(Check out my previous Mamoru Hosoda film review: Summer Wars)
After the release of Summer Wars in 2009, Hosoda’s career as an anime feature auteur was well established on both critical and commercial ends. So in 2011, his producer Yuichiro Saito decided to call it quits with his current production house, Studio Madhouse (where he had worked since 1999), and co-founded Studio Chizu with Mamoru Hosoda in an effort to give his films a larger marketing and advertising pool to work with.
This was an important step because in a large production house like Madhouse, the box office success of one property is, in a sense, used to help fund as many new projects as possible. In the past, this meant that many of Hosoda’s fellow TV and Film directors at the company could potentially create works that lost money or broke even for the company and still continue to make new properties because of the success of his and other commercially successful director’s works. It also meant that his past two films received very little in the way of marketing before release. Despite this, they made enormous sums for indie anime features. The move to Studio Chizu meant that he could better market his films before release, release to more territories, and make much more money.
The gambit was ultimately successful, and remains so to this day, as Wolf Children, released in 2012, played to over 34 countries and regions and ultimately made $55 million USD at the box office. Like his previous works, it won Best Animation of the Year awards at many film festivals including Mainichi, Oslo, the Japan Academy Prize, the Tokyo International Anime Fair (or TAF), and at the New York Children’s Film Festival. Such a success with all of the windfall going either to the producer and director’s bank accounts or into the company fund, instead of into less bankable works, means that we should be able to count on Hosoda making films for a long time to come. Even if his films start to lose money. And if he keeps making them at or above the quality that he has, this is something to surely cheer on.
Wolf Children is a heart-wrenching drama that the uninitiated into the world of anime might not expect of the medium. It is an auteur work with human emotion and feeling as its core theme and Hosoda’s animation team depicts his world more beautifully than almost any arthouse cinema feature has ever been able. The film is in the tradition of Ghibli social realism ala the late Isao Takahata and is not necessarily a feature at its core, which one might imagine best suited for animation as it is a film about a young woman who falls in love with a man, bears his children, loses him in an accident, and then must struggle to raise her two children under adverse circumstances. This is typically the stuff of bad melodrama when helmed by anyone but a master of psychological approach, but Hosoda boasts more than a Godardian or Satoshi Kon-like eye for compositions and inventive editing. He has the ability, like Bergman or Woody Allen, to transform the mundane into the sublime, into the ethereal, and the particular into the universal, as an instantiation of the human condition.
Another element of the story is the fantasy element that runs throughout the work, and which actually makes the narrative more fitting for the medium of animation. the young woman, named Hana, is struggling through university and a part time job when she meets a precocious young man who sits in at classes at her school, despite not being a student himself. He is astute, takes close notes in class, and seems to be trying his best to drink in the best of life at this crucial early period of his life. This searching quality about him added to the mysterious nature of his background as a man seemingly with no family, and his unaffected good look,s immediately draws Hana toward him. And after some time sharing books together and Hana helping him sneak into the library to read for days at a time, the two have the traditional fall, spoken of by all the poets, into love.
He later reveals to her, before they decide to move in together and start a life as mates, that he is a wolf man and can change his appearance at will. This being is, in the context of the narrative, the legendary, now extinct, Honshu Wolf: the only native species in Japan. This romanticized beast was once worshiped by the Japanese as a Kami of great importance, and still remains an icon of Japan’s historical memory. Hana accepts him for who he is and she soon becomes pregnant. In one of the most inspired montage sequences in recent memory, accompanied by the emotional Elysian heights of a gripping score by Takagi Masakatsu, Hosoda takes us from this early period of first becoming pregnant, to Hana studying natural home birth (for fear of what would occur if she gave birth to a half-wolf child in a hospital setting), quitting her job, raising the child (a girl) with her mate, and eventually giving birth to a second child (a boy).
The second great dramatic point of the film is the death of the father, who goes out to hunt for pheasants or other large birds in the city on instinct. The appearance of a wolf in the city is upsetting to many people, and as such, someone shoots him. Hana goes out to find him after he doesn’t at the expected time, and finds him just as a maintenance crew carries him away to the trash dump in a garbage bag: the unceremonious death and erasure of a Japanese historical monument analogous to the death of his forebears as Industry, increasing human hostility, and population booms encroached upon their habitat, and eventually wiped them out from the historical record.
As the kids grow up, Hana is increasingly harangued by public health officials who find that she has never brought her children to the hospital, given them health check-ups, or enrolled them in daycare or pre-school. Her neighbors and landlady complain that she must be keeping a pet dog in her home as the howls of her young charges are heard occasionally in the night: something she cannot reign in until they grow to an age when they can understand the need for secrecy about their heritage. Added to these frustrations is the problem of raising two children as a single mother who cannot leave them with anyone to watch them while she works. As such, she has remained jobless and is quickly running low on funds from what was left behind by her mate. So Hana decides to move to the countryside, where housing is cheap and subsidized by the government so he money will go much further, where she can raise her children in relative seclusion, and where she can grow some of her own food and give her children the choice, when they grow old enough, to decide whether they want to become fully human or go back to their roots and live amongst the mountains as wolves.
The word ought not to be thrown around haphazardly, and I do so with some caution, but to call Wolf Children a masterpiece is a bit of an understatement. The picture is not only one of those rare occasions when all of the elements fall into place and a work of art results from a commercial enterprise, but one that pushes the medium to its furthest current limits and achieves more than any drama in the medium may ever have. And like the old adage goes, if Hosoda had to pick any one work on whose merits he would either be ceded or denied access to heaven, Wolf Children would be it.
[Next up: The Boy and The Beast]