Romaji: Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki
Japanese Title: おおかみこどもの雨と雪
Japanese Release Date: 21st July 2012
UK Release Date: 2013
Running Time: 110 mins.
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Writer: Mamoru Hosoda, Satoko Okudera
Starring: Aoi Miyazaki, Takao Osawa, Yukito Nishii, Haru Kuroki, Amon Kabe, Momoka Oona, Shota Sometani, Kumiko Aso, Mitsuki Tanimura,
The Wolf Children was the first film I saw at the 56th BFI London Film Festival and a film I had been eagerly tracking all year. Despite being left cold by the director’s last film I went into this with an open mind and was soon won over.
Maybe you’ll laugh and say it’s a fairy tale. Think it too preposterous to be true. But it is a true story about my mother.
The Wolf Children is a story about identity and love between parents and children that takes place over thirteen years. It starts when a university student named Hana falls in love with Ōkami who is a “wolf man”. The two have children named after the weather on the day they were born – Yuki (Snow) the older sister and Ame (Rain) the younger brother. The four live quietly in Tokyo concealing the true nature of their existence. Then Ōkami leaves and Hana is faced with the prospect of being a single mother with two children who are half wolf.
The film’s writer and director Mamoru Hosoda is frequently compared to Hayao Miyazaki but while his work shows a similar ease at mixing the fantastical with realism there was always something forced and, in the case of Summer Wars, bland. The Wolf Children is different. Despite providing a familiar coming-of-age tale it is executed with subtlety, realism, detail and humanity, leaving the film feeling refreshingly natural and meaningful.
Till the field
The synopsis, trailers and character design suggest heart-warming fantasy fun but the film’s direction is rooted in realism which is used to underline the struggles faced by characters and depth of feelings felt by the characters. By presenting us with such detail the film defines itself and makes itself original and gripping.
We are first introduced to Hana and through a few deft details like dialogue and a family picture we understand her independent character. We then witness the courtship between Hana and Ōkami and while the idea of a wolf man and a human woman having children sounds outrageous it is handled in a subdued and naturalistic way whether it’s seeing Ōkami’s day job or Hana’s pregnancy cycle, morning sickness and all. The early quarter of the film tracks the parents who sacrifice their own identities as they build a family life. It ensures that we understand that Hana’s acceptance of Ōkami and her children is based on love.
When Ōkami leaves it is Hana who emerges as the hero. She exists in a universe which can be quite indifferent and must dig deep into her character to create a family life for the rambunctious and cute Ame and Yuki.
The wolf children are quite a handful. The script sets up many charmingly cute scenes where they are a recognisable and exhausting combination of child and puppy. They burst with energy and desire to be as mobile as possible, constantly morphing into wolves. This has genuinely amusing consequences like Ame and Yuki’s teething troubles ruining furniture and tantrums usually involving screaming, tears and sprouting whiskers and pointy ears.
While the situations start off as amusing it is clearly difficult to handle in a crowded place like a city and soon there is a believable undercurrent of fear faced by Hana. Walks in the park are impossible and living in an apartment with a no-pets policy becomes stifling as she restricts her children’s natural exuberance. Most menacingly the child welfare agency appear. All the while Hana is making things up as she goes along but never wavering despite exhaustion. Soon she takes the gutsy decision of moving to the country which opens the film up visually and offers a celebration of family, community and nature.
You have to be stronger
When Hana moves to the country she is initially an outsider herself with locals whispering things like “She’s going to start missing convenience stores”.
She buys a ramshackle house which is lovingly detailed in all of its disrepair. In a montage we see her fixing the place up and engaging in back-breaking farming. These activities display the beautiful animation and speak volumes on Hana’s hope, belief and determination in providing a future for her children. These sequences are most like the Ghibli classic My Neighbour Totoro but what defines The Wolf Children is the observation on the struggles that Hana faces and the refusal to be sentimental which I appreciated immensely.
Eventually Hana and her children are accepted, albeit by hiding their odd forms. While the negativity they faced in the city remains in the memory, the countryside folks exhibit all of the good qualities of Japanese society and the message of the film becomes one of community spirit, as voiced by one of the elderly characters when she says “We have to help each other”.
There is a consistent theme of nature and traditional values and it is told with no fuss. The use of montage and succinct sequences providing vignettes of daily life continue to track the change in the characters, seasons and nature.
With the change in location the film truly comes alive with brilliantly animated sequences which are truly breathtaking and capture spectacular scenes of the natural world in Japan. Mist wreathed mountains, surging waterfalls, endless fields, and dense forests are all vividly brought to life with vibrant colours and deep levels of detail. Gone are the claustrophobic close-ups of the city and in come long-shots of the terrain with the bright pink and blue of Ame and Yuki moving through it. The film moves the action onto a larger canvass as the wolf children experiment with their abilities like being a wolf up against cats and snakes, dashing through tall grass up trees and discovering which part of the natural world’s eco-system they belong to. The best sequence is an exhilarating chase over a snowy landscape as it evokes feelings of youth, discovery, freedom and joy.
While the titular wolf children can morph between human and wolf in the blink of an eye they face the same difficulties of growing that are universal to everyone, mainly the need to be accepted and know their place in the world and define themselves in their journey to decide whether they will be human or wolf while Hana must also learn to change her character as she watches them mature. Their character arcs are not completely original but thanks to the realism, playfulness and sharp characterisation we are anchored in their struggle and root for them. Every funny use of wolf transformation draws laughter, every dangerous situation draws gasps of shock (one woman in the audience gave a gasp so loud I initially misinterpreted as being part of the soundtrack) and every moment of love and growth draws a smile and, for many in the audience, tears of happiness.
Be human or wolf
I cannot praise the visuals or script enough but on top of direction, script and images, Hosoda also gets pitch-perfect performances from the voice actors. I especially loved the performances of the younger voice actors of Ame and Yuki.
Momoka Oona who plays the youngest version of Yuki is brilliant. Her voice overflows with such tomboyish enthusiasm and energy when she does particularly unladylike things like chasing cats and bagging snakes. Every growl, shout and squeal contained a childish and admirable joy of life and the determination to face the world around them.
Amon Kabe who plays the youngest version of Ame adds such depth to the script’s characterisation with his shy voice full of searching questions and a need for certainty and reassurance. Typical childhood things like fairy tales become sources of pain as he discovers the wolf is always the bad guy. Through him you feel the precarious nature of their situation.
They have the lion’s share of the film and the comedy and they essay their characters so well they become an intrinsic part of the character and remained the way I chose to remember how the characters sounded.
The Wolf Children has to be one of the best films I have ever seen. Its intelligent script and assured direction justify Hosoda’s high critical regard and wash away any doubts about his abilities. Despite echoes of the finest of Ghibli’s output, The Wolf Children feels like its own beast thanks to a script which mixes fantasy with realism and humanity that makes the film have substance. It is a film that pays tribute to Japan and Japanese culture while remaining universal because of its trio of characters who will charm and be familiar to us all.