Monday, 28 October 2013

Let's talk about Wolf Children


A bit over two weeks ago I went to the Anime All-Nighter with Joe. They were showing the three Eva Rebuild movies and Perfect Blue, which both of us had seen before but wanted to rewatch in a cinema setting. However, the real draw was Mamoru Hosoda's newest offering, Wolf Children. I liked The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and mostly enjoyed Summer Wars, so I was interested. I had seen some animation from it since somebody at a place I worked at who had worked on it had left their card on the desk I was on and they'd posted a few line tests and stuff on their blog. Thus I mostly knew the sort of thing I was signing up for (supplemented with my existing knowledge that Hosoda's films err on the saccharine side). Joe didn't have this privilege so he came out saying it was "the most committedly furry thing I've ever seen". I wouldn't disagree with that view. I did enjoy it on the whole, but that is by taking the average of a really enjoyable first half and a rather tiresome second half.

I will add, before going any further, that I cannot be bothered to talk about this film while keeping my writing spoiler-free. Thus, if you haven't seen it but have any serious plans to do so and don't want to know all the details don't read this.

To give a brief summary, college student Hana falls in love with a man who turns out to be a wolf-man, able to freely change between wolf and human forms, or even meld partway between the two. They fall deeply in love and have the two most adorable children in the universe. However, he dies in a tragic accident soon after. Hana then has to contend not only with raising two very young children by herself, but also the fact that, as a human, she has no idea how wolf-children are supposed to be brought up.

The development of the story mostly concerns the children's learning about their bodies and their identities. In their infancy they have little control over their wolf-human transformation, prone to shifting when upset, excited, or asleep. Much of the drama and the charm of the first half of the film is built around this, and I think it works effectively on both fronts. Yuki, the daughter, almost carries the first two acts by herself for me, she's so well-observed and so adorably animated and voice-acted that even my vague cynical guardedness around Hosoda's particular brand of sweetness just can't hold up. There's one scene where Yuki has swallowed a pack of silica gel, and Hana walks in to find her contorted sideways on the floor vomiting. The unpleasant belching, retching sound she makes is so spot-on it brings back ancient memories of my little sister in similar situations. Interestingly, Joe, who is a dog owner, said it reminded him of the sound of a dog throwing up.

The dilemmas the situation creates for Hana, whose desire to provide a safe, healthy upbringing for her children is matched only by the need to guard their secret against the world, also make for effective storytelling. And as the children start to grow older and become aware of their uncomfortable place in the world I feel the film is building up to something quite clever. A particularly poignant moment comes when Ame is reading a picture book, and the story is about a farmer chasing wolves away from his livestock. He asks his mother why the wolves are always the bad guys, and she is simply at a loss to respond. It reminds me of the kind of thing one might read about the slaughter of native American Indians, and at the time I felt it was a quite a mature idea for a cute fantasy film to be touching on. There are also shades of the issues faced by mixed race people, who might feel like they don't belong with any particular branch of their own ancestry.

However, I don't think the second half really lives up to these lofty hopes of mine. As the kids grow up and learn to control their transformations, they become less cute and the film becomes less fun. This is understandable. However, I feel that the story didn't really go where I hoped it would go. The way it works out is that the children basically have to choose between being a human or being a wolf. This feels deeply unsatisfying to me, as, if one reads the film as touching on multiracial issues, the choice it presents is false. Well, somewhat false. If it were a cynical story about how society oppresses the different it could serve as an effective commentary on that. However, the choice is presented as being the children's alone. It is not that they are unforunately forced by other people into effectively giving up half of their heritage: it is a necessary, inevitable, and good thing for their development as individuals. It's as if Hosoda is trying to say that any mixed-race person eventually has to choose whether to be black or white or Asian or whatever, rather than ever being happy to just be mixed-race. One could say that I'm reading too much into it and "it's just a story" but I don't consider that an excuse, ever.

I also think the characterisation of Hana falls apart in the final act. As her son, Ame, grows, he becomes more introverted and spends more and more time as a wolf communing with the animals in the forests around their home, eschewing school to do so. However, there comes a point where it seems clear that he plans to leave home and live as a wolf permanently. Hana is understandly terrified of the thought of losing her 10-year old son, and beseeches him to stay in the house. Soon after, a typhoon hits while Yuki is at school, and Ame, concerned for the safety of life in the forest, ignores his mother's please and goes out. Hana almost loses her mind with worry, and goes looking for her son. Her actions would be believable and sympathetic, were it not for two things. One: Ame has been going off by himself in the same way for weeks if not months prior, and nothing bad has happened. And two: her daughter is waiting at school to be picked up, and thanks to her mother's neglect ends up being left there overnight. Ame does himself no favours here either, as when he finds his mother lying unconscious in a rainy ditch in the forest, he just leaves her in a random car park, nowhere near home or apparently even the school, and then buggers off to be Wolfman Guardian of the Jungle forever.

There's also the uncomfortable way the film handles of the trope of the whirlwind romance. It's something that I feel is well-worn but subtely dangerous the way it's been built up in our cultures. It suggests the idea that the ultimate love comes not from a stable, mutually beneficial relationship founded on understanding and commonality, but instead in the form of a rapid turbulent adventure that might leave your life ruined but oh boy those 6 months of true love and the adorable kids who've left you forever sure were worth the loss of any chance of a career or a life around other people. In fairness, what we see of the wolf-man makes it clear that he is compassionate and loving. However, this just makes it even weirder that we never get to know his name, or that Hana apparently never spoke to him at all about his family, or his upbringing, or any aspect of his history that might have equipped her to properly bring up their children. The character of the wolf-man (a diligent husband and father) feels uncomfortably at odds with the way he is framed in the story (the mysterious, seductive stranger).

I didn't have a more elegant place to talk about this part so I'm sticking it awkwardly at the end. The bit that Joe is referring to in his tweet above is the part where Hana has sex with the wolf-man. Although it is dealt with in a discreet way, it is made clear that he is in half-wolf form at the time (still bipedal, but covered in fur and with canine extremities).

I stole this image from someone else's blog and I'm not even a little bit sorry.

It's a distinctly narmy moment. This is unfortunate, however, because I think any alternative would've been a cop-out. The whole film is meant to be about the awkward junction and disjunction between wolf and human, so having that scene take place between two apparently complete homo sapiens would be pointless.

Like any opinion, all of this is fluid, and I might think differentLy upon watching the film again (and I'm likely to do so). In spite of my moaning I did enjoy it overall. I'd recommend it to anybody who's liked Hosoda's work in the past, or who likes cute things and doesn't mind weird human anime eyes on wolves.


violet said...

I really liked the first half of the movie. I kinda wish the second half didn't exist.

Derek Hitchmough said...

While they laid down together while he was a half-wolf, it was never proven that they had sex like that (for one thing, he slept/woke up as human). It was more ambiguous than anything imo

Moreover, the comic/manga version of Wolf Children has a shot of their hands during the act; he's human during the act, so nothing like that happened