One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2012 was to tackle watching anime more aggressively. I ended up watching and enjoying the rather light school assassin comedy Kill Me Baby, a series generally rubbished by critics and viewers alike. I then watched the supernatural school mystery Another, a series which I found to be particularly involving due to its central mystery of figuring out who is the ghost (and I never saw the answer coming). It had a live-action movie released earlier this year and I ended up buying the light novels when I went to the BFI Film Festival. Among other titles that made an impact were Sword Art Online, Mysterious Girlfriend X, and the 1999 TV anime Berserk and its movie adaptation. As much as I liked them, they did not move me to the extent that my anime and film of the year moved me.
The Wolf Children
The Wolf Children was the first film I saw at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. The setting was good since I saw it at a wonderful cinema in Leicester Square, I had great company with a fellow cinephile and I was enjoying attending my first major film festival. I was uncertain though…
Not about writing about the film. I figured writing a review of The Wolf Children would be easy because I have been charting its progress since its inception thanks to my work as a journalist of Anime UK News. I can list the works of the script writer, character designer and music composer off the top of my head (because I am the sort of irritating person who can list filmographies and cast lists and bewilder people with them). My uncertainty stemmed from the fact that I am familiar with the director’s previous works…
Now I loved Hosoda’s first film The Girl Who Leapt through Time, which told a bitter-sweet teenage love tale but I was disappointed by Summer Wars which was pretty but felt all too familiar, simple and slight. Heck, I still have not written a review for it despite having made notes. Thankfully The Wolf Children, which tackles a coming of age tale,was complex and had detailed characters who grew and offered insights into existential changes of a family.
What was spectacular was not the concept involving transforming children – Ghibli does magical realism all of the time – but the wit and intelligence used to serve it up in a coming of age tale and making something unique. That it observed the changes in the characters and family unit without the requirement of softening anything up was also welcome and added so much to the film.
The script gave granular details of life in the real world, an uncaring universe which forces people to find identities. From the believable start of the film to the enigmatic ending, I was gripped by the story and emotions it evoked. The film never offered trite answers to the challenges faced by the titular wolf children and that was an aspect that I enjoyed tremendously as it made the film gripping, so much so that during the film I (along with all of the audience) was sharing the surprise, joy and tears of the characters and willing the wolf children Ame and Yuki on to better futures. While the character arcs are not all that original the depth of detail and the unique deployment of the fantastical won me over. That it was the mother Hana, a person who is as normal as you or I, who has the most fulfilling arc came as a major surprise and became a major triumph.
This detail and rigorousness extended from the script to the animation and direction. The initial part of the film which roots the travails of the family in real, everyday problems is reflected in the use of close-ups and tight framing, cluttered sets and busy locations while believable and banal things that we tend to forget about pose obstacles and threats. That I felt a palpable relief when the film gave way to the openness of the country with visually stunning scenes of nature shows how much I had been affected and the fact that I actually thought about these things shows that the film succeeded in building a believable world.
This believability comes from the fact that every minute was packed full of detailed backgrounds and life. University noticeboards were packed with detailed leaflets and flyers, school corridors had the freshly clean sheen, raindrops plunged onto leaves and slid down. You can imagine people walking off screen and still existing including Ame and Yuki.
I have to mention other names involved in the staff (because I am the sort of irritating person who can list filmographies and cast lists – seriously, why do people look bewildered when I do this?). The characters are designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto who has a knack of being able to create compelling looking leads. Witness the cast of Evangelion and Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise. It is no different here. The characters look both cute and relatable. Their changes are charted from the maturing of the children to the weight Hana puts on during pregnancy. They have stayed in my mind as vivid and real and life like when other, more stylised anime have fallen off the radar. The film’s soundtrack, composed by Joe Hisaishi who has created some of the best film scores ever, just listen to The Kids Return, Sonatine and Princess Mononoke. The scenes where Ame and Yuki tear around fields are exhilarating due, in part, to his music which, curiously, reminded me of pieces by Michael Nyman.
What also impressed was the big hearted embrace of traditional Japanese mores and ideals. It seemed a much fuller and more warmly crafted love-letter than the one in Summer Wars. A lot of anime is purely entertainment (and there is nothing wrong with that) but this felt like it was saying something and showing a familiar part of humanity but in a fresh way. It was definitely down to all of the details and the strong direction which is what made this my number one film and anime of the year.