Although very different in tone and subject from his
previous features, The Girl Who Leapt
Through Time and Summer Wars, Wolf Children (Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki, 2012), which screens April 27 at the
Los Angeles Children’s Film Festival, further confirms Mamoru Hosoda as one of
most interesting and original writer-directors currently working in Japan.
Hana, a hard-working 19-year-old student at Tokyo University,
notices that the quiet, lanky young man in her ancient history class takes
notes but doesn’t have the required textbook. As they talk, the cheerful girl
and reclusive boy are surprised to find themselves falling in love. He reluctantly
confesses that he is a wolfman: not a conventional werewolf, but the kind of
shape-shifter that often appears in Japanese folk tales. He is the last of his
breed, as wolves have been extinct in Japan for at least a century.
Instead of the wedding with singing birds that would follow
in an American feature, their relationship leads to a baby girl, Yuki, and a
year later, a boy, Ame. Wolfman is a devoted husband and father, and Hana is
shattered by his unexplained death.
As the children inherited their father’s shape-shifting ability,
raising them in Tokyo becomes impossible. In a darkly comic moment, Hana
ponders whether to take Yuki to a pediatrician or a veterinarian when she eats
some desiccant. Hana moves her family to a ramshackle old farm house in a remote
mountain village. Her good manners, kind heart and hard work gradually win the
respect and affection of her eccentric neighbors
But keeping her children’s supernatural abilities secret
while trying to raise them to be who and what they are remains a daunting task.
Yuki wants to go to school and live only as a human. Her one burst of anger
that causes her to partially transform enables her to bond with her classmate
Sohei. In contrast, Ame skips school and explores the surrounding mountains as
a wolf. His lessons come not from textbooks, but a wise, aged fox.
Like a waltz, Wolf
Children unfolds with a slow, graceful rhythm. Hosoda allows scenes to
unfold at their own pace, often using minimal dialogue or mime. The forest
backgrounds are strikingly handsome, and the simple drawn animation captures
the expressions and emotions of the unusual characters. After the slam-bang action
and nonstop chatter of recent Hollywood films, American viewers have to jettison
their expectations and enjoy the film on its own terms.
Surprisingly, the weakest moments in the film involve CG, which
Hosoda used so effectively in Summer Wars.
The sudden shift to tracking camera moves when Hanna and her children frolic in
their first snowfall and the elaborately rendered waterfalls Ame leaps in his lupine
form feel jarring after the unapologetically 2D character animation.
But these are minor criticisms in otherwise lyrical and moving
film. Wolf Children
won the Japanese Academy Prize for animation, beating Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo and Letter to Momo, and has garnered numerous
festival prizes. It’s a welcome reminder that animation can be used for more
than elaborate 3D CG comedy-adventures at a time when American studios seem
intent on boxing the protean art form within increasingly narrow limits.
Further information: www.americancinematheque.com