I have never been a big fan of the werewolf genre, generally finding the whole concept overdone and repetitive, but Wolf Children is an exception. The director and co-writer is Mamoru Hosoda, who also directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars. For Wolf Children (released in 2012) he set up his own studio, Studio Chizu, which went on to produce The Boy and the Beast and Mirai.
Wolf Children is densely packed full of interesting themes. The story is told largely from the perspective of a young lady called Hana, who meets a werewolf when she is in college and they go on to have two children, Yuki and Ame. Then, on a stormy day, the werewolf dies, leaving Hana to bring up the two werewolf children on her own. It soon becomes obvious that this will be impossible in a big city, and Hana decides to move to a remote house in the countryside and fend for herself there, trying to build a new life for her children.
As is explained in the film, Hana is Japanese for “flower”, hinting at her rightful place in the world. She might feel like a city girl, and struggle to adapt to a life of farming, but she persists and finds her place in the world. This is a film that is all about finding where you belong. I remembered from watching the anime series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya that the name Yuki means “snow” and the thought occurred to me to see if Ame is also a meaningful name. It turns out that his name means “rain”. Some interesting pieces of the puzzle fell into place with that realisation, illustrating how easy it is to miss important symbolism when watching dubs of Japanese films. So many significant moments in Wolf Children are linked to weather conditions, but I won’t spoil them by making a list here. Hosoda emphasises the duality of nature, with the Ghibli-esque beauty of his gorgeous animation, contrasted with the brutality of endangered lives and rotting crops.
I mentioned that Wolf Children is about finding your place in the world. The main focus tends to be on Ame, but his path is a relatively straightforward werewolf cliché of coming of age and becoming a lone wolf, although his beginnings as a sickly and nervous child is an interesting approach. Yuki’s story offers much more food for thought. She takes the opposite trajectory to Ame, going from confident and wild to being ladylike and fitting in with humans. There is actually much more subtlety to the paths the children take if you look carefully. For example, Yuki as a toddler tends to play at catching animals, while Ame actually kills. They are always destined for the lives they end up with. It’s clever stuff. Also, at one stage Hana asks them if they could make a choice to be just humans or just wolves. Look closely at their unspoken reactions at that point.
The decisions Yuki makes tend to get criticised as conforming to female stereotypes, although she makes those decisions freely and despite her mother encouraging her to just be herself. She chooses to fit in with the human world, while Ame will not, and as a result he is a bullied outsider. In one brilliantly creative moment, a few years of their school lives are told in a few seconds, with the camera panning from left to right between two school rooms as Yuki and Ame progress through school. If you were ever unsure that Hosoda is a creative genius to rival Miyazaki, that scene should dispel those doubts.
Less commented on is Yuki’s relationship with her love interest Souhei, and that really bothered me. It was the one aspect of the film I did not enjoy, and I’m surprised that it doesn’t get criticised more. In a scene that I found disturbing, Souhei becomes curious about Yuki and pursues her through the school. His intentions are clearly not sexual, but it plays out almost as the precursor to a rape scene, with Souhei finally cornering Yuki and physically assaulting her. Inevitably, Yuki is unable to control her wolf side and injures Souhei. Which is exactly what he deserves.
But that’s not the bit that bothers me so much as what happens afterwards. Yuki initially takes the blame for injuring Souhei, until he decides to cover for her and say she didn’t do it. This actually plays into what must be a bitter frustration for victims of abuse. Children don’t always speak up, when doing so would help themselves enormously. As a viewer, all you want is for Yuki to say “he attacked me” or even better “he tried to force himself on me”, but that never happens. The really revolting bit, in my opinion, is how the film sells what Souhei does next as normal and good behaviour: he tries to make up for his actions by visiting Yuki’s farm every day, bring her homework, food etc. But that’s not right, is it. He’s being a stalker. He’s still refusing to respect her decision not to engage with him. He’s still pursuing her. He’s still being a disgusting excuse for a human being. And yet it’s all played straight as Yuki’s love interest, with the inevitable budding romance between them.
So that’s all pretty nasty, but it’s certainly not enough to make the film anything approaching a disappointment. It’s rare to find a film that is so rich thematically, and so coherent with the way it follows through with its ideas. And there is plenty that is left open to interpretation, such as the issue I mentioned above about Yuki fitting in with the other girls. It walks the line between finding your own path in life and conforming, and that’s fascinating. What I mean about it all being coherent is how it links in with Hana’s move to the countryside. It’s almost a film about immigration in that respect: the self-conflict between integration and being true to who you are. Ame’s story is most definitely the latter. For both Hana and Yuki, Wolf Children presents us with a far more complex picture. RP