(Note: this review was previously published in a slightly less edited form on 21 October 2012 to a blog of mine that nobody read. -DG)
A proposition: let us stop comparing people’s films to the work of Stanley Kubrick. I’m declaring a moratorium on comparisons to Stanley Kubrick in people’s writings on film, critical or otherwise. We’ve reached a saturation point. Kubrick’s influence certainly does cast a wide shadow over cinema as a whole, but not everyone is deserving of such a comparison, and most certainly not Wolf Children, the latest from the cracked geniuses at Madhouse Studios.
This is not a knock against the film, which is quite good on its own terms. But when I saw the film at the Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC), the programmer presented it as “comparable to the works of Kubrick and Sirk.” Normally, I would just chalk this up to hype-man ballyhoo, but Kubrick’s name seems to be thrown around a lot lately to denote anyone with detectable skill.
So far as I can tell, “Stanley Kubrick” represents staunch perfectionism, uncanny modernity, glorious compositional skills and twisted psychologies. None of these aspects are present in this film (though it must be noted that the animation and backgrounds are excellent). Curiously, though, the programmer was bang-on with the reference to Douglas Sirk, the king of Technicolor melodrama.
The film begins as Hana (Aoi Miyazaki) starts college in the big city. She becomes fascinated with a brooding, mysterious young man, who ends up taking a shine to her. It’s presented in a sweet, low-key way, giving plenty of screen time to the mundane joys of young courtship. And then the dude becomes a wolf.
The first act may be the most jarring thing about Wolf Children. Writer/director Mamoru Hosoda and co-writer Satoko Okudera’s bread and butter is techno-fabulism, stories where one SF conceit is used to get inside the minds of the characters and tell stories about family dynamics and staying true to oneself (see The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars). Here, Hosoda and Okudera opt to shift genres from sci-fi to fantasy, but it’s such a low-key form of fantasy that it’s easy to be put off by, say, a woman not-so-implicitly having sex with a wolf (and bearing the two titular wolf children). I don’t know if it was the best way to characterize Hana as open and caring, but it’s certainly the bluntest and most effective.
As it must in melodrama, tragedy strikes early and strikes hard when the father of Hana’s children dies. She is now the widowed single mother of a pair of toddlers who can turn into wolf cubs and back. In one of the best gags in the film (because in spite of the heavy amounts of sad, there are jokes aplenty), she nervously cannot decide whether to bring her sick daughter to a children’s hospital or a veterinary clinic. Child Services are on her ass because she hasn’t gotten the children inoculated. Tired of having to close her children, and consequently herself, off from the rest of the world, she abandons the city and sets up shop in the deepest depths of Japanese rurality.
In a strange way, Wolf Children is a Miyazaki-fied retelling of Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows. You’ve got the widow, the Walden-esque reverence for living off the grid and off the land, and the group of folks who disapprove or don’t understand. The glaring difference, though, is that there’s no Rock Hudson to show Hana the joy of simple living. Hana does it partly out of necessity, but mostly out of bull-headed determination. In spite of the fact that she is a college dropout, she is also shown to be a voracious reader. Hana, thus, is determined to go it alone.
Another importance difference is the children: eldest daughter Yuki and cadet son Ame share equal billing with Hana in the film, and as such get equal characterization time. Therein lies Wolf Children’s greatest strength: its use of lyncanthropy, albeit a version of it stripped of blood lust and graphic full-moon transformations. By taking it out of the realm of horror (where being a werewolf is more often than not a liability) and planting in the realm of light fantasy, Hosoda opens up the possibilities of what the affliction can represent. Sure, in the introverted child, lyncanthropy is still directly linked to secrecy, shame and self-loathing (early in the film, young Ame tearfully asks Hana why the wolves are always the bad guy in picture books). But when instilled in an extrovert, lyncanthropy is equated to exhilaration and exuberance, a glorious path to the inner self. But as with all paradigm-shattering forms of self-discovery, sacrifices must be made.
Drama is nothing without gravitas, and Wolf Children delivers in spades. Yuki, once the extrovert, keeps her wolf side a secret to the world for years, while Ame, echoing his dad, indulges his wild side after years of being quiet. Hana gamely marches on, clearly not over the death of her children’s father or ready for Ame to follow in his footsteps. It’s a constant push-pull between self-control and self-actualization that is actually quite stunning considering that this is supposed to a kid’s movie.
Wolf Children posits that dealing with loss and change is a process, not an event, and that the key to being comfortable with the world around you is being comfortable with yourself. This combination of life lesson, coming-of-age tale and brilliant animation make it clear that this was Mamoru Hosoda’s big move for Hayao Miayazaki’s anime crown. He isn’t quite there yet (the wild Stephenson-esque techno-thriller/family drama/coming-of-age tale Summer Wars is still his masterwork), but he soon will be, I assure you.
Wolf Children is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.
Directed by Mamoru Hosoda; written by Mamoru Hosoda and Sakoto Okudera; starring Aoi Miyazaki, Takao Osawa, Haru Kuroki, Yukito Nishii, and Megumi Hayashibara; 117 minutes.