Even though I’m technically an adult, the thought of having children right now is terrifying. I’m not ready for that! I don’t even have a pet; shouldn’t I get one of those first? I’m in constant awe of people who can raise their kids competently, providing the proper nurturing and care. You know, like, feeding them and junk. It’s insane! And most of those kids are just kids; imagine if you had to raise werewolf babies. Probably be a lot harder, huh? For his third film, Mamoru Hosoda dives head first into the dilemmas facing the mother of werewolves in his 2012 film, aptly named Wolf Children.
Following the success and critical acclaim of Summer Wars, Hosoda was able to split from the anime production company Madhouse and found his own Studio Chizo. But there were no hard feelings, so Madhouse co-produced Wolf Children along with him. Much like the brand new studio, the movie feels like a new direction for Hosoda, breaking away from the plot-heavy sci-fi tales of his previous two films and delving more into the slice-of-life, lyrical stories he seemed to have been wanting to tell the whole time. Naturally there’s a fantasy element to it, but there’s not nearly the emphasis on escalating tension, or a huge storyline to get in the way.
Wolf Children‘s story spans about 12 or 13 years and focuses on Hana, the mother of the titular canine kids. The film is narrated by Yuki, Hana’s daughter, looking back. Hana is a college student who falls for a mysterious classmate who isn’t registered, and just shows up to learn and then leaves. Hana spends a lot of time with the boy, whose name is never given, and eventually they do indeed fall in love. Thus leads him to tell her his big secret: he’s a werewolf. Not a scary, murdery one, but one who can change into a wolf entirely at will, unrelated to the lunar cycle. This doesn’t drive her away, and the two consummate their relationship in one of the creepier shots in this or any movie.
Soon after, Hana becomes pregnant with Yuki and moves in with the Wolfman, where he goes out and hunts for his new family in his wolf form. He is evidently the last of his kind, and as such the last to know the secret of existing as both half a wolf and half a person. A year or so later, Hana gets pregnant again, this time with a boy they name Ame, and a family is forged. However, the father dies in an accident and his lifeless wolf body is taken away by the authorities. Hana is then forced to drop out of school and do the best she can to raise two kids under three years old. Montages explain how exhausting it is for her as she tears through baby books and wildlife manuals about wolves, since her kids can up and change into puppies whenever they want to.
But things get harder when they have to leave the city, as the authorities come asking why neither Yuki nor Ame have ever been to see a doctor or gone to school. So Hana moves to the country. She begins trying to grow her own food, since they don’t have much money, and the community quickly comes to help out and exchange goods at the behest of a crotchety old farmer who teaches Hana how to grow potatoes. Though Hana now feels more secure than she ever has, she still has to worry daily about whether her kids’ wolfiness will be discovered.
This is where the kids’ two stories start to diverge. At the outset, Yuki is definitely the more wolfy: constantly hungry, always running around, catching animals, and just making a general ruckus. Conversely, Ame is quiet and reserved and afraid of everything. He cries to himself when he learns that wolves are usually portrayed as villains in fairy tales. But as they get older, these traits swap slightly; Yuki goes to school and has to train herself not to turn into a wolf at any time. When she’s about 11, a new boy asks if she has a dog because she smells like dogs. Naturally, this makes her self-conscious; when the boy tries to figure out what’s wrong, she wolfs out and scratches his ear. Afterward, she’s too ashamed to go back to school.
Ame, on the other hand, resists going to school and becomes very concerned with exploring the forest, learning about nature, and communing with his wolf side. He spends most days as a wolf under the tutelage of a fox whom he calls “Sensei.” Wolves are adults at 10, even though children certainly are not, and Hana has to come to grips with the fact that her son might not want to live in the house much longer.
This is a really beautiful movie about togetherness and family. All three of Hosoda’s films we’ve talked about so far have had to do with life in contemporary Japan and relationships therein. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was all about a teenager learning where she fits in her world and being okay with not being perfect; Summer Wars was about learning that real family can come from anywhere, that our differences can still bring us closer, and the power of real human interaction. Wolf Children very much plays into this continuing theme, with Hana learning to be a mother and a grown up and a provider and a keeper of a very important secret. On top of this, her kids have to learn who they are and which side of themselves they want to be. Sci-fi and fantasy are great ways to explore real-life issues, and Hosoda in three movies has set himself up as a master of that.
There’s also a theme in all three of these movies of having to grow up fast, with Yuki and Ame being the youngest examples of this. Hana has such a short time with her children after figuring out where she even belongs in the world, and with one going off to school and the other roaming the forest as a wolf, she’s got a lot of time ahead of her to figure out what’s next.
Hosoda’s three for three with me right now, and I’m sad there’s only one film left to talk about at the moment. The good news is that he’s still got a long career ahead of him and I’m hoping he makes a dozen more movies. But for now, there’s only one movie left to talk about, and it’s in theaters currently in select cities. I don’t want to spoil something a lot of people haven’t seen yet, but it’s about anthropomorphic magical animals living in a parallel world to ours, so that’s pretty damn cool. The Boy and the Beast is our next and final Mamoru Hosoda adventure. For now.
Images: Studio Chizo/Madhouse
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!