man and has two children with him. When he tragically dies Hana is left to raise Ame and Yuki by herself. As the troubles of being a single parent of two lycanthropes mount while living in the big city Hana moves out to the country in hopes that it will help her children. In a rural  environment Ame and Yuki mist choose between embracing their feral natures in the wilderness or integrating into human society.

There is quite a bit to love about the story told in Wolf Children. It is an interesting look at the lives of two children caught between two worlds where they don’t exactly fit into either. But the story is mostly from their mother’s perspective. We see how she raises them and how she deals with the decisions they make. A good deal of the first half of the movie is seeing what tribulations Hana must endure to raise her very unique children. The story then shifts when Ame and Yuki start going to school and Hana moves the background as the narrative focuses on the paths of the two wolf children.

 Yuki and Ame are as different as siblings can be: Yuki racing through the world, fearless and joyous; Ame peering at life from behind timid and sullen eyes.

The wild abandon with which Yuki takes on the world as a child is overthrown once she starts school by “girl society” where enjoying nature and getting dirty makes you an outcast. And Yuki accepts this so she sheds her former ways so that the girls at school will stick by her. This was seriously depressing because the existence of cliques is honest and so is Yuki not being willing to ostracize herself.

I connected with Yuki’s younger self so much that I literally felt betrayed by this development. It is not because “girly” things are bad; it is because Yuki doesn’t change or find new interests, she suppresses herself in order to be accepted. However, in the end when she finds the courage to reveal herself to another person, it is at least implied that she will be truer to herself.

Ame’s arc is really rewarding in certain aspects and a little perplexing in others. His near death experience brings him close to nature and his wolf-self. He begins embracing the countryside and spending longer and longer of periods in the mountains instead of in school like his sister. He transforms from frightened boy into powerful protector. What kind of threw me was the final implications of him never returning home.

The tension between Yuki and Ame is well executed as is the explosion of their frustrations. Just as I was having trouble accepting their choices, they were having the same problem with each other. Their identities change so much over the course of these two-hours.

I guess my main problem with the story was the idea that Ame and Yuki have to make a definitive choice if they were going to live a dangerous life in the wild and be free or take the comfort and security of domestication in the human world. Throughout the course of the film Ame and Yuki flip their positions and I have to wonder if either of them really benefit from that choice. It seems more like the switch off with their mistakes more than experience any growth from their choices. The mild child goes grow up to be wild and the spitfire just learns to be part of the machine.

In my humble opinion there is a false dichotomy set up were they have to pick a single path and abandon the other. It seemed like both of them would have done much better to mix their preferred path in life with a bit of their other half. Both of them have to abandon pieces of themselves when those choose a side because they are  always going to be creatures with one foot in each world. By denying one half of themselves they don’t ever fully become part of the world they choose. They just ignore one half of who they are.

But like Narutaki I think I am projecting a bit on what I wanted to see more than what I was supposed to take away from the film. The choice is their to illustrate a point about how we choose who we become more than a story of living your life with a mixed heritage. Plus I think the problems Narutaki had with the movie are going to strike a deep accord with most people as they tend to touch on a more subtly sexists idea.

 There is a great sequence at the beginning that is told without dialogue as Hana and Ookami learn about her first pregnancy and goes all the way through his fate. It kind of reminded me of Up’s emotional montage.

Hana’s dedication to her children is the crux of the movie. Essentially alone in the world we see her physical and emotional triumphs. Her own growth in the Japanese countryside is particularly rewarding as she repairs the house, learns to farm, and integrates herself in to the community.

I was disappointed that Hana doesn’t seem to share much about her husband with her children. He certainly was important to her, but the movie renders him as little more than DNA. Though she does bring the children to the place he grew up. You can see in the end that Hana has given up going to him because she must support Yuki and Ame.

The visuals in the movie are quite amazing. There were several scenes that I had to wonder if the background was a photograph or was there just so much detail that it seemed as if they were real. As it turns out Mamoru Hosoda all those scene were hand drawn. And that nicely sums it the amount of work thrown into the animation of the movies. When they are doing big set pieces like Ame running through the pristine forest at full speed this is obvious but even more subdued scenes like Hana waiting in the city or Yuki at school have that same attention to detail that gives everything a very distinct sense of place.

The character design were done by the iconic Yoshiyuki Sadamoto just like with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars giving all three movies an easily identifiable sense of style in the regard. That gives them all a very distinctly soft feeling that complements their stories well. The gentle look to the characters enforces the tone of the movie while letting them still have a bit of sharpness in the few kinetic scenes in the film.

 I love Q&As at the NYICFF because kids often ask the best questions and sometimes the questions the adults can’t ask. Hosoda shared that he just recently became a parent. He also talked about how the movie probably feels different depending at what age you watch it; so the kids might get one thing from it while their parents another. Finally, Hosoda mentioned that wolves are extinct in Japan so that is why he wanted to do a story about them with the hope that maybe there is one living on a mountain somewhere.

Since we saw Wolf Children during the New York International Children’s Film Festival we were lucky enough to have Mamoru Hosoda introduce the film as well as do a Q&A after the movie.  Mamoru Hosoda went above and beyond for the event as he had just received the Japan Academy Prize for the film and then flew to the U.S. for the screening. So it was quite a trip. Like with Summer Wars the audience was mostly children so a majority of the questions are by children which means you can get some very pointed questions that would mostly come off as boorish from an adult. The one little girl who asked why the film was so depressing exemplified that.

 The gender roles in Wolf Children are something I got quite caught up in. Of course the boy would become one with nature and be a protector; of course the girl would want to be human and reject her bestial-self; because they are there to be contrasted, it is all the more obvious.

However, they are portrayed without the shallow simplicity I’ve broken it down to. Identity is critical to growing up and they struggle with it and by the end of the film one has seemingly found their’s while the other still has a way to go.

Still, I must admit it stung personally. So I ended up with a rather muddled feeling leaving the theater.

There is sometimes the movie you see and then there is the movie you wanted to see. When these two concepts overlap you usually end up with a movie you love. When they are in conflict you often get a movie that is good but you find aggravating. It is even easier to let that aggravation cloud your judgement of the film. I think Narutaki and I both took issue with parts of the movie because we wanted a different story than the one we got.

That does not make the movie bad. I think we both appreciated it for its technical merits, its careful artistry, and an overall warm and caring hand behind its story. The problem is The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars had themes that resonated with us. I don’t think it clicked with either of us. But I personally would not find fault in anyone who loved this movie. I thought it was quite good. It just did not hit the mark like his previous efforts.

But so far I still see an artist who is doing great things. He still shows a good amount of promise with this work. He still has a good sense of style and storytelling. I don’t think he’s necessarily slipping or getting too caught up in his own self-absorption like some older anime directors.  I just hope his next story captures my heart again.

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